The Challenge for Churches

Challenge for ChurchesWhy This Series?

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 is examining 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]

Chip Rowe, Editor

It’s Thursday morning at Cold Spring’s United Methodist Church, and the prayer shawl ministry is in session. More than a dozen women are crowded around tables. Their handiwork will be donated. Some weeks it’s caps for infants, others it’s blankets for a veteran’s hospital. Whatever’s being made is “infused” with prayer by the women so that, the Rev. Micah Coleman Campbell explains, whoever receives it will know someone is praying for them.

Not everyone who shows up on Thursdays shows up on Sundays. The prayer shawl ministry wasn’t created to attract members; it’s a way to spread good work and build community, Coleman Campbell said. There are practical benefits. One week, a member of the group fell in her home. She was rescued because an alarm was raised when she didn’t show up to crochet.

Still, a few members of the group have started attending services. When you are only seeing a dozen congregants, a handful of new faces are noticed. It’s a welcome boost for a church that only exists because of a merger. A few years ago, Cold Spring United Methodist merged with South Highlands United Methodist because of low membership in both congregations. The South Highlands church is now rented out. Other churches in the Highlands, including the Episcopal and Catholic churches in Beacon, also have merged to survive.

Many churches 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, as surveys show, fewer Americans are defining themselves as Christians — or religious at all — what does that mean for the church in general?

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the struggles of the Reformed Church in Beacon, which closed last year because of a lack of congregants; St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring, which nearly closed; and philosophical differences that fueled a split at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Garrison. This week, we examine churches that are surviving by building community through acts of service and by fighting for social justice, hoping to counter misconceptions about who is welcome in the pews.

The Bible and the newspaper

Church attendance has fallen sharply nationwide over the decades but perhaps, Coleman Campbell suggests, the golden age of packed pews wasn’t so golden.

“It’s not like back in the day, everybody loved being in church and everybody believed 100 percent,” he said. “It was just that those who didn’t believe or didn’t love being there didn’t feel like they had a choice. They couldn’t opt out of going because of societal pressure or whatnot. Now people feel more free to make that choice. That’s a good thing. I don’t want anyone forced to their faith.”

He speaks from personal experience, despite — or perhaps, because of — being the son of two Methodist pastors, and his father being a fifth-generation minister. Coleman Campbell had no intention of following in those footsteps. His goal was to be a high school history teacher. He had seen, up close, how hard it was to be a pastor and wasn’t sure that he had it in him.

“There are a million ways in which we are broken,” he said. “And we are called, as pastors, to wade into that brokenness. That’s a rewarding call, but it’s scary. And sometimes we’re not entirely sure that we’re up to the challenge.”

Yet, after graduating from college, Coleman Campbell realized that fear wasn’t a good enough reason to resist the call. Today, he serves as a pastor both in Cold Spring and at Fishkill United Methodist Church.

Micah Coleman Campbel

The Rev. Micah Coleman Campbell at the Cold Spring United Methodist Church (Photo by Ross Corsair)

As in Cold Spring, the Fishkill church has found itself increasing in membership over the past two years. Unlike Cold Spring, Coleman Campbell hasn’t been able to figure out why.

“It’s not like we had some awesome new initiative,” he said. “For whatever reason, the spirit led them through the doors there.” He credits the welcoming nature of his congregation for bringing curious new attendees back.

As to why more people aren’t coming through the doors, Coleman Campbell thinks it’s not just because of the lack of societal pressure. The Christian church in general, he allows, has not done a good job of confronting the issues of the 21st, or even the 20th, century. It has tried to ignore the philosophical ramifications of advancements in science and our understanding of the universe. In his view, instead of trying to reconcile the worlds of science and miracles, the church has pushed them apart, and set them in opposition to one another.

“If I had grown up in a church or been around Christians who had told me to shut off my mind, in some ways, I hope I would have also walked away,” he said. “A faith that’s not willing to think critically is not appealing to me, either.”

This past fall, Coleman Campbell was among seven Philipstown clergy members who issued a joint statement urging the public to consider joining them in increasing their efforts in fighting climate change as part of the Philipstown Fights Dirty campaign.

“We realize that in this worldwide calamity, no one is safe until everyone is safe, that our actions really do affect one another, and that what we do today affects what happens tomorrow,” read the statement, in part. “May we not waste this moment! We must decide what kind of world we want to leave to future generations.”

“How we treat the Earth is vitally important to God, and to our continued existence,” said Coleman Campbell. “Being faithful stewards of God’s creation is bound up in our call as Christians. You can’t disconnect that from our faith.”

Climate change isn’t the only issue Coleman Campbell is addressing from the pulpit. As part of an initiative put forward by the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, he’s begun addressing issues of racial justice.

Talking About RaceReactions have been mixed. At any congregation in which Coleman Campbell has brought up such issues, some members have told him that they feel addressing climate change and race is long overdue. Others have told him that the church should stay out of politics, a view he describes as “hogwash.”

Far from it being an inappropriate topic, Coleman argues that white pastors in predominantly white congregations are in a unique position to address issues of race. If those uncomfortable conversations can’t happen in the house of the Lord, then where are they supposed to take place?

“It’s usually people who are, like me, white people or people in privileged positions who don’t want to deal with race,” he said. “They’re uncomfortable with it. But they’re more inclined to listen to somebody like me, than somebody not like me. And it is both my obligation and my duty to try and bring those people in. I try hard to push people, but in a way that is not condemning or judgmental. A lot of times when people shut down and don’t want to talk about race, one of the reasons is because they feel like they’ve been condemned. They’re more willing to wade into uncomfortable waters if they feel like the person inviting them into that difficult space is not condemning and believes in their capacity to do right.”

He is not the only local clergy member to feel this way.

“When you preach each Sunday, you need to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand,” said Erik Simon, the interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Beacon, citing the theologian Karl Barth. “If you’re not engaged in what’s going on in your society, you’re not doing what Jesus asked you to do.”

A welcoming table

Simon had no intention of taking a pastorship in Beacon.

A writer and communications consultant who was called to the ministry in middle age, he had just finished serving as an interim pastor in Yonkers and had been offered an assignment at a church that he was looking forward to being a part of.

But he was invited by the regional presbytery to speak with the session, or governing body, of the First Presbyterian Church of Beacon. He knew the church was going through a bumpy transition, having recently lost a beloved pastor to a move, and it hadn’t found the right person to replace him for the long term. The first replacement pastor hadn’t worked out. Members of the congregation who were ordained had been filling in. It was in in a tough spot. Simon certainly couldn’t turn down their invitation to meet, but he expected nothing to come from it.

Likewise, the session in Beacon was warned that Simon was “about two minutes away from taking a position at another Presbyterian church with more resources than us,” recalled Dan Rigney, a Beacon resident and member of the session. It seemed unlikely he would agree to be a “bridge” pastor for them.

Simon said his views changed when he met the members of the session. Rigney said he knew something special was happening when he realized that for the first time in a while, the session was able to talk about theology and how they viewed the role of their church in the community instead of logistical challenges.

Simon, for his part, thought the session members were being too hard on themselves. Unlike other Presbyterian churches in the area, they were not only growing, but the growth was largely younger people and families. And the reason First Presbyterian was growing was because it was doing something that Simon found unusual.

“The reasons so many churches are losing money and losing members is because they’ve lost the Gospel and they’ve lost relevance,” he said. “They stopped caring about the things we’re supposed to care about, and this church is pulling people in because they’re relevant.”

Part of that relevance was about the church’s early embrace of Beacon’s burgeoning artistic community after the opening in 2003 of Dia:Beacon. The church runs its own art center from its basement and its Sunday services feature a variety of local musicians. But the driving force behind the growth was its focus on residents who are struggling or marginalized, a mission that Simon believes is integral in attracting younger members focused on social justice issues.

It also attracted Simon, who forsook his plans and became the church’s interim pastor after realizing how closely his own theology matched that of the congregation.

“I do have a passionate and committed theology and it’s focused more on this world,” he said. “I’m not that interested in the next world, and I don’t think Jesus was, either.”

Like many churches, First Presbyterian hosts 12-step programs for those battling addiction. And like participants in the prayer shawl ministry at United Methodist, some 12-step attendees have started to show up on Sunday. Then there is the Welcome Table, a feeding program on Fridays and Saturdays. It has been shut down during the pandemic but, with the stability of a new pastor, the church is looking forward to restarting it.

“No questions asked,” said Rose Quirk, the member of the session in charge of the program. “I don’t care if you’re poor, I don’t care if you’re homeless, I don’t care if you’re old. I don’t care. The only thing I care about is that I have a plate and if you want that plate, you can have it.”

There’s more being offered than food. Members of the nonprofit Hudson River Housing sometimes help attendees who are struggling with finding or maintaining a home. The congregation collects coats, toiletries and other items to dispense to those who need them. But most of all, the Table offers fellowship and community to people who are, as a result of their struggles, lacking in those things.

“It allows them to socialize in a safe environment,” said Quirk. “And a lot of the people who were in there, be they elderly or low-income or homeless, their biggest problem was, nobody saw them. So many people don’t hear or see them. But we saw them.”

Beyond the doors

Rachel Thompson, a parish associate at the First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown, believes the Christian church’s problems attracting members are not new. Previously, she was a member of session at a Presbyterian church in Bedford that was celebrating its 325th anniversary. She read the session minutes from meetings in the 19th century and found them familiar.

“It was like, ‘Oh, we need to get more families and children to come, how do we do this?’ ”

Like Erik Simon, Thompson said she came to the ministry “late in life,” as she puts it, graduating from seminary in her 50s. She was active in the Presbyterian church of her youth, but a trip to the Holy Land when she was 16 with a more conservative Christian organization turned her away. “I was already questioning my faith at that point, but that trip put the nails in the coffin of my Christianity for about 20 years,” she said.

Throughout the next decades of her life, she longed to be part of a group that gathered together on a regular basis to do good, but every time she returned to church, she found that wasn’t its focus.

“It felt like they were dragging me back to the 1950s, and I wanted to run screaming to the nearest exit,” she said. But at a Presbyterian church in Dobbs Ferry, she found what she had been missing. “It turns out, what I needed was inclusivity,” she said. “I wanted a church that said, ‘Yes,’ rather than a church that draws boundaries and excludes people.”

Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson, a parish associate at the First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown, with the Rev. Brian Merritt, its interim pastor (Photo by Ross Corsair)

Her return to the church, and then into the ministry, was full of revelations, she said. She had a feminist Old Testament teacher in the seminary. She learned about the Jefferson Bible: Thomas Jefferson’s adaptation of the New Testament in which all the miracles and supernatural occurrences have been removed. All of this was in sharp contrast to the conservative Christian churches she would read about in the news, with their hardline stances against evolution and homosexuality.

“Nobody I know would want to embrace that kind of theology or community,” she said. “I do think that’s been a factor in driving people away who might otherwise have been inclined. But I also think progressive theology has not been well publicized. I don’t think people know what the alternatives are.”

So how does one let people know about the alternatives? How do you draw people into a community who are wary of what they think the church is, based on what they see in the news?

Thompson thinks it’s important to blur the line between congregation and membership, that someone can “belong” to a church without showing up for services every week.

What has attracted people to First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown, she thinks, is the works of service that the church does for the community. Many people volunteer at the church’s food pantry, which feeds about 50 families a week. Many take part in the Midnight Run, founded by Thompson’s late husband, Joe Gilmore, in which people drive food and supplies into New York City at night to distribute to the homeless.

“That was, for him, what Christianity meant, which was actually loving your neighbor,” she said. The church recently put in a pollinator garden with community help. That’s even before you get to the church’s nursery school, meditation group and book club.

Thompson said this may be the key to growing churches in the 21st century: Instead of worrying about bringing more people inside the doors of the church, the focus should be on pushing the congregation outside the doors and demonstrating their mission to the community.

“There are many people who are associated with our various communities who are not officially ‘members,’ ” she said. “But we are all enjoying internal spiritual work and inspiration, as well as the many different ways we find meaning and peace by helping others.”

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4

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