The number of people who attend or associate with Christian denominations has been falling steadily in the U.S. for decades. As a result, many churches have closed or merged or are struggling financially, including in the Highlands. The pandemic shutdown did not help, although churches quickly adapted by broadcasting services online.
Repeated social surveys have found that, as the churchgoing population ages, younger generations are not replacing them in the pews. A growing segment of the population has been labeled “nones” — they are not atheists or even agnostics. They just don’t have religion in their lives. Sundays are the second day of the weekend.
This series will examine how this trend is affecting churches in Philipstown and Beacon, and how their leaders are attempting to grow their flocks. When Beacon, Cold Spring, Nelsonville and Garrison were founded, community life centered on the churches. What changed? What should change? What must change? If it survives, what will the church of the future look like?
Your thoughts and reactions are welcome. Email me at [email protected] or post a comment below.
Chip Rowe, Editor
Is a church a building or the people inside?
It was the building that first drew Emily Murnane to the Dutch Reformed church on Wolcott Avenue. A lifelong Beacon resident and board member of the Beacon Historical Society, she had long admired the handsome brick building from 1860, one of the oldest churches in Beacon. But she had never seen the interior, so one day, in early 2019, she decided on a whim to attend a service.
At the time, Murnane didn’t consider herself religious. She was raised Catholic, but her connection to the church was mostly cultural: She went because it was what her grandparents did.
“I put my time in, and once my time was in, I was done,” she recalled. So it was curiosity instead of spirituality that led her there on a Sunday morning. She figured she’d get a chance to see the inside of the building, maybe mention the Beacon Historical Society, and be done.
She stayed for nearly five hours. The architecture had nothing to do with it.
“They fed me some great casserole,” she said.
After the service, the dozen congregants in attendance invited Murnane to stay for fellowship: a potluck in the hall behind the altar that they held every week. When they learned that she was from the historical society, the stories began to unfurl about the history of the building, the congregation, and the lives of the 12 people who still came every week to worship.
“It was like this little secret,” she said. “Who would have known that this warm and wonderful group of people were hiding inside this building?”
Murnane didn’t have much in common with the congregation. In her late 20s, she was the youngest person there by several decades. Also, she technically wasn’t Protestant. But she said she felt welcomed in a way she hadn’t felt in a church before. When she finally did leave, a member casually said to her that if she had enjoyed herself, she should consider coming back some time.
One of those 12 congregation members was Pat, whom Murnane had seen around Beacon almost her entire life but had known nothing about. Pat, with his beard and long hair, for years spent his day walking slowly from one end of Main Street and back, flashing the peace sign at every person he passed.
Through the church, Murnane learned a bit about Pat, about his time serving in Vietnam and some of the hardships he’d experienced. But what struck her over time was realizing that, in the part in the service when congregants would offer up the names of people to pray for, Pat never asked for prayers for himself or someone he was close to. Instead he would ask the congregation to pray for someone in town who had just lost their mother, or a family he’d read about in the paper that was experiencing hardships, or someone else he’d heard about via word-of-mouth. “He was probably the most Christ-like person I ever met,” she said.
But there is only so much that a small congregation can do in terms of fundraising, of serving the community, of finding members. Their ministry work in the community had dwindled down to feeding Pat every day.
When the Reformed Church was built 162 years ago on what was then known as Fishkill Landing, churches were the centerpiece of communities. The Reformed Church was designed to hold 200 people. Even before the pandemic shutdown, members of the congregation would look up at the cavernous space around them and ask themselves: How much longer can we keep this up?
Their pastor, Jan Fritzinger, remembered congregants telling her that in the 1950s, every pew would be full. But now? “You put 10 people in a seating capacity of 200, they’re lost,” she said.
The heart of the village
One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate what a church brings to a community. “You have all these wonderful buildings, historical structures, they’re beautiful and add such character to any village,” said Mark Forlow.
But as Forlow knows from his time as a vestry member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring, taking care of those structures can be a trial. St. Mary’s was built in 1867, a few years after the Reformed Church in Beacon. Like that structure, St. Mary’s was the second church built by the congregation. The Reformed Church started in 1813 and St. Mary’s was founded in 1840. Both congregations left their first churches to build the larger, grander ones that still stand.
They were built to inspire. They were not built to be energy efficient.
“The furnace was 40 years old, so every year, we put money into the furnace,” said Fritzinger about the Reformed Church in Beacon. “It was all on one zone. And when you have an old church like that, there are lots of repairs.”
The “Halo Effect”
Should you trust surveys about church membership? While about 40 percent of Americans have consistently said in the Gallup poll that they are “regular churchgoers,” studies that extrapolate from head counts in the pews put the figure closer to 20 percent. Researchers suspect that people exaggerate their attendance, just as they exaggerate how often they vote and downplay how much they drink.
Historic churches “are a huge suck in terms of your resources, heating them, the electricity, the maintenance,” said Forlow. “They are very, very needy structures.” One of the first projects that he took part in upon joining the church was getting the steeple repointed. The congregation had to raise $250,000.
“We got it done — great,” he said. “Now you got the rest of the building. Then you’ve got the parish hall.” The church isn’t insulated, and its windows aren’t tight. “It seems like the oil burner is on all day long, and the heat just goes right up through the roof,” he said.
When the organ needed repairs, parishioners had to learn how to do the costly work themselves. Both churches predate the Americans with Disabilities Act by at least 120 years, and had to be brought up to code.
These are daunting enough projects for a large congregation. For a small one, they become impossible. The financial crash of 2008 hit the St. Mary’s endowment hard, and the church spent the next 10 years flirting with bankruptcy. There was discussion of how much the church could get if it were to sell its rolling 1.5-acre lawn in the heart of the village to a developer. The assessment came back at just under $3 million.
In 2018, in order to survive, they had to let go their full-time rector, Father Shane Scott-Hamblen, who had been with the church since 2002 and had rebuilt the congregation from an average of seven members at Mass to 50. A statement from St. Mary’s at the time called the decision to do so “difficult and without pleasure, but it was a necessary decision in order for the parish to continue.”
This was the environment that Rev. Steve Schunk, the part-time priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s, came into: The pain of a popular rector being let go, and the constant worrying about the church’s dire finances.
“I thought St. Mary’s was on the brink but not just from money,” he said. “There was a lot of hurt in the parish. That’s what I thought not only in the parish, but I think even in the community. So I think my first thing to do was simply to love them. And just lead them out. I hope and I think we’ve stopped the leak in the boat. I think we’re on a positive cash basis.”
Still, he wonders why more people from the village aren’t spending their Sundays here. And because he’s only in the village part-time, he worries that he’s not in the community enough to figure it out.
“I think St. Mary’s is being taken for granted,” he said. “But how do I tell that story? If St. Mary’s is important to you in the community, you have to be like our parishioners and pledge. How do I get that story across?”
Forlow remembers an Australian couple a few years ago who were visiting the Hudson Valley, happened to attend a service at St. Mary’s because they were walking by and were charmed by the building. They enjoyed themselves so much that they flew back to Cold Spring every other month to attend services.
“I loved the story, but it was hilarious,” he said. “Where are the people in the village? If we had 100 to 150 people in the village come to St. Mary’s? I have no doubt that there would be a different experience.”
Both Forlow and Schunk worry that the Christianity that the public sees in the national media — the scandals, the exclusion, the rise of Christian nationalism — is keeping people away from local churches, “especially people who are not churched, people who don’t have the experience,” Forlow said. “Liberty University, give me a break. And they associate St. Mary’s or the Methodist church or the Presbyterian with Liberty University. We’re not that, you know, and that’s the hardest thing to overcome. But how do you say that to somebody? How do you expose them to religion and community and worship and have it be meaningful to their lives? This culture that we have could certainly benefit from people just stopping, taking a step back, and looking at what’s important.”
Even harder than bringing the unchurched into the flock is getting people who have left to return. St. Mary’s prides itself on being an inclusive and welcoming community, but Schunk knows that there are those who have been “spiritually wounded” by traumatic experiences with other religious institutions. “The church became anti-women, anti-gay, all this,” he said. “Sometimes if a person feels bad, and they go to a lot of therapy, they ask, ‘Why did the church make me feel this way?’ How am I ever going to get that person to come back?”
Exile and return
In Beacon, Emily Murnane tried to convince her friends to attend services at the Reformed Church, hoping that an infusion of young members could sustain the congregation. “It’s a free breakfast, just come in, meet the people,” she remembers telling them. “You’re going to be inspired.”
No one joined her. Some needed those Sunday mornings to catch up on sleep. Others were put off by the religious aspect, “which kind of sucks when you’re trying to convince people to come to a church,” she said. “But there was that overarching specter of organized religion that was making them believe that ‘this is going to be boring, it’s going to be a responsibility, it’s going to be spooky.’ ”
Finally, a few months into the pandemic, the congregation realized that they could not afford to keep going. They held a final service in May 2021. Past members and former pastors returned. The theme of the service was the resurrection. They spoke of exile from Egypt, the uncertainty of the wilderness, and then finally finding the promised land. They spoke of Jesus revealing himself to his disciples three days after being crucified, when all hope had been lost. And they performed the Rite of Passage to New Forms of Ministry, in which the congregants were urged to find a new place of worship where they may be encouraged in their faith.
For Murnane, that hasn’t happened. She hasn’t gone to another church. Instead, she’s been busy scanning and digitizing the church’s historical records for the Beacon Historical Society. The church is in contract to be sold and transformed into a venue for live performances with a bar and a hotel.
She has not lost hope. She’s encouraged that the developers have been speaking with her about the site’s history and ways in which they can preserve it. They plan to restore the historic cemetery, which is overgrown and inaccessible. “They care about that property, and they have the motivation and the resources to take care of it,” she said. “If it has to be a music venue, then it couldn’t have ended up in better hands.”
And both Munrane and Pastor Fritzinger are glad to see that, until the sale is finalized, another religious group is using the church. Goodwill Church, an evangelical organization with three churches in Orange County, has been renting the space since June.
Fritzinger, who is serving as a part-time pastor in Hyde Park, was shocked to learn that Goodwill is bringing in 70 people every week. Larger churches can afford the marketing and other resources it takes to grow. In this case, she learned that the members attending weren’t local. They were “church plants” from one of the other three churches on the other side of the river.
“They take people from other congregations of theirs that are willing to go to a new church, and they plant them in there for a few weeks, and then spread the word out,” she said. “That’s the marketing.”
Murnane worries about the stories that will now be lost. Once the records she’s handling have been digitized, the originals will be sent to the governing body of the Reformed Church and they’ll lie dormant until someone else comes looking for them. Then there are the practical considerations of what happens to a city when a community within it dissolved.
“That was a community of open, welcoming, warm people who did everything in their power, what little power they had for their community,” she said. “Here’s a place where you can talk about what’s going on in your life. We’re not going to ask any questions. We don’t demand that you be a certain way. You just, you know, just come in, say what you need to say, spend some time with us. We don’t care who you are, we don’t care what you are, we don’t care why you are. Just come in and join us. We’re short on places like that, in Beacon and in the world.”
The Reformed Church and St. Mary’s are not unusual. Many churches in the Highlands struggle with filling pews, raising money, patching walls, figuring out the spiritual and logistical needs of their congregation, and discovering the role of religion during a time of polarization and pandemics. If fewer Americans are defining themselves as Christians — or religious at all — what does that mean for the church in general?
Over the next few weeks, The Current will look at some of the problems local churches are dealing with, and some of the solutions they’ve discovered. When we conceived this series before the pandemic, the working titles were Are Churches Dying? or The Church in Crisis. But in the process of reporting, it became clear that neither title was accurate. Churches do close. Congregations disperse. But on the whole, many churches are dealing with their challenges by changing what it means to be part of a church.
In some ways, instead of a decline, the church may be getting back to its roots.
“Christ didn’t have a megachurch,” said Fritzinger. “He had 12 ragged disciples.”
Behind The Story
Type: Investigative / Enterprise
Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.