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 some 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 populations age, 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
On Tuesday (March 15), just hours after the Rev. Thomas Lutz was discharged from the hospital in the wake of a minor heart attack, the police called him.
A cyclist, Kenn Sapeta, had been killed on Route 9 in an accident, and the first responders knew the Philipstown resident was an active member of Our Lady of Loretto, the Catholic parish in Cold Spring where Lutz serves as the 25th pastor in its 189-year history.
There was little time to rest or grieve. Instead, Lutz headed to the Sapeta home to comfort Kenn’s wife, Cathy, and his daughter and grandchildren. By Wednesday, a large funeral service was being planned, along with a fundraiser in Sapeta’s memory for The Order of Malta, a Catholic lay religious order that Sapeta had been a part of that is engaged in relief work for Ukrainian refugees.
This, said Lutz, is what serving as a pastor in a small town is all about: being involved in every significant event in a person’s life. You baptize babies, officiate weddings, comfort those in hospice and usher them to eternal life with a funeral Mass. “It’s like being a community doctor,” he said. “We’re physicians of the soul.”
Like doctors, religious leaders had to figure out how to care for people without being in the same room during the most devastating waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Lady of Loretto began recording and livestreaming its Sunday services, as did many other churches. But as a Catholic church, it had to reckon with a clash between theology and technology.
“In our sacramental theology, you receive Communion in person,” said Lutz. “You can’t do that over a computer monitor.”
Catholic churches compensated by offering “spiritual Communion,” in which parishioners were encouraged to receive Christ in their hearts instead of partaking in the bread of life.
The church also kept its doors open during the pandemic for those who wanted to pray. One man who came frequently turned out to be a COVID survivor. When he was hospitalized, stricken with the disease, doctors told him that he was going to die. But he survived, and began coming to the church as a way of thanking God, Lutz said.
Others were not so fortunate. A parishioner from Our Lady of Loretto, Darrin Santos, was one of the first local residents to lose his life from the virus when he died at age 50 in April 2020. His wife, Melissa Castro-Santos, died of cancer three months later, orphaning their three teenage children. In-person services were not an option, and the church had to navigate comforting the grieving from a distance while raising money for the children.
Now, with the pandemic waning — or in a lull — the church is tasked with helping a broken and battered community to heal. “We’re picking up the pieces of people’s spiritual lives, emotional lives, the separation and the anxieties that everyone felt,” said Lutz. “That’s a new pastoral way in which we have to serve the community at this unique time.”
As the pandemic worsened, opportunities for public grieving and community building were few and far between. Funerals were limited to a few attendees, if they were allowed at all. Hugs could not be shared via livestream. People were and are grappling with existential questions about life, death and life after death. They don’t want to grapple with those questions in solitude and, as a result, some people are returning to the church after many years of absence, Lutz said.
“Not having that opportunity to be here, that gave them an opportunity to reflect on how meaningful it was to them,” he said. “Maybe the church was something from their childhood, or from later in life. But something was missing.”
Politics and public space
That has not been the trend for Christian churches over decades; every denomination has been losing congregants and struggled to put people in the pews, raise money, patch the walls of their aging buildings and figure out how to appeal to the spiritual and logistical needs of the community. What role does, or should, the church play during a time of polarization and pandemics? If fewer Americans define themselves as Christians — or religious at all — what does that mean for the church in general?
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 the first three weeks of this series we looked at local churches that have closed or nearly closed, churches that split into two as a result of philosophical differences and churches that are building community by fighting for social justice. This week, to conclude the series, we look at the ways in which the pandemic has changed churches, and the opportunity it presents for religious organizations to provide solace and guidance to a nation in crisis.
“There’s a lot of grief that has not yet been expressed,” said the Rev. Brian Merritt, the interim pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown. “How do we move forward?”
In some ways, said Merritt, the problem of declining membership is not a problem unique to churches. Elks clubs, Lions clubs, veterans’ associations and other civic and charitable organizations are all losing members. Older participants die and there are not enough younger members to succeed them.
Some of that may be a result of organizations failing to make themselves relevant to new generations, but younger people generally don’t stay in one place as they might have done decades ago. The average American moves 11 times during a lifetime, according to census data. Job markets and housing costs fluctuate. Finding steady work and housing in your hometown is no longer as common.
“The more transient our society became, the harder it was for institutions that relied on long-term memberships,” Merritt said.
That’s been to the detriment of churches, but also, he suggests, to those who forgo organized religion, thinking that their personal relationship with God will be enough.
“There’s no such thing as individual salvation,” he said. “Even if someone does have some sort of faith that they want to believe is autonomous, it was relayed through other people. And the thing that I’ve learned over time is that you are not the person that is able to see yourself the best. It’s a certain amount of hubris to believe that you can autonomously understand spirituality without the help of other people. Even hermits on mountains live by rules that were set up by others.”
The pandemic has brought that into stark relief, as Merritt points out that isolation can exacerbate mental illness and addiction. How many people on the margins, barely holding on, were pushed over the edge when churches and other gathering places were closed, cutting them off from community?
“You need support,” he said. “You need people to believe in you.”
That includes clergy members, many of whom, when attempting to enforce the public health mandates that kept houses of worship closed during COVID waves, found themselves as a target. Merritt said some of his friends in the clergy have walked away from their calling in the past two years as a result.
“COVID became so politicized,” he said. “Now everybody’s mad. People needed a place to take some of their fear and anger and unfortunately sometimes that was clergy. They aren’t used to that. That’s a lot of stress. They’re like, ‘I used to think people liked me.’ But it’s often a no-win situation when you’re in charge of a public space.
“I’m fortunate that I’m at a church now in which there’s unanimity, but at my last church, I would get some pretty long emails from people who sounded like they had been watching a certain news program for too long.”
Live services have returned at the First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown, and Merritt is using the opportunity to begin healing wounds. At a recent service, he asked congregants to bring in photos of anyone they had lost in the pandemic and were not able to have a funeral for, even if they didn’t die from COVID.
Merritt brought in a picture of his own father, who died of dementia. “People have real pain because of this,” he said.
Nevertheless, Zoom services are, he believes, never going away. For all that it lacks in terms of personal connection, the technology has too many advantages to ignore. Clergy members who have moved away, the sick, the disabled, or even the curious can now take part in worship in a way that they weren’t able to before. Those who felt hesitant to speak out in church when making prayer requests have felt more comfortable typing requests or comments in chat. And there is the simple miracle that so many small churches that were previously lacking in technical savvy have adapted so quickly.
“Cold Spring didn’t do Zoom services,” Merritt said. “Now you have an 88-year-old man who runs it. That’s a huge shift in culture.”
That shift has been bigger in some churches than in others.
“For the last two years, I’ve been preaching to myself,” said the Rev. Ronald Perry Sr., the pastor at Springfield Baptist Church in Beacon. “And as an old Baptist preacher, it’s the weirdest thing.”
The building that houses the Springfield Baptist Church is one of the oldest in Beacon and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of it being a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves fleeing north.
The block the church stands on, Mattie Cooper Square, is named after the congregation’s founder, and the rest of the street is Church Street. Its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and service have been two of the most significant and well-attended events in Beacon for years, as well as a necessary stop for local politicians.
But despite the church’s rich history, membership has fallen throughout the years. Many congregants no longer live in Beacon; some travel from as far away as Hyde Park. The city has changed rapidly in the past 10 years, said Perry, but he thinks the changes keeping people away from church are being seen statewide. New York has become too expensive, and many members have moved.
Without the older generation to bring them into the fold, attracting younger members has proven difficult. “They’re not as hungry for what we call the traditional church,” he said. “When they do find church, they’re more attracted to churches that have entertainment, and that’s been very difficult for us.”
Adapting to Facebook has also been difficult, he said, because it’s hard to capture the energy of a choir and a traditional Baptist service on a screen. And while the technology will get some continued use at Springfield Baptist, such as doing Bible study or small prayer meetings over Zoom during inclement weather, he said the congregation is ready to return to the pews.
When we spoke this week, the church was about to gather for its first in-person service in two years, and the excitement and relief were palpable in Perry’s voice. Some members have not attended online services, preferring to wait until they can gather in person. But Perry said they shouldn’t expect a return to “normal,” at church or in life.
“The church that we had is no longer,” he said. “We’re trying to develop a new normal.”
The choir will likely be replaced by a few singers, he said. There will be fewer services, and they will be shorter to make them more comfortable for those wearing masks. Even so, some congregants have told him, although they are vaccinated and boosted, they’re still not ready to return.
“I got folks who want to come, but they are concerned because of all the ups and downs of the pandemic,” he said. “People tell me, ‘I want to come but I got to really be careful.’ I encourage that.”
As necessary as online services have been, Perry wonders if something about the solemnity of service has been lost in the ease of access. Maybe it’s not such a good thing that people can attend church without getting out of bed, or can flip it off for a while if they don’t like the music, as if they were listening to the radio.
Across town, Salem Tabernacle appears to be a church that is comfortable with embracing technology. The pulpit is on a stage decked out with a full band, rock-show lighting and an enormous screen that the Rev. Bill Dandreano wryly refers to as “The Jumbotron.” But he agrees with Perry’s assessment about online worship.
“It takes away from the sanctified nature of a place that’s supposed to feel different from all the other places you go,” he said. “You should walk in and be like, ‘I’m not at a doctor’s office, I’m not in a bowling alley.’ It should feel different. The language should be different. The way we sing should be different. We need that. But what’s happening is people are watching church on the same device they use to watch Yellowstone and Euphoria.”
The turning season
No one is more surprised that Bill Dandreano became a pastor than Bill Dandreano.
Back in the late 1990s, his brother, who was in the band at the church, urged him to check it out. Dandreano was wary. The rest of his family was religious; he, less so. “He said, ‘The music is dope!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not coming. I know what you’re trying to do.’”
He decided to attend for a few weeks, but only at night, and only to support his brother. He did not tell anyone else in his family. “I didn’t want to get my mom gassed up,” he said.
At the first service, the pastor asked everyone who was 20 years or younger to come to the stage. Dandreano knew what was about to happen, and did not want to get up. But he knew that if he didn’t, his brother or sister-in-law would tell his mother that he wasn’t taking church seriously.
The pastor asked those assembled who had a calling to join the ministry and Dandreano suddenly realized in that moment that maybe — maybe — it was he.
“But I’m not raising my hand because again, it’ll get back to my mom and she will be so excited,” he recalled. “And then this dude walks up to me, turns his microphone off and goes: ‘Stop worrying about what your mom’s gonna think. You know it’s you.’ ”
Five years ago, Dandreano was ordained as the Salem minister when the previous pastor, whose father before him was the minister there for decades, moved west.
Dandreano describes Salem Tabernacle as a nondenominational convergent church at which all Christian traditions are represented. “We’re trying to have a place where, no matter what your background is, you’ll see something familiar, and also something kind of challenging,” he said. “If you come every week for a year you’ll experience what would lean toward a low-church Pentecostal service and the sermon with an almost Roman Catholic-Greek Orthodox vibe.”
The church also describes itself as evangelical, which to Dandreano means that they preach the word of God and seek to help their community. That may not be what most people think of when they hear the term, which Dandreano thinks is the fault of many evangelical churches misinterpreting their mission.
“Evangelicalism has become a curse word,” he said. “The worst of evangelicalism is: It’s misogynistic and male-dominated leadership. It’s judgmental, and preaches about what is wrong with you and who’s not allowed here. And in America, it’s got racist undertones. It’s moved from being patriotic to almost nationalistic in ways that are terrifying. We shouldn’t dog our country. But we worship God, not America.”
Dandreano remains skeptical about the technology that his church has become adept at using. But he admits that it saved his church, as he was able to record or livestream services from the beginning. If the pandemic had happened two years earlier, before the church had gone through a technological upgrade, he’s not sure what they would have done. And the large screen made the services more visually appealing to those at home.
Still, there were challenges. In April 2020, Dandreano decided to record his Good Friday sermon from his home. He set up blazingly hot stage lights in his study, hit record on his iPhone and preached for three sweaty hours. Afterward, he checked the footage and found that he had set the phone too low, cutting off his head. He had to record the three-hour service again.
“You can’t get too mad though, because it’s Good Friday,” he said.
Not everything has been as easy to shrug off. He agrees with Brian Merritt at First Presbyterian Church of Philipstown that the past two years have taken a brutal toll on pastors. It’s not helped by another aspect of the evangelical tradition that states that pastors’ leadership is rooted in their ability to do things on their own.
“That kind of leadership needs to go away forever,” he said. “We need to lead the church by showing that we also need help. I would want every pastor to hear me say: No matter what, you need spiritual direction or therapy right now. Because we are bearing such a heavy weight. The war, the racism, the COVID, the deaths, having your church, not having your church, having plans, losing your plans, it’s so hard. It’s an impossible burden to carry.”
If, as Merritt says, there is no such thing as individual salvation, perhaps the pandemic’s greatest lesson is that there is no such thing as individual healing, as well. If Christian churches are going to flourish during dark times in U.S. history, Dandreano believes it will be by moving from commands to invitations. It will come from making people feel welcome, giving them a place where they can relax, where they can feel comfortable opening up. For this, the art of conversation will need to come back. Not just in church, Dandreano thinks, but in the home.
“The whole Christian faith revolves around a guy giving his followers a meal on the worst night of their lives,” he said. It’s time, he thinks, for the church and even those who are unchurched, to hold tight to this lesson.
On Sunday (March 13), Dandreano preached about the difference between inviting people into healing versus trying to fix them.
“Trying to fix someone is not healthy,” he said. “But if you just have people over to your house to eat, that event is more important than anything that will be said.”
Behind The Story
Type: Investigative / Enterprise
Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.
An earlier version of this story said Father Lutz had gone to the Kenn Sapeta home to comfort his children and grandchildren. In fact, Sapeta has only one child, a daughter, Megan. Also, Father Lutz said that a funeral was being planned, but it will take place March 25 at a church in Ossining, not at Loretto.