Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches
South Carolina churches are shedding thousands of members a year, even as the state’s population grows by tens of thousands.
In the place we call the Bible Belt, where generations have hung their hats on their church-going nature and faithful traditions, an increasing trend of shrinking church attendance — and increasing church closings — signal a fundamental culture shift in South Carolina.
At least 97 Protestant churches across South Carolina have closed since 2011, according to data from the Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist and Southern Baptist denominations. An untold number of other closings, certainly, are not captured by these statistics.
Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, in the near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.
At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.
What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?
At Whaley Street United Methodist Church near downtown Columbia, the small crowd of remaining members are quick and cheerful to say they’re a “small but friendly” church. A couple dozen people sat spaced out among the wooden pews on a Sunday morning earlier this summer, when the Rev. Joe Cal Watson delivered an efficient sermon titled, “What is church?”
“I miss the days when church and Sunday were so important … the world stopped so we could focus on our faith,” Watson said from the pulpit. Sunday mornings still matter, he told the flock, but how the church treats people and helps people in need are more important.
Whaley Street’s congregation is a fraction of the size it once was when the surrounding Olympia and Granby mill villages were thriving.
The church simply doesn’t know how to grow these days, though it hasn’t stopped hoping for growth.
“We’re open. We’re friendly. But we do have an old-time service,” said Mary Anna Spangler, a member of 30 years. “But the big problem is how do you get (people) in the door and then keep them?”
FAITH BY NUMBERS
The South is slowly catching up to national and European trends shifting toward what many call a “post-Christian” culture — that is, a society with characteristics no longer dominantly rooted in Christianity.
Studies and surveys have documented the decline of self-identified Christians and the rise of “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, across the United States for years.
The Pew Research Center describes the United States as in the midst of “significant religious change. ”The share of Americans who identify with Christianity is declining, while those who say they have no religion is growing rapidly.”
In the South, more than three-quarters of adults identify as Christians, and more than 8 in 10 people consider religion to be somewhat or very important in their lives, more than in any other region of the country, according to Pew.
But, as in the rest of the country, a shrinking proportion of Southern adults say they regularly attend religious services — 74 percent in 2014, down 3 percent from seven years earlier. And surveys tend to inflate how often people actually attend religious services, Pew notes.
South Carolina is in step with those trends, and it shows in church statistics, particularly among Protestant denominations.
While Catholics are actually increasing in number in South Carolina, largely driven by influxes of northern and Hispanic newcomers to the state, major Protestant denominations report declines in membership and numbers of churches in recent years.
- United Methodists and Southern Baptists, which together account for more than 3,000 churches and nearly 800,000 church members in South Carolina, report five-year membership declines of 5 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
- United Methodists lost 12,707 members and closed 30 churches in the state between 2012 and 2017. By comparison, 29 new United Methodist churches opened in the state in the past 50 years.
- The number of S.C. Southern Baptist churches has held steady at around 2,100 during the past five years — thanks in part to new church plants canceling out closures. Not all Southern Baptist churches report their statistics to the convention each year, but among those reporting, there were nearly 130,000 fewer members in 2017 (568,519) than in 2012 (698,041), according to statistics published by the S.C. Baptist Convention.
“The reality is that 80-plus percent of (S.C. Southern Baptist) churches are plateaued or declining, meaning they haven’t grown by any measurable percentage in 10 years, or they’ve actually lost membership,” said Jay Hardwick, who leads the church-planting team for the S.C. Baptist Convention. “And a large percentage of those are in a window where if something drastic doesn’t happen within five to 10 years, they’ll close their doors. They won’t have anything.”
A church, particularly a Southern church, used to be a community center.
It was where you made friends and kept up with friends, where you ate supper on Wednesday nights, played on a softball team, sent the kids after school, fulfilled your community service duties, made business connections, got your musical fix in the choir and maybe joined a reading or knitting club.
And being a part of a church once was, essentially, a status symbol for many people in the South.
“Where do you go to church?” was a regular get-to-know-you question; the answer said something about who you were.
“You didn’t have a choice when I was a child. You went to church,” said Happy Meglino, who grew up in a Southern Baptist church and now attends Whaley Street United Methodist with her husband, Mark, and their 5-year-old daughter, Julianna. “My mom played the organ, and my brother and I were going to be there every time the doors were open. And your friends were there, too. … If you were going to be a good Southern girl, accepted socially, you went to church. If you didn’t go to church, mmm, we don’t know about you.”
Now, though, a church isn’t a line you need on your social resume.
“If you just want to be a philanthropic person, there are a gazillion opportunities for you to feed hungry people, clothe cold people, do service projects, build a house,” said David Turner, the minister of music and worship at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in downtown Columbia.
The oldest Lutheran church in Columbia, Ebenezer once boasted a large, multigenerational congregation of families who lived in nearby neighborhoods. The city used to close streets for its annual vacation Bible school.
Now, Turner said, the church’s attendance numbers are lower than ever.
“1950 was great, but it’s not 1950 anymore,” Turner said.
A key issue for the future, Turner says, is whether church leaders will have the knowledge and skill to guide churches toward a new future or be stuck in a past when Sunday mornings were sacred.
Many of the churches that are failing have not kept up with the pace of change in their communities, and they stopped making a difference outside the walls of the church.
When a church becomes more concerned with looking inward at itself rather than reaching outward to the people around it, it’s lost its core function, said Hardwick, the Southern Baptist church planter.
“Relevance has nothing to do with how cool and creative the church is, if the music’s cool and the lights are great and the staging’s just right,” Hardwick said. “Relevance has everything to do with making a difference.
“If this church disappeared, would anybody in our community know or care?”
CHANGE IS PAIN — BUT SO IS DEATH
In downtown Charleston, a booming city whose iconic steeples earned it the title of the “Holy City,” one of the oldest Baptist churches in the state, Citadel Square, slipped toward irrelevance.
In Spartanburg, century-old Oak Grove Baptist held onto three or four dozen senior citizen members who struggled to minister to their community.
And in Greenville, the aging members of Trinity United Methodist saw they had to make a change while the church was still viable, before it became desperate.
Those three churches made humbling choices in the past two years to give up their leadership — and in the cases of Oak Grove and Trinity, their very names — and merge with or be “adopted” by newer, growing churches.
“There’s grief, there’s mourning when you start changing the name of the church you attend,” said Carol Wilson, a longtime member of Trinity who supported the church’s decision to put itself up for adoption.
A year ago, Trinity came under the wing of the 3,000-member Buncombe Street United Methodist, a prominent presence in downtown Greenville. It’s now called Buncombe Street’s Trinity campus.
“In every transition, there is loss and there is gain, but if you only focus on the loss, that’s hard,” Wilson said. The adoption was a move that took “the faith to think of the things you haven’t seen.”
A growing number of churches across the state are seeing mergers or adoptions as an opportunity to get back to the mission they may have drifted from, said James Nugent, who works with Hardwick’s church-planting team at the S.C. Baptist Convention and helps guide churches through transitions.
“You hit the restart button and do the one thing you were told to do, and that’s go and make disciples,” he said.
Trinity’s adoption by Buncombe Street has given the church a chance to continue its legacy.
“The adoption has kept this place vibrant, made it more vibrant, so we don’t have to worry about the church closing,” said the Rev. Ben Burt, the pastor of Buncombe Street’s Trinity campus. “And just people knowing that this place where they’ve experienced God is going to be able to remain open to help other people have the same experience with God … that is life-giving to them.”
NEW METHODS, OLD MISSION
Fewer than 1,000 feet from the door of Whaley Street United Methodist, upwards of 300 people gather in Columbia’s 701 Whaley event hall on Sunday mornings.
They comprise Downtown Church, a 7-year-old Presbyterian church born, in part, out of a feeling that other churches were “answering questions I wasn’t asking and not answering questions I was,” said the Rev. Amos Disasa, co-pastor.
The founders of the church saw people looking for an experience that a so-called traditional church didn’t provide.
“We sensed a need for a place for people who were persistently asking questions about God and were very interested in their own spirituality but were not opting into the formal institutions that would typically provide those answers,” Disasa said. “They’re weren’t going to church on Sundays, but it wasn’t that they had given up on God. They were disinterested in the institution of a church as it is.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all model of church, especially not in 2018. And there’s also no reason to expect people to show up at any church just because it’s there, many church leaders are recognizing.
“We early on taught our folks we have to be the ones that go out and share Christ and share what we’re doing with folks, because if we open our doors and just sit there and expect folks to come up, it’s not going to happen,” said Jody Ratcliffe, the founding pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista.
The door to the Church at West Vista also happens to be the door to a bar.
One Sunday a month, the fledgling church meets at New Brookland Tavern on State Street, a popular Sunday brunch area. The rest of the month, church happens in living rooms throughout the Columbia metro area.
West Vista’s “house church” model is, in some ways, a throwback to the earliest days of the Christian church, but it represents a major shift from the traditional church model of recent centuries.
In a rapidly changing religious landscape, there is one critical element of a church that must not change, Hardwick said: The gospel message and mission.
Almost anything else is fair game.
“The message never changes, but the methods are always up for change,” he said.
‘EXPERIENCE THE EXPECTED’
As much change as the church is undergoing, church tradition isn’t dead — no more than Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia is at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.
In many ways, Brookland represents the way church has been for generations.
Families sit together in long pews. They wear dresses and suits and ties and hats. A big, swaying choir fills the stage, and paper bulletins double as fans (though, an usher will hand you a real paper fan if they see you sweating). Golden offering plates are passed.
A robed pastor’s booming, lyrical voice preaches a message that lifts you out of your seat, and when he calls you to the altar, it is no suggestion; you come.
But Brookland is also reaching people — 3,500 of them or so on an average Sunday morning — in ways the church never did before. Big screens flank the pulpit, alternating live video feeds with scrolling lyrics to old-school hymns being played by a full band with, yes, drums and electric guitars.
You can pass the offering plate right along and give your tithe via text message or on the church’s website.
If you didn’t come to church on Sunday morning, you might come for lunch during the week at the massive conference center, which is used for all kinds of events, church- and nonchurch-related. Or your kids might play basketball in the wellness center or catch a quick word from the Rev. Charles Jackson, the pastor, on Twitter.
That’s all part of an evolving strategy to reach the people who are and will become the next generation of Christians, the church says.
“First of all, you’ve got to think about who that next generation is,” said Marnie Robinson, a member and church spokesperson. “The church may be trying to force them to be the church of yesteryear, and they’re not those people. … We need to talk to the millennials as if they are important and teach them the message of Christ; teach them and show them.”
But still, “church is church,” Robinson said, and many people are looking to “experience the expected.”
“When you do church, when you go to church, you expect to hear a good word,” Robinson said. “You expect to experience good music, and you expect a good prayer. Music, prayer and the word — you’ve got worship right there. All the other good stuff that happens is extra.”
Brookland will keep adapting, but it’s not going anywhere, Robinson said. And neither is the greater church, she feels sure.
“The church is one of the oldest institutions in the world, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Robinson said. “How we do church may change, may be changing. But church is not going anywhere, and I take solace in that.”
Consistency and tradition were beloved among the rural Cedar Creek United Methodist congregation in Blythewood, and consistency and tradition sustained the church for 274 years, until it closed in 2017.
“I think that most churchgoers like things to be the way they’ve always been,” said the Rev. Alice Deal, who retired this summer as pastor of Cedar Creek’s remaining sister churches on the Fairfield Circuit, Bethel UMC and Monticello UMC. About 40 church members, mostly seniors, remain between the two of them.
A command to change, though, comes from the one they worship, Deal said. “The holy one of Israel speaks through the prophet Isaiah and says, ‘I am about to do a new thing. Do you not see it springs forth?’ I think newness is what we’re called to be open to and to embrace, but that’s not always easy to do,” she said.
Some won’t change, held back by fear or stubbornness or practicality or something else.
But some will reach a point where “the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change,” Hardwick said.
“They realize, man, if we stay the same, we will put the death knell, perhaps, of gospel ministry in this community,” he said. “Then we’re going to be willing to make the hard decision that it’s going to require of us, kind of a whatever-it-takes mindset.”
But for some churches, the most faithful choice they can make is to close and invest their resources elsewhere, Hardwick said.
The futures of Monticello and Bethel are looming.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Deal said, “but I know who holds the future. In God’s perfect will and God’s perfect time, what God intends for these churches will happen.”