Barbara Nixon was a Methodist pastor for nearly two decades, serving communities including Corvallis and Albany, and she has witnessed a decline in church membership and attendance over the years — and a resulting strain on church budgets.
“I think most churches struggle with money,” said Nixon, who coordinates the Albany Democrat-Herald and Corvallis Gazette-Times’ Saturday “Interfaith Voices” column.
A Gallup poll released earlier this year found that the percentage of Americans who belong to a church, synagogue or mosque was at an all-time low in 2018, averaging just 50%.
And there’s been a steep drop-off since the turn of the century, according to Gallup figures. From the late 1930s to 1976, church membership was at 70% or higher. From the 1970s through the 1990s, church membership averaged about 68%, Gallup data indicates.
“I don’t think being part of a church is as important to people in North America now,” said the Rev. Brandon Lewis of the United Presbyterian Church in Albany.
“People are just not going to church. It’s a major change,” said James Carmichael, lead pastor for The Grove in Albany. And he said the trend is worse in Oregon.
“When the national media talks about religion in the country, they’re not talking about the Pacific Northwest. The rest of the country is going to be where we’re at in 20 years,” he added. “That’s our future. It’s not good or bad. It’s just true.”
According to Gallup figures, 48 percent of Oregon residents aren’t religious whatsoever. That’s the fifth-highest mark in the United States, behind four New England states. The national average is 33 percent.
Nixon hasn’t seen a lot of churches close their doors locally due to the decline of church membership, nor mergers between groups, though she acknowledged those do happen.
Instead, she’s seen cost cuts, most notably the reduction of paid staff.
“I have seen churches go from full-time clergy to part-time clergy,” said Nixon, who has been visiting a different faith group every week in her retirement. “If they have a second pastor, I’ve seen several places dropping from two clergy to one.”
Some pastors handle multiple churches to make ends meet, including serving different denominations, Nixon said.
Church leaders know about the downturn, and it's has been progressing for some time, she added.
“We don’t have our heads in the sand, thinking that everything is going to be hunky-dory, that everything is going to be OK in time,” Nixon said.
Bucking the trend
Still, some local religious organizations certainly are bucking the trend.
While the Presbyterian Church has been declining across the nation, United Presbyterian Church in Albany has been adding new worshippers every few months, and now has about 300 members, Lewis said.
Beit Am Jewish Community in Corvallis also is growing. As recently as 2006, it only had about 100 member families. Today, that’s close to 175.
And Beit Am held an open house of its new synagogue building on Sunday.
(Membership in religious organizations has roughly stayed the same for Jewish people in the last 20 years, as well as for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to Gallup data.)
“Certain congregations may close their doors, but we see other kinds of churches pop up as well. Our congregation in the past has hurt for members, but we’re pretty stable right now and growing,” added Lewis, an “Interfaith Voices” contributor.
Lack of competition, to use a business phrase, doesn’t hurt certain religious organizations, especially with the population of the mid-Willamette Valley steadily increasing.
If a Presbyterian family moves to Albany, for example, there’s only one Presbyterian church in the city, Lewis explained.
That factor is also true for Beit Am, which has the only synagogue from Salem to Eugene, from the Oregon Coast to Bend.
“We are leaning into that role of understanding and knowing that we’re the only ones in town,” said Rabbi Phil Bressler, another “Interfaith Voices” columnist.
As such, Beit Am has billed itself as open and inclusive to all types of Jews, and that’s been part of its success.
“There are more people who are just interested in Judaism, rather than reform Judaism, or conservative Judaism,” Bressler said, noting that it was similar to nondenominational churches and the “just Jesus” movement.
The Corvallis Jewish group’s new synagogue was paid for through fundraising and without a mortgage, so Beit Am doesn’t have any debt.
“For a lot of small communities, that would be unthinkable,” Bressler said.
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When he was interviewing for the position of Beit Am’s rabbi and the synagogue construction was brought up, he initially considered it a red flag because of his experiences after living in Boston for 10 years and attending Hebrew College.
He saw congregations in the major metropolitan area saddled with massive buildings from the early 1900s. But Jewish people gradually moved to the suburbs and memberships collapsed. Some congregations are in the process of selling their buildings or renting them out. Another congregation embarked on a renovation costing roughly $20 million.
The movie line “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t exactly hold true for religious groups, however. New buildings or renovations don’t necessarily pay for themselves, Bressler said.
So with Beit Am’s new synagogue, he doesn’t expect a surge in attendance.
“I don’t think anyone here has illusions about this building, that it will bring everyone out of the woodwork. … Maybe for a little while longer, we’ll enjoy the novelty aspect,” he said.
“Whether you’re in a fancy building or in a living room it may not matter. We traffic in relationships. New building or not, we still have to do the work,” Bressler added.
Christian leaders also said that churches can be saddled with older or large buildings as membership dwindles.
The Grove in Albany doesn’t face such issues, as it rents space at North Albany Middle School for weekly services.
“If there’s a leaky roof, we don’t fix it. If the furnace is out…,” Carmichael said.
Several other local churches are meeting in storefronts, or theaters, or other spaces.
Local religious leaders thought that people are deprioritizing church because of busy schedules, and that includes residents with families and retirees. “There’s a lot of busy, frenzy, overscheduled activity that happens in the culture,” Lewis said.
Another reason for the shift is demographics, according to local religious leaders. Younger people today are less likely to be involved with religious groups than previous generations, according to Gallup figures.
“There are a lot of people who have said, ‘My life is just fine without that,’” Nixon said.
“People who thought church was a central part of their lives and were in church every Sunday, these folks are aging out and dying,” she added.
Regular attendance might be once or twice a month now, she said, and new members, often younger, don’t come with the same resources, or culture, of supporting the church financially.
Carmichael said that it used to be that Americans would leave the church in their 20s and then return when they had children. But that isn’t happening as much anymore.
To fight the trend of declining membership, churches are trying different strategies.
Lewis said churches are more likely to invite residents to worship services, rather than just expecting people to attend like in the old days.
Authenticity and a sense of purpose, such as service projects that benefit the community and residents who are struggling, can draw people in, especially millennials.
“They want to make a difference. They want to do. They want to make a positive impact on the world, and there are plenty of ways to do that,” Lewis said.
Other churches are trying to make things easier or more attractive for those with busy lives. Pastors, even those with magnificent buildings, might hold a study group in a local pub or other business, or hold office hours at a coffee shop.
Carmichael said that a key to the success of The Grove, which recently celebrated 10 years and has a nontraditional tone, is to be willing to take risks. “We’re going to try things. We have plenty of things that we’ve tried that haven’t worked, but we can learn from those failures and help other churches,” he said.
There’s something of a silver lining to the dark clouds, however. Though church attendance is down, members who remain could be more engaged than in the past, including with service projects that benefit the community, local religious leaders said.
After all, people are going to church now of their own free will, not due to societal expectations. They aren’t forced to attend.
“New people who join congregations of any kind right now are people who are really looking for something,” Nixon said. “They’re the real deal.”
At the end of the day, people still yearn for some type of community, Lewis said.
“They want to experience God. They want to make a difference in their communities in the world. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do,” he added.