CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- few years back I wrote about the world of what I called the new main street churches. Those congregations, located on or near Corridor G, have done quite well. A few have familiar denominational monikers, and others have names that speak of their independence from a central religious authority. One would hope for their continued survival.
In the city of Charleston, and in many other places, churches have closed and the buildings converted to other purposes. Others have vastly reduced attendances and membership. Yielding to the realities of the times, several congregations have found themselves combined with other related bodies. One minister may now serve where four did before. In many cases, the cost to have a minister with college and seminary education is too high. Talented and capable lay persons serve some congregations very well.
I must be honest here. I have loved those old churches, heard their organs play, and spoken from some of their pulpits. You could tell by looking in the various rooms, nooks and crannies, that much care had been taken to create places of delight. Pictures hung on the walls might have been of religious scenes, but often were photographs of large Bible classes showing smiling faces. In one church the woodwork is outstanding, and in another the masonry shows skill and imagination. In yet another, beautiful colored glass windows break light into lovely patterns.
I use a disorder of beehives called "colony collapse" to illustrate some of these changes.
The causes of this collapse are many. An easy answer would be that our secular, scientific culture spawns a lack of spiritual conviction. Sometimes this may be so, but notice that there are vibrant congregations here and there, but they may not bear old and dignified names like Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, or Lutheran. Other names prevail which speak of celebration, fellowship, life in abundance and the like. For the most part, the collapsing organizations were the places where our grandparents witnessed to particular visions of faith. Many congregations today do not invest in elaborate buildings, and witness and pray in a way some of us may find different, strange, even.
I am a product of the process of faith building that was linked to a sacred building. The congregations of my childhood worshipped in very plain buildings, with the simplest of furnishings. However humble or grand, those places were our piece of spiritual land.
Do I have a firm analysis of the reasons for these changes which have caused so many congregations either to close, merge, or seek other locations? I have no firm knowledge, but, I will venture a guess or two, or three.
Guess number one: The population of our city and others has declined. When I first visited Charleston in the 1960s, there were 80,000 citizens in town. Then, people began to leave. Large industries had scaled down. There was growth in surrounding areas and decline here in the capital.
Guess number two: Buildings for worship were built for a certain time, and a specific period. People may have walked to church. When some of the older church buildings were created, the automobile was the plaything of the rich. Those complex, hard to heat, tough to renovate buildings built for a few hours use on Sunday morning, became redundant. I have occupied many wooden pews in my life, but I wonder why churches herded congregants into a place where posteriors rest on pews fixed to the floor. How many teenagers today even know what a pew is, or a pulpit, or a chancel. Few, likely.
Guess number three: People have different needs and expectations of the organizations they join. No longer does a pastor sit in a study filled with books, waiting for people to drop by. The round of visits I made as a young minister suited the rural or small town way of life I knew well. Today, who is at home during the day? And, who rings the bell on a church door to just drop by for a time with the minister. The minister, harried by email messages, tends to find him or herself wandering around hospital halls, or dealing with crises that take place outside the church walls. If I were still an active minister, I would want to live in that old world. In that world, I had time to read and to write, and to be a scholar as well as a preacher. That world does not exist anymore in the areas I know best.