09 July 2018

Churches closing in Minnesota

Excerpts from an article in the StarTribune:
When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.

“Sunday used to be set aside for church: that’s what families did,” said Donna Schultz, 74, a church member since grade school at La Salle, in southwest Minnesota. “Now our children have moved away. The grandkids have volleyball, dance on weekends. People are busy with other things... 

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which closed 21 churches in 2010 and merged several dozen others, is again looking at ways to consolidate church staffing and programs...

And it seems likely to get worse. Most Americans still report that they are Christian, but the worshipers in the pews on Sunday increasingly have gray or white hair. The median age is older than 50 for nearly all mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Pew Research Center, a national polling and research group in Washington, D.C. For Catholics, it’s age 49...

Churches in every rural area are merging and sharing services in an effort to keep their doors open, bishops said. The ELCA now offers advisers who specialize in counseling closing and fragile churches, and finance experts to help churches survive with ever-shrinking budgets...

Along with declining attendance, many Twin Cities churches facing closings and mergers have something else in common — old boilers or furnaces, leaky roofs, deferred maintenance...

Even so, Minnesota religious leaders insist church life is not becoming a relic. It will just look different. Christian churches will need to be more creative, financially leaner, and more in tune with their communities if they are to survive the 21st century, they said.
More at the link.  The article mentions some prominent urban churches, but I suspect the majority of the closings are in rural communities, which suffer from the double whammy of the changing attitudes of young people plus the progressive depopulation of rural towns, as large corporate farms displace the traditional small family enterprises.

Whatever your sentiments are regarding religion - even if you are frankly agnostic or aggressively atheist, you have to recognize the loss going on here in terms of the social structure of these small towns.  In communities of a few thousand residents, churches have traditionally provided the backbone of support for the elderly, the impoverished, and the troubled youth.   This aspect of community mutual support is emphasized in the brief but touching video at the bottom of the article, which I'm unable to embed. It's worth 3 minutes of viewing.

Photo credit Leila Navidi - Star Tribune.


  1. Maybe we have attained such a high level of spiritual enlightenment that we no longer have to go to a church to meet with God; we can do it on our own, whenever and wherever?

    1. Maybe. But you're missing the point of why I posted the article.

  2. I was a pastor in a small town (2700 people) in rural Nebraska, and were surrounded by 2.5 hours of mostly small, farming towns with the occasional exception of a mid-sized town (15k-35k).

    Lots of churches, especially in the mainline denominations, drying up. Evangelical churches like ours generally did a little better, but we faced all our young folks moving out of town for college and never coming back, as the jobs just weren't there. Quite a few of those were dying off as well. Ours went a little different direction.

    To offset this, we had a large pork processing plant (Tyson) in the town. That brought in a ton of Hispanic immigrants (legal and otherwise), as well as immigrants from SE Asia. We opened our doors to all, went and invited anyone and everyone, and for a time had a trilingual service (before forming 3 different language churches under one roof, who met occasionally for a big multilingual celebration service).

    We also helped the newcomers figure out things like how to buy a house, what to do about car insurance, what in the world to do with snow, and even how to run a dishwasher (as many from SE Asia were living in a refugee camp for the past few years). They became our friends, our neighbors, and we were better as a town and a church for it.

    One of the last services we had before moving two years ago had 120-140 people from each ethnicity under one roof, nearly a dozen baptisms, each language group leading a part of the service, and a huge potluck afterward (the homemade goat egg rolls, from our goat farmer and one of the SE Asian families, were to die for).

    Pretty encouraging for a Church that started with a dozen people 7 years prior. Community hub, and a great way for newcomers to connect to the local town. I miss it and those folks dearly.

  3. To your point regarding the impact to the social structure of small towns I wonder, as an "aggressive atheist" what a community could do with the potential tax income gathered from a non exempt property owner to fund a community center or other programs?

    1. A building doesn't make a community, and rural churches in general are quite poor, yet generous with what they have. Don't expect the pittance received from a potentially fatal church tax to do nearly the good that small rural churches do for their community.

  4. "Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition."

    Mark Twain (1889). “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court”

    He had a lot to say on religion, much of which I agree with. Your opinion may vary, and I respect that completely.

  5. I too admire the community cohesion that can come from the social structure created by a vital church. In a Darwinian sense, church bearing communities proved fitter than their neighbors at long term survival and so we have towns built around churches.

    On the other hand I think the special status churches enjoy now works in the opposite direction to destroy community infrastructures. Most noticeably is how the text exempt status has led to church affiliated corporations from taking over industries such as hospitals by having a lower cost structure (no taxes) and then subtracting that tax base from the community as a second kick in the head. Churches are now expanding their business operations into many businesses including private schools. And finally they are wading into politics to not only to keep those advantages but also to deny employment to people who are not tithing members of the church.

    The pendulum has swung a bit too far.

    Unfortunately the inequity here is not shared equally. Those economic and political forces operate mainly in larger communities while small towns greatly benefit from the social safety net provided by the churches. So the loss you describe hits the smaller communities.

    On the otherhand, if people don't feel the need for that safety net they must be feeling more secure. So it maybe they are going away in the places their help is least needed. I don't know.

    But I don't think Churches are going away. Just advancing in some places and receding in others. It's sort of like how after a forest burns down and there's no birds. Well the birds didn't die. THey just live somewhere else now. It's not as a sad as it seems.

    1. I’m fine with churches that can meet all the requirements of a charity to be tax exempt. Otherwise, they should be paying taxes like any other entity.

    2. The LaSalle Lutheran Church is the only church I have known in my 74 years. It is like I lost a member of my family. I am mourning my lost and it is very hard to just go live somewhere else. If you have ever lost someone you love you would know how it feels to mourn a great loss.

    3. Try to go a different church. Make some friends in that different church. If you went to La Salle Lutheran, surely you had some friends who are going to a different church? Go to the church they are attending now. If you need help, go your local public library. They might be able to help you.

  6. Hi, I am posting this comment to let you know that I have big problems posting comments on your site. Neither Safari not Chrome work for me--- the comments seem to vanish and they never show my name in the google login. But I seem to have success with firefox.

  7. even if you are frankly agnostic or aggressively atheist, you have to recognize the loss going on here in terms of the social structure of these small towns.

    As a careless agnost*, I disagree. As Donna Schultz says in the article, people are doing other things - volleyball of dance on the weekends. Why can't the social structure of these towns revolve around sports fields?

    The point of social structure is that people meet each other regularly to bind over common experiences. And quite frankly, it seems to me that it's a lot easier to engage socially on the dance floor or in the stands where you can freely interact with others, rather than in the church benches where you're supposed to sit, be quiet and listen to a dude rehashing yet another paragraph from an old book most of the audience still hasn't read.

    Towns that are losing population should worry about their social fabric. But that has nothing to do with religion. Bonding is just as hard in an empty church as it is on an empty volleyball field. In most rural areas, long term political decisions are to blame for declining populations.

    * If religious people can make up denominations galore (baptist, shia, hasidic, smartism, bantu) I get to make one up my personal name for the utter non-event of god not existing, right?

  8. As someone raised Methodist, with two pastors in my family, I don't go to church anymore. I still identify as Christian, but I just don't see anything I recognize as the Christianity I was raised with. I want to take my children to church, to be part of a larger community, but Christianity has become conflated with politics in ways I can't support.

  9. Though I cannot call myself a Christian, I absolutely agree with you about the loss to our small communities and I cannot figure out how it could be reversed. There are no young people in our churches. When both parents commute to the plants or the nearest large city to work they have little time for their own small town institutions. Some stay home on Sunday to watch the con man at the mega-church in Houston on TV. As for me, I lack the religious gene and the few times I have gone to church I've been disappointed at the loss of the traditions I knew as a child. I want the grandchild to learn "Jesus Loves Me This I Know," not some modern rap version of "Go Team Christ." And I don't want to hug any stranger.

  10. Organised religion lost me when they spent their energy and resources covering up sex scandals, chosing to protect their own instead of protecting the flock. When church officials cease to walk the talk ... the greater suprise is why people attend church at all. I'm spiritual, but I don't need a fancy building or familial titles to keep me in touch with God. The church is responsible for its own demise.

  11. "The more liberal the church, the emptier the pews."

  12. Could libraries fill the void?

  13. What was the reason for the millions of small towns that dot Canada and the US? Has that reason changed over the years? I think the loss of church members is a reflection of the loss of people willing to live in small urban centers. This has been a steady ongoing process for years in Canada. Greyhound bus service has recently said it will stop all passenger and cargo service in all of western Canada. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/greyhound-cancellations-alberta-manitoba-saskatchewan-british-columbia-1.4739459)Why? fewer and fewer riders in the rural areas.
    Mining companies don't hire people from the closest towns anymore. They fly in the miners and fly them out after 4-6 weeks; next shift flies in.

    Perhaps it is sad to watch this part of our history disappear into the books, but I think it is time to slowly close down those towns and move people into larger centers, or amalgamate into new larger centers.


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