By SHELDON KRAUSE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Church attendance is down, and more houses of worship are predicted to close at an accelerated rate, a national report finds.
Religious leaders say that the nationwide trend affects Michigan as well.
The recent report by the International City/County Management Association, an organization of city managers and other local officials, presents data from the Center for Analytics, Research & Development and Data.
It estimates that houses of worship have been closing nationally at a rate of about 3,850-7,770 per year over the past decade.
Around 100,000 of America’s 384,000 houses of worship could close in the near future if they follow trends seen with service businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the association based in Washington, D.C. That indicates a 20-30% closure rate.
Detroit recently announced a $650,000 grant program to support churches, mosques and
synagogues during the pandemic.
“Faith Forward” grants to faith-based organizations would range from $5,000 to $20,000, with funding from the Kresge Foundation, United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Jewish and Catholic groups, according to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office.
The International City/County Management Association report cites several factors for the trend other than the pandemic, led by an overall 20% decline in church attendance since 1999.
Other factors include rising costs of building maintenance and increased mobility that makes it easier for worshippers to pick and choose congregations.
The Rev. Kevin Hester is the lead pastor of the Shore Church in St. Joseph and the moderator of the Southwestern Baptist Association based in Paw Paw.
He says that he may be seeing some of the causes of these closings in Michigan.
“I’ve pastored other churches in Michigan as well, and what I’ve seen over the last five years is kind of a decline in commitment and maybe membership — that many are willing at times to attend, but then really to commit to a specific membership, that’s getting to be more rare these days,” he said.
Hester continued, “We’re seeing offerings have declined. Our attendance during the pandemic has declined significantly.
“What it forced us to do, what we weren’t doing before, is we didn’t have a big online Sunday morning presence of our service — but that’s caused us now to offer that, where we go live on Facebook and on YouTube,” he said.
“And we’re open for people to come in person, but we still don’t have many that are coming out in person. We have others that are watching via the internet, but in that regard though, we have reached a bigger, broader group of people than we would’ve reached before,” he said.
On closings in Michigan, Hester said: “I think at the very least, it’s the same or more. We have a small association that has maybe a handful of churches, and we’ve had a couple that have closed in the last couple of years, and even one a few months ago.
“So I think that statistic is pretty true, that they are closing. That I’ve noticed within the Baptist churches, but even outside of the Baptist churches.”
The Rev. Cheryl Burke, the associate conference minister for the Michigan Conference United Church of Christ, said she’s seen similar patterns of decreased attendance and church closings.
The Center for Analytics, Research & Development and Data, a unit of United Church of Christ, reported that Michigan membership in its denomination dropped from 31,314 in 2009 to 23,805 in 2019, a nearly 25% decline.
“I would say we have probably in the last decade a few less churches, some churches have closed in that time. We’ve also had new churches start, so we’ve added some churches – so in some ways we’re about the same,” Burke said.
“But I think a general trend has certainly been less attendance and fewer churches in Michigan,” she said.
As for declining attendance, Burke referred to the idea of the 500-year cycle from the late Phyllis Tickle, a scholar of spirituality and religion. The cycle, Burke said, takes place when enough individuals lose their attachment to the authority of the church —in the 1500s, for example, people lost their connection to the pope, so the church turned to the Bible for its authority.
Now, Burke says that subscribers to Tickle’s theory would say the church may be reaching the end of its relationship with the Bible as its ultimate authority.
“That’s affecting church attendance — people don’t know what their faith means, and the Bible doesn’t have the same understanding that it used to have, it doesn’t hold the same authority,” she said.