It's been a fairly well known reality that the Roman Catholic church has been in a massive sell-off of church edifices for the last several years. The shortage of priests has been one struggle. But it's also a matter of economics. In my own area I'm watching as the various parishes all coalesce into one mega cathedral, rural ethnic churches dropping by the wayside one by one.
Associated Press Writer Dinesh Ramde in her article “Sales of idled churches grow, demand creativity,” comments about this phenomena and how it affects Catholic churchgoers who often balk at the ‘creative’ ways the churches are used by future buyers. However, aside from this Catholic reaction, I found one comment in her article of particular interest, especially as it relates to churches and numbers in our own circles. She quotes the Rev. Richard Liska, who is pastor of St. Stephan church in Milwaukee, built in 1847, which sits about a mile from the airport and faces an ‘adult lounge’ and a parking lot. The closing of his church has to do with relocation. “Part of the reason to relocate,” he says, “is to go to more of a people setting rather than an industrial or commercial setting.”
A century or more ago many denominations, Catholic and Lutheran alike, built churches to serve immigrants from the old country, many of which settled either in the growing metropolitan industrial centers, or in the sprawling open spaces of the frontier where they settled to farm. To this day a majority of Lutheran church buildings are located in small towns and rural areas throughout the country. My own parish is a typical example, founded in 1886, to serve the Pomeranians from Prussia who came to homestead in northern Wisconsin.
However, times have changed. Many have moved to the ‘burbs’ and even those who work in the cities commute from ‘bedroom communities’ 30 or more miles away. It’s not that there isn’t a place for rural and inner city churches. In fact, I think that it will be the Lutherans who will probably be the ones to keep a presence in these difficult areas for years to come.
Church growthers, who are big on trumpeting the accomplishments of today’s mega-churches with their burgeoning ministries, love to tell the rest of the world their ‘tricks of the trade’ so that others might emulate their success and grow. They tout the blessings of contemporary worship and other relevant actions that attract today’s ‘seeker.’ What they don’t seem to be telling us is that much of their so-called success in growing big churches comes in large part from the one thing any business owner can tell you is key to their success: location, location, location.
Churches located in declining rural communities and in aging industrial centers are not the place to find a great influx of people just waiting to join. However, if you find a crossroads in the suburban regions where malls reign, there you have a demographic advantage. It may not be quite as simple as “if you build it they will come,” but it’s not far from it.
The RC church will continue to consolidate and close to survive. They are watching their church rolls rise and their attendance drop and their priesthood age. However, Lutherans do not face all these challenges in quite the same way. Furthermore, our church polity is different and allows us greater control over the decision of whether to make it work even in places others are abandoning. May God bless our mission work in these difficult declining areas, as we remain outposts of the Gospel to all people.