The church where I grew up at one time would have as many as a hundred people on Sunday mornings. That was thirty and more years ago. Now that congregation is on the decline. Will they still be meeting in a decade? It's a valid question as I don't see the decline changing. Last week I was at a wedding and at the reception spoke with the officiant for a few minutes. He's an older man who visited my boyhood church twenty-five years ago to preach. I was telling him of the decline of the old congregation. He told me of the decline of so many others. Of course, our anecdotal evidence is simply our witnessing a widespread shift:
``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.''
There is much truth to those statements, of course. At the same time I think much of it simply is shifting demographics. Our society has become more suburban than rural. As bleak as the picture seems when looked at from the old, rural church perspective, it's downright encouraging from the suburban perspective.
And while I'm a conservative by temperament--I simply hate to see these old congregations on the wane--within the scope of New Testament strictures, one must always assess the true utility of something when it comes to a church. As Garth Brown, in the NYT article, observes:
``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.'''
Back when I first went to Mecosta, Michigan to work for Russell Kirk we were riding down Main Street and I commented on a former church building transformed into an antique store. Dr. Kirk assured me it wasn't a very good antique store. I said something to the effect of, "that's too bad." Dr. Kirk said, "Well, it wasn't a very good church, either."