Too Many Churches?

 

"I'm a seventh generation pastor," Frank Vardeman tells me. Frank's sitting behind the wheel of his Prius; we're on Highway 20, headed for Mishawaka, in northwest Indiana. It's a bright fall morning.

Frank's a rugged man with a gentle voice. In his youth he was an all-state Georgia football player (he has the bum knees to prove it), which also helps place his accent, warm and smooth as well-crafted bourbon.

Frank is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline reformed Protestant denomination. He's what's called a general presbyter, a modern-day circuit rider, looking after churches and congregations in a region that covers the northern part of Indiana, from the Michigan border down to Zionsville, outside Indianapolis, and from the Illinois to Ohio state lines.

This is hard work. According to the job description: "The General Presbyter will nurture the community of the Presbytery and enhance our partnership in ministry with other governing bodies and ecumenical communities as we seek to serve Jesus Christ in this place."

All too often what that means lately is either closing churches whose congregations are no longer large enough to support their buildings, or putting out fires sparked by recent denominational votes in favor of the ordination of gay ministers and gay marriage.

Beyond these controversies, what makes Frank's job hard is the blizzard of social and cultural changes affecting generational relationships, communication and peoples' rapidly evolving understanding of community itself. While these changes are hardly unique to the church — they seem to be challenging all manner of institutions, from the arts, to education, to government — this knowledge provides cold comfort.

Numbers tell part of the story. Twenty years ago, there were 30,000 congregants in Frank's Presbytery; now there are just over 10,000. He is responsible for 82 churches in this region but, at the moment, three are angling to leave. The average age in many congregations is 60.

Frank worries about young people entering the ministry. ""They're going into these old places, out in the middle of nowhere, and I'm afraid they'll get very depressed ... Older churches can't compete with the nondenominational rock and roll churches with lots of video. Their sanctuaries don't work that way. Our seminaries train people for something that doesn't exist anymore."

A shrinking tent

As we drive, Frank takes a call on his mobile phone from the elder of a church that is considering pulling out. The congregation, about 18 people in all, appears divided over what to do about gay marriage.

A large part of Frank's dilemma has to do with a major divide in his church over LGBT issues. In 2010, the church's General Assembly voted to ordain openly gay ministers. That prompted about 350 churches across the country to leave the fold. Then, last June, the General Assembly voted 61 percent to 39 percent to change its constitution's definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two people, traditionally a man and a woman," causing remaining conservatives to consider breaking away.

"A lot of churches are going to say, 'we're not going to do it,'" says Frank of their unwillingness to sanction gay marriage. "But the pastor will say, 'I'm going to do it, but not in the church.' It's a mess."

"It's a sad thing to have that kind of split in a congregation where people have known each other for years and then they're unwilling to walk down the same aisle in the grocery store, A church fight is very similar to a massive family fight."

Frank walks into these fights on a regular basis. "When you have that kind of conflict, you can sense it the minute you walk in the door."

Frank will tell you about the inspiring things congregations accomplish: the ways they care for the sick and grieving, feeding the hungry, providing help for homeless people and families. After Hurricane Katrina, he went to New Orleans as part of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and worked at rebuilding homes.

Then there is the sense of continuity churches bring to community culture, especially in rural and outlying towns. "It could be that every year at harvest time they sell 100 pies, or every spring they have a big rummage. When the church closes, that's gone. So instead of being in community with one another, people are in front of their TVs."

The diminishing congregations in many of Frank's churches are indicative of the gradual hollowing out of many Indiana small towns. The "get big or get out" ethos adopted by agricultural policymakers and industrial farming advocates has made it harder and harder for farming families to support themselves. "The kids leave," says Frank, "because there are no jobs. As these counties depopulate, the churches depopulate."

All of this makes the controversy over gay marriage and its impact on congregations more painful.

"What's disturbing to me are the folks who say they're ready to leave the denomination, and take the church and go to another place. To me, that's disturbing because they don't even want to talk about it. They don't want to enter into dialogue. The Presbyterian Church has always been what they said was a big tent. There could be people who were liberal theologically, as well as people who were more traditional or conservative. What is happening is that as conservatives leave, the tent gets more liberal, which upsets traditionalists because they see all the decisions going a certain way."

Frank remembers the late '90s, when the church took a different position, outlawing the ordination of gay people. "I thought seriously about leaving the denomination. I felt it was sinful to force people into the closet. To me, forcing someone to be other than God made them would be my definition of sin."

Frank felt the issue keenly, having spent time in the 1980's, with his pastor wife Heidi, ministering to a gay church during the height of the AIDS crisis. "I did so many funerals," he says. "I finally burned out. I got dizzy and saw all the faces of the men I had buried."

But he stayed with the church and worked for change within the denomination. "The reality is I bet every family has been touched by the gay issue. I don't care whether they live in Angola or Indianapolis."

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Giving people what they want

As we enter Mishawaka, we pass a defunct church that now houses a beauty college. We're on our way to meet Steve Braden, the interim pastor at First Presbyterian, a church that in its hey-day, around 1960, had around 1,000 members. Now there are 100.

Braden is a former attorney who had a midlife career change and became a pastor. Then he retired, only to be called back to help try and get First Presbyterian, which had lost its pastor and was bleeding cash, back on track. The church, with its stately steeple, is located on a broad avenue, next door to a robber baron-era mansion. It was built in 1909, features impressively-crafted stained glass windows and a pipe organ. Seating capacity is 280.

When they stand side-by-side, Braden and Frank look like a poster for what's dogging their denomination: a couple of vintage-era white guys.

They know it, too. While Braden has managed to put First Presbyterian on a more stable footing in little more than a year, he is under no illusions about the larger cultural forces challenging the institution. He says rock and roll was the beginning of the end: "You had the advent of the transistor radio. For the first time ever, a generation could listen to its own music. They didn't find that in churches."

This, says Braden, eventually led to the creation of consumer-oriented churches that aim to give people what they want in church, rather than what their parents were used to. Many mainline churches were slow to accept this, he says, "many still haven't."

"Traditional ways of doing church are based on the book," says Braden. "They're designed for highly literate people. There's a lot of words, you have responsive readings, hymnals are complex. More recently you've had a digital generation. They've grown up getting information from screens; it's a huge disconnect."

Braden likens that disconnect to the difference between baseball and soccer. "Soccer worship is one where you're much more involved and active. Baseball worship is where you just sit and watch other people do stuff."

Braden sees traditional churches being perched on a demographic plateau. Baby Boomers, he says, are the last generation to have been raised in church. "There are a lot of retired folks in these churches, and once they're gone, there will be no one to take their place."

Unlike ministers who preside over the years of expansion in the 1960's, most Presbyterian clergy today have never served in a growing church. "Churches have been declining for 40 years," says Braden. "So the goal becomes how can we keep the institution alive."

Radical inclusiveness

"I think the best thing about the church is the community that's made by people of good will," says Frank. "To me, that's uplifting and important and a better side to human nature."

We're headed for Plymouth, where the church is hanging on despite an increasingly difficult financial situation. Our route takes us to a recently completed stretch of highway. Frank tells me it shaves a few minutes from the trip between Mishawaka and Plymouth, but also bypasses a number of small towns. "Their businesses are going to dry up."

Frank's grandfather on his mother's side was a Presbyterian minister in Auburn, Alabama. The Presbyterian church sponsored several agricultural colleges for blacks across the south. When Frank's grandfather happened to visit one in Tuscaloosa, he was so appalled by conditions there he called up a church administrator and told him the school should either be fixed or closed. He was named the school's president, instead.

The entire family, including Frank's mother and father, moved to Stillman College. "They were like missionaries," Frank recalls. "So I grew up in a missionary family, even though it was not overseas. It was within the black community during the '50s and '60s. That was my understanding of the faith. It wasn't about going to heaven or hell. It was about social justice."

Frank majored in English at Emory University in Atlanta, and attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City. "My daughter Ann and I are very similar," he says in trying to describe his theology. "We would both call ourselves followers of Jesus before we would call ourselves Christian. That's the Jesus of history, who practiced a community of radical inclusiveness. He was against self-righteousness, against being so committed to being right and others being wrong."

"We don't have many kids."

Plymouth's First Presbyterian Church started as a log cabin. A booklet marking the church's 175th anniversary features sketches showing how the church has grown — its current structure dates back to 1888 and was remodeled in 1929.

The church was built when people walked to Sunday services. It is within view of the county courthouse, as are houses of worship representing Methodists, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ.

Back in the '60s, First Presbyterian counted around 150 members; today it is down to 60. Fifteen to 30 turn up on a given Sunday. There is no fulltime pastor.

Les Johnson, a retired pastor, has been serving as a kind of caretaker. We meet him coming out of the boiler room where he's contending with a serious leak. Water covers the entire floor. Johnson seems resigned to what is apparently the latest in an ongoing series of headaches; Frank looks worried.

Apart from standing water in the basement, the church is handsome and lovingly cared for. But the annual spending of tens of thousands of dollars for heating and maintenance from the church's endowment is clearly unsustainable.

Johnson tells us that, over the years, members have moved away or been transferred; many have died. In spite of the church making space available to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, "we don't have kids."

"It's discouraging," says Frank when we get back in the car. "You see the framework of what it used to be like and it's not like that anymore."

On our way home, I flip to the last page of First Presbyterian's commemorative booklet, and find "The 175th Anniversary Poem, " by Peggy Clevenger, a 50-year member of the church:

The past is filled with memories to treasure thru all our years

And now it's time to journey on with confidence — no fears.

It seems we have big shoes to fill

But with God's help, we know we will.

We know the Cross might seem hard to bear

But trusting God will get us there.

Lord, we pray, please light our way —

And help us continue on from day to day.

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