Church closures become a sign of changing times, demographics

Feb 13, 2014

Americans are generally thought of as a religious people. But in some areas, church closings are becoming a not uncommon event, as fewer young people join to replace the older generation. That's what happened recently with one Mohawk Valley congregation.

From the time more than a century ago when two dozen German immigrants turned an old armory in Little Falls into a place of worship, prayer and music have provided comfort and inspiration and peace to the congregation of Christ Lutheran Church.

Terry Monahan knows the feeling.

"I like going to church," Monahan says. "It makes you think when you go to church. Even if it's not a religious thing, it makes you think about the meaning of life. I kind of love that hour there."

Monahan is the vice president of the Christ Lutheran church council. He first came here as a young boy in 1950.

"I went to Sunday school and each grade -- one, two, three, four, five - all had a separate class and each class had eight or 10 kids in it," Monahan says. "It was kind of a bustling place."

But now with a dwindling congregation of barely a dozen mostly-elderly members, the council recently made the difficult decision to close the church's doors. This service is led by Lutheran Bishop Marie Jerge, the last at Christ Lutheran.

"My prayer is that this service of holy closure will be a glimmer of light and hope for you," Jerge says to the group.

A look inside the Christ Lutheran Church in Little Falls. The church is closing its doors after more than a century.
A look inside the Christ Lutheran Church in Little Falls. The church is closing its doors after more than a century.
Credit David Chanatry / NYRP-UC

It brought about 60 members and former members together for the last time. Betty Brown brought her two elderly aunts. She said she had to be there to say goodbye.

"I made my confirmation here," Brown explains. "I was married in this church, my children were baptized in this church. My daughter was married in this church. This is our family church."

Some members like Helen Macsymicz spoke of this as a funeral.

"It's just like losing a best friend," Macsymicz says. "You just got to make the best of it."

For a number of churches, it’s also a sign of the times.

Bishop Jerge says the Lutheran Church recently has been closing three or four congregations a year in upstate New York.

"Congregations, like any other institution or even families, have life cycles," Jerge explains. "About every 30 years, congregations needs to reinvent themselves. But if communities themselves are in decline that that becomes harder and harder to do, and that's what we've experienced all across upstate New York."

What are known as the mainline Protestant denominations -- Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, American Baptist -- all have been losing members. Part of it is simple demographics; there’s fewer people now in places like Little Falls, and there are more churches to choose from today.

But Hamilton College professor of religious studies Brent Plate says especially in small towns, churches are less relevant to the social needs of communities than they used to be.

"You went to the church service, you listened to the church sermon, but then you stuck around afterwards and you had lunch together, and you knew people and business deals began with the churches," Plate says. "So it was just, church life was implicated in all other life of the community."

By an overwhelming majority, most Americans say they believe in God. But according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, an increasing number, twenty percent of adults and a third of adults under the age of 30, are not affiliated with any particular religion.

Plate says that reflects a spirit that’s very American.

"We've got this huge culture of individualism in the States, and we believe we can practice on our own," Plate says. "We can do this by ourselves. We kind of have self-help Christianity sometimes, I don't need to go to church."

The few remaining members at Christ Lutheran in Little Falls have been attending the same church for decades. Now they have to sell the building, distribute all the assets, including a large statue of Christ, and choose a new place to worship.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.