Changing roles

Historic churches struggle to keep a place in residents' busy lifestyles

Historic churches struggle to keep a place in residents' busy lifestyles

August 05, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

In Hagerstown, churches more than 200 years old are facing declining interest, aging congregations and changing social attitudes toward religion as the newest challenges to their survival.

But church leaders are facing the obstacles with optimism, confident the churches will be around for years to come.

Religion is imbedded in Hagerstown's roots and has remained a significant part of the city's culture, according to local church leaders and Washington County Historical Society records.

Jonathan Hager, the man who founded Hagerstown, set aside lots for five churches in the late 18th century - Zion United Church of Christ; Otterbein United Methodist Church; St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church; St. John's Episcopal Church; and St. Mary's Catholic Church - as a way to lure new settlers, said Susan Younkins, an administrator at Zion United Church of Christ.

"These were the people he was trying to attract," Younkins said.

For the centuries to follow, churches acted as venues for public and political events, while serving as meeting houses for various community organizations in addition to serving their own congregations' needs.


But times have changed.

"Church is no longer the social center," said Barbara Reynolds, a member of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church. "The parents are working, the children are working, people are so busy now. It's taking them away from church."

Sunday school attendance at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the 1950s reached just more than 600 people on Sunday mornings, according to church records. Reynolds, head of the church's archive committee, said Sunday school attendance is now down to about 60 people per week.

Membership at St. Mary's Catholic Church has remained relatively static during the years, but there is concern about a broader trend affecting Catholic churches nationwide - fewer people entering the priesthood.

"We've always been able to have two priests, but it is plausible that at some point in the future we could go down to one," said Michael Morrell, the church's business manager.

Morrell said one Catholic church in Hagerstown already cut back to one priest and had to cut one of its services as a result. St. Mary's has two priests, Morrell said. Father Kevin Mueller joined the church last year.

Membership at Zion United also has remained static during the past few years, at about 200 attendees, said Pastor Bob Royal. But the main issue his church faced was finding an identity, Royal said.

"I would like to see us go back to being more of a smaller, pastoral-style church and less of a program church," Royal said.

By program church, Royal means "a church that has a ministry for everything." Royal said a pastoral-style church focuses on ground-level outreach services, such as the church's soup kitchen. The soup kitchen serves 1,500 to 2,200 people a year, and Royal "would really like to see that grow," he said.

"I don't want us to have a ministry of the ministry," he said. "I want us to have a ministry of helping people."

Zion is also facing an aging congregation. "The kids go off to college, and they never come back," Royal said.


Studies show that religion is still a major part of people's lives.

More than half of the 2,801 people surveyed across the U.S. in a 2004 study by the Association of Religion Data Archives said they attended church at least once a week.

The Association of Religion Data Archives, a branch of Penn State's sociology department, tracks religious data across various denominations at the county level.

According to ARDA data, church congregations in Washington County as a whole grew by roughly 6 percent between 1990 and 2000.

However, some local congregations saw numbers drop in that 10-year time frame. Evangelical Lutheran congregations saw a 2 percent decline in membership. The United Methodists saw a 7.6 percent decline. The United Church of Christ congregations saw a 17 percent decline.

Catholic congregations in Washington County grew by 22 percent, according to ARDA data.

Other research suggests that church growth hinges on contemporary worship, geographic location and having a Web presence, among other things.

According to a study released in 2006 by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, those lacking contemporary worship styles and Web sites were more likely to have declining memberships. The study surveyed 884 congregations nationwide, across 39 denominations.

The study also found that congregations in new suburbs were more likely to experience growth, as were ones that were racially diverse and ones that held multiple services.

Reaching a new audience

As part of a way to reach a different audience, St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church has boosted its Web presence, posting a pastor's blog, photos and schedules on its Web site.

Christian Kline, 30, a member of the church's "tech team," said it's not just about "getting bodies in the pews."

"It's just another way to reach somebody," Kline said.

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