Rural churches struggle to maintain congregations in old churches

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2004

SPRING MILLS, Pa. (AP) -- The stained glass windows are being removed from the old First Pentecostal Church, now falling apart in this central Pennsylvania village. Less than a mile away, a ''For Sale'' sign sits outside the century-old St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

But just down Pennsylvania Route 45, two reunited congregations credit a growth spurt to a new building.

Across the country, rural churches are struggling to maintain their congregations while facing a tough fact -- it's hard to get new members in old churches.

''Part of the problem with rural churches is that old buildings don't appeal to young couples,'' said Robert Seater, pastor for New Horizon United Church of Christ in Wisconsin, recently created from three congregations in rural Sheboygan and Washington counties. New Horizon hopes to build a new church and sell the three older buildings.

''They're living in homes that are $150,000, $300,000 homes, and they don't want a building that just has a bare basement for their kids' Sunday school,'' Seater said. ''If the church is going to meet the needs of the 21st century, we're going to have to do something with these buildings.''

Garth Brown, the council president for New Hope Lutheran Church in Spring Mills, said the same situation existed here.

New Hope was founded in 2001 when the congregations from St. Mark's and Holy Cross Lutheran Church merged. Both churches had aging congregations and saw little room for growth.

''The one building had some parking, but there was no fellowship hall, no Sunday school area, nothing. The St. Mark's building, there was a fellowship hall in the kitchen, but there was no parking,'' Brown said. ''The things that young families were looking for we could not offer from the old buildings.''

All the while, just outside of Spring Mills stood a reminder of what could happen if the churches couldn't save themselves.

Originally founded as a Lutheran church more than 100 years ago, the building that housed First Pentecostal hasn't hosted regular services in some 15 years. Cracks streak the red brick walls, the white wooden bell tower is succumbing to rot and vines are overtaking the building.

Because of a deed restriction, when services were no longer held in the building, ownership reverted to 56-year-old Delbert Decker, who had gone to Sunday School there as a child.

''I had a contractor look at it. He said to try to restore it and fix the roof, it would cost $350,000,'' said Decker, who is allowing a salvage company to remove anything valuable, such as the stained glass, from the building before tearing it down.

Rural churches aren't alone. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named urban worship centers as among the nation's most endangered historic sites.

But experts say rural churches face particular challenges in trying to maintain both their congregations and their buildings:

--As the population becomes increasingly urban and suburban, there are fewer people in rural areas to attend those churches. In 2001, the National Trust reported that 20 percent of prairie churches in North Dakota sat vacant.

--Churchgoers increasingly are looking for more than just a pew and a sermon. Flavil Yeakley, professor director of the Harding Center for Church Growth Studies at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., said churchgoers are seeking out bigger churches that have day care and other services available all week.

--As people become accustomed to commuting longer distances for work, school and entertainment, they're more willing to commute for church, said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn.

--There are fewer options for an old, rural church building once a congregation has left.

''In urban areas, if one church gives up, often there's another church ready to take over,'' said Robert Jaeger, co-director of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to preserving religious properties. ''But that's not the case in rural areas, where there's a much thinner population density.''

Still, not everybody is ready to give up on old churches. Shannon Jung, professor of rural ministry and director of the Center for Land and Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, said even in rural areas a growing number of church buildings are finding second lives -- a wedding chapel in Elizabeth, Ill., a tuxedo shop in Asbury, Iowa, and dozens of antique malls around the country.

Meanwhile, some of the more active rural churches already are remaking themselves to provide the services new members want, Jung said.

''I see a lot of very exciting rural churches that are maintaining the building, or modifying the building for new uses, adding day-care centers or elder care centers -- the services that larger churches offer,'' he said.

Brown said he still felt some attachment to the Holy Cross building, which his ancestors helped to found in the 1770s, and has been sold to someone who does not plan to use it for services. He hopes St. Mark's attracts a good buyer.

But after six months in his new church, Brown says he'll never go back. New Hope has a children's choir -- something neither of the old churches could support -- and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. Attendance is up more than a third, fueled largely by young families, a demographic that was sorely lacking in the old buildings.

''I have some sentimental feelings, but I often think our forefathers were the kind of people who came and built a church because the community needed it,'' Brown said. ''They're the kind of people who would have said, 'We're not doing any good where we're at. Let's go build along (Route) 45 and see what we can do.'''

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