March 17, 2012
Churches struggle to grow
Changing society hampers pastors’ ability to attract new parishioners
CORTLANDVILLE — The sanctuary of Crown Alliance Church on Route 281 has changed since a year ago, with fresh paint, padded chair-like pews, a stronger sound system and flat-screen TVs above the pulpit to show hymns.
The name is new as of last July for the former Bellevue Alliance Church, part of the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination. A shrinking congregation caused Pastor Les Aylesworth and leaders of the 75-year-old church to search for new ways to reach out to potential members and to revise how they conduct Sunday services.
“We felt it was time to take drastic measures — we call it a re-launch,” Aylesworth said.
His concerns are borne out by national statistics. Some studies show church attendance has fallen in recent decades, especially among young people and states in the Northeast and West. Other studies say it has remained steady but the composition of churchgoers has shifted.
Local church pastors said the Eastern Orthodox churches and non-denominational Christian churches remain strong. But even the megachurches of the South have reached a plateau in membership.
Churches around Cortland County vary in size. Some have struggled and tried to reinvent themselves.
Cortland and Cortlandville have 35 churches total, of all denominations.
Only two of the four church buildings on Cortland’s Church Street remain places of worship: the United Presbyterian Church and Unitarian Universalist Church. One building has been empty for years, the other now holds offices as its members joined another church. A fifth church was torn down.
The Cortland United Presbyterian Church has about 330 full members, down from 1,500 in the 1960s. That does not count people who attend services regularly but have not joined the church, but to Pastor John Gay, that is a grim number.
“All of the mainline churches — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal — are hemorrhaging members,” Gay said. “Membership in the United Presbyterian Church was 4 million in 1965 and then 2 million in 2009. People have become less faithful and want to do other things. Our nation has become all about the individual, and if we don’t enjoy something, we don’t do it.”
Gay said churchgoers want to be entertained, saying the megachurch services “are like rock concerts.”
They also look elsewhere for support when they have problems, where they used to find it among church members. He said the growth of family activities on Sundays, such as sports events and stores being open where they used to be closed on that day, is a reflection of Americans taking less interest in church, not a cause of it.
“The church’s reaction is to basically beg people to come,” Gay said. “For example, we don’t expect anything from our members except the occasional check. On a sports team, you don’t play if you don’t go to practices. So on Sunday, you pick the sports team. The average American doesn’t think church offers us anything.”
Aylesworth said Americans do not relate well to archaic language in hymns and sermons, so he has tried to change his language to modern phrasing when he preaches. He said he understands that church should not be like a concert and entertain people, “but some of that is reality.”
“We simply do not spend as much time together,” he said. “We’ve gone from a front-porch society, where everyone took walks in the evening and greeted each other from porches, to a backyard society, where we stay in our backyards.”
He said a consultant told Crown Alliance Church to upgrade its sound system so an aging population and young people alike could hear the sermon and music. Behind the pulpit sit guitar and organ areas for musicians, and in back of the sanctuary is a sophisticated sound control console. The 55-inch flat-screen TV sets above the pulpit were donated by a church member.
The old name, Bellevue Alliance Church, came from nearby Bellevue Avenue, but Aylesworth said websites have confused the church with Bellevue Mental Health Center. The “crown” name goes with Cortland’s Crown City nickname.
He said one church member, Edith Hall, has belonged since the church began in 1936. The congregation has stood at 20 to 50 members recently, and he wants to grow it.
Just as a missionary learns how a society works and how to reach its people, current clergy need to speak the language people want to hear now. He said a pastor’s personality and approach matter a great deal, as people will leave a church where they do not like how a pastor manages a service.
Grace Christian Church on Fisher Avenue in Cortlandville has remained large in membership, with two full services and a large building, since moving to its current location in 2004, officially opening on Easter Sunday 2005. It was formerly Homer Baptist Church and is now non-denominational.
Church member Joelle Zimmerman said the church endured changes in leadership after the move, which caused some people to leave, but has added members and remains healthy.
She said younger Americans, especially those not raised in a church, might not relate to traditional services and like more music, more energy.
“There is more of a show but the message is the same,” she said.
Senior Pastor Mike Dunn of Grace Christian Church thinks Americans have turned to church less since they have become more affluent, so church is just another activity.
“When crises happen, like 9/11 or the recent tornadoes, people ask what is going on,” he said. “They don’t see a need for church, they fill their time with other things, until things go wrong.”
Low membership means money is a problem for many churches, as they struggle to heat and maintain old buildings with high ceilings, constructed decades ago. The county’s rural churches struggle with congregations of 20 or fewer. Some have lay leaders as pastors or share a pastor with another church, because they cannot afford clergy.
The Rev. Dale Austin is pastor of both Homer Avenue United Methodist Church in Cortland, with 45 members, and Freeville United Methodist Church, with 35.
“Ten years ago, we were a lot bigger at Homer Avenue United Methodist,” he said. “We’ve been steady for two years but would like to grow.”
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