It is not the first by any means but the story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune chronicles the closing of a few congregations, typical of many churches shutting their doors across the prairie states and, in this case, Minnesota.
For 100 years, Lutherans in this farming community on the Minnesota prairie have come to one church to share life’s milestones.Though the story focuses especially on Protestant congregations, it is also true that the numbers of Roman Catholic buildings also are on the decline with mergers and church closings. That said, the stark reality is that in the last 16 years or so the ELCA has lost nearly one third of its membership, the Presbyterians two-fifths, and the Methodists one sixth. The aging demographic of these prairie congregations is unmistakable with baptisms in the ELCA (Minnesota) down 43%!
They have been baptized, confirmed and married at La Salle Lutheran. Their grandparents, parents and siblings lie in the church cemetery next door.But the old friends who gathered here early one recent Sunday never imagined that they would one day be marking the death of their own church.About the series This is the first in an occasional series about Christianity at a crossroads — a time of unprecedented decline in church membership and a changing future for the faith.When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.
While there are surely many reasons for this, the story fails to note that these same churches have made a rather dramatic shift to the left both in theology and practice. During this same period, they have moved to accept most of the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and the openness of these churches to gay, lesbian, transgender, etc., clergy. During the same time period, these same churches have identified with the left not only in terms of the social agenda (pro-choice) but also the political (read through church resolutions on immigration, for example). Yet there is no denying that these communities themselves are in decline and the population of rural areas ages faster than in urban and suburban areas as well as offering fewer jobs and reasons for young adults to stay. Family farms are increasingly small agribusiness and use technology and farm machinery to do large scale what individual families did generations before.
The future of the prairie is not a small thing for Lutherans of all stripes. Lutherans in particular have a larger proportion of their congregations in these rural areas and as they decline, they contribute to the decline of the whole denomination. Added to this is the diminishing presence of Lutherans in the greater urban domains across America where buildings are also being sold and people saying good bye to once vibrant ministries.
So what will America look like once these churches close? On one level, these communities will lose an important dimension of the communal life and identity, a place for folks to gather, and a resource to address ills within their communities. On another level, the Christians who must find new church homes will find it hard to relocate their memories in new places and to live with the loss of sacred places once home to generations of their ancestors. Finally, the churches are among the last to leave these communities after the doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, pharmacies, lumberyards, mechanics, and a host of others who leave main street a ghost town. As one who grew up in just such a small town in Nebraska, it is a hard pill to swallow. But as much as this is difficult for those directly involved, this will mean the closing of a vast chapter in American history as well as the history of the churches of these immigrant groups who fed us, created jobs and businesses to employ us, shaped our values, defended our nation against our enemies, and provided the firm foundation on which millions lived their lives. There is much here to consider. . .