GOSHEN — Since the early 1970s, the United States has experienced a rapid decline in church attendance, with more and more Americans choosing to live without a religious affiliation.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of all Americans attend Christian churches regularly, a major contrast to the 72 percent church attendance rate in 1973.
In a more recent poll, Gallup found, “ ... the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque at an all-time low, averaging 50 percent in 2018.”
The Gallup research found U.S. church membership had been 70 percent or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling to an average of 68 percent in the 1970s through the 1990s.
“The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade,” Gallup states on its website.
This nationwide trend has particularly affected Elkhart County, with many churches desperately seeking to attract new attendees and make the church seem relevant in contemporary society.
The Rev. Tim Burchill of Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart, attributes the decline in church involvement to churches frantically trying to maintain what they currently have and failing to have visions or dreams of progressive improvement.
“I think that’s one of the main reasons for decline,” Burchill said.
Pausing briefly, he leaned back in his chair and quoted Proverbs 29:18.
“Those without a vision perish.”
Episcopalian minister Larry Biller has experienced first-hand the debilitating struggles of trying to maintain a congregation in today’s religious climate, with average weekly worship service attendance at his St. James church down to 13.
Biller believes that the decline of membership in many denominational churches is due to large, megachurches appealing more to millennials.
“Younger people today don’t want, nor like, structured worship,” Biller said.
The First Presbyterian Church sits on the corner of Fifth Street and Lincoln Avenue in Goshen, with a tall gray steeple that can’t be missed.
Established in 1853, the church is one of the oldest in the city of Goshen, and although the membership number is around 200, the number of people in the pews on Sunday mornings has dropped to around 40.
Mainline churches, Alan Griffin, pastor of First Presbyterian, believes, are on the decline in the United States, and like the Rev. Biller, Griffin believes the diminishing worship service attendance is due partly to large megachurches meeting the needs of American youth more so than local denominational churches. According to Griffin, these larger contemporary churches are providing new religious experiences. But still, generally speaking, the Christian faith is on the decline.
A vast majority of some Christians, however, are feeling that contemporary Christianity is no longer meeting their spiritual needs and they are not experiencing God in the church, Griffin said.
“Most Americans still believe in God. But they’re finding that the church is not providing the religious experiences they seek,” Griffin noted.
SERVICE IS KEY
Despite low church attendance numbers on a local and national level, College Mennonite Church on Goshen College’s campus is doing fairly well, according to congregational administrator, Tina Hartman.
“We’re averaging about 350 people a week, and we are continuing to attract new members,” Hartman said.
Hartman attributes the rising attendance rate partly to the church’s diversity, both ethnically and in age, and the integration of meaningful community service in the Goshen area.
Both Griffin and Burchill agree with Hartman in believing that community service is attractive to prospective churchgoers.
Griffin mentioned that, “In our society, people are not viewing the church as a voice that is calling people to engage in social issues. That’s another thing that is pushing people away from the church.”
He continued by saying that to attract more people to the church, Christians must be active in the community, doing good and acting like Christ, telling people why they are doing what they are doing, rather than taking an evangelical approach and simply preaching to people without kind actions toward others.
“As Christians, we need to care for the poor, care for others. That’s Jesus’ message. That’s what’ll draw people into the church.”
Burchill’s church averages more than 400 in weekly attendance, making it a fairly large, sustainable body of worship members. Similarly, Burchill believes that ministry doesn’t happen in the church, it happens in the neighborhood.
Speaking of this Burchill said, “Trinity has always been involved in the community. We’ve always had one foot in a missional mindset.”
One local parish that is thriving is St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. Father Royce Gregerson, the church’s priest, credits the church’s success to the large population of Latinos in the Goshen community.
“About 20 years ago, as members of the Hispanic community migrated to Goshen, we saw a rise in attendance here,” Gregerson said.
Although St. John’s Church is doing well, the Catholic Church, as a whole, Gregerson mentioned, is struggling to maintain members in the U.S. due to the clerical sex abuse crisis, among other issues.
“We’ve got many programs to stimulate church growth here, such as a food pantry, retreats and a jail Bible study,” Gregerson said. “A strong personal connection with those inside and outside the church will ultimately grow the church.”