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Churches’ declining numbers inspire creative approach

Reinventing religiosity in Clark County, U.S. comes amid drop in participation

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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Woody's Tacos waitress Stephanie Sheldon, right, serves food and margaritas during the First Presbyterian Church theopub on Feb. 4.
Woody's Tacos waitress Stephanie Sheldon, right, serves food and margaritas during the First Presbyterian Church theopub on Feb. 4. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Conversations about Christlike love overlap with sounds of scraping silverware and a waitress asking “Who’s number 45?” “Who ordered the burrito?”

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Vancouver gather every other Thursday for “theopub,” a time of informal fellowship and book discussion. It’s not a Bible study group, at least not directly. On a recent Thursday, its members were discussing “Searching for Sunday” by Rachel Held Evans, and her story of leaving the church like many of her millennial peers and returning years later.

“We get to eat, drink beer and talk theology. You can’t beat that,” said Gary Cotton, who’s been going to First Presbyterian for three years.

Theopubs aren’t new. St. Anne’s Episcopal Church has theopubs at Amnesia Brewing in Washougal on the third Thursday of every month. For First Presbyterian Rev. Josh Rowley, it’s a chance to get the church out of its building and into the community — and possibly attract new members.

“The church is a vehicle to bring about the Kingdom of God,” Rowley said. “We often think church, building, but it’s actually people. … We are the church.”

Those who gathered around the conjoined metal tables, noshing on quesadillas and margaritas from Woody’s Tacos, were relatively representative of the church’s congregation: some young adults, some middle-aged people and many retirees.

Declining religiosity

It’s people, or the lack of them, that is at the heart of the problem many churches face these days. Around the country, people are less churched than they used to be, and declining religiosity is particularly pronounced in the West. In the region, Washington has the greatest percentage of people who say they are not affiliated with any specific religion, 32 percent. These people are known as “religious nones.”

This growing group of Americans is predominantly driven by the younger millennial generation, according to Pew Research Center. An estimated 27 percent of millennials say they attend religious services weekly, compared with 51 percent of adults in the silent generation, born between 1928 and 1945. Those older, more devout churchgoers are dying and being replaced by people far less attached to organized religion.

Rowley officiated most of the memorial services for 22 members and friends of the church who have died in the past year. In its glory days in the 1970s, First Presbyterian had about 1,000 members. Today, it has about 300.

The typical church starts to decline about 40 years after its creation, said Rowley, citing the book “The American Church in Crisis” by David Olson. First Presbyterian is a sprightly 134-year-old church, having been around since 1882. Back in the day, Sunday laws, also known as “blue laws,” prohibited certain activities on the Sabbath, which led to more people making a habit of going to Sunday services. The very first Vancouver ordinance ordered that businesses were to be closed Sundays, though meat markets might remain open till 9 a.m., according to the Clark County Historical Museum.

“That helped churches in terms of their numbers, but it didn’t help in terms of faithfulness,” Rowley said.

Although First Presbyterian’s congregation is smaller than it used to be, those who comprise it are devout, engaged people who truly want to be there, he said.

He adds that it’ll be interesting to see where Clark County’s newer churches and mega churches are at when they reach age 40. Will they have to reinvent themselves? What will Clark County’s religious landscape look like 40 years from now?

‘Nones’

Newcomers to First Presbyterian are more likely to be dechurched than unchurched. That means, like Evans, they’ve left the church for whatever reason and later decide to return, perhaps changing churches or denominations in the process. That means local churches have to figure out ways to invite people to return.

“Church needs to make space for religious nones,” Rowley said.

The question, though, is how to do it. Encouraging dialogue, as opposed to talking at people, is a good step. Religious nones will have questions, doubts and concerns that need to be voiced, he said.

What Washingtonians Say, Believe

77%

of Washingtonians say they are at least fairly certain that God exists.

— — —

44%

of Washingtonians say religion is very important in their life.

— — —

People in Washington are more likely to meditate

(51%)

than pray

(36%)

at least once a week.

— — —

The majority of Washington residents say they believe in heaven

(60%)

and most of them feel spiritual peace and wellbeing at least once a week

(55%)

— — —

49%

of Washingtonians say they feel wonder about the universe.

— — —

42%

of Washington residents say the holy scripture is not the word of God.

Source: Pew Research Center

“Blind acceptance is not faith,” said Emily Richards, who’s been attending First Presbyterian since the fall. “We can damage people’s faith by telling them questioning is a problem.”

That’s why it’s called faith, after all. People may wonder ‘is God real?’ In Washington, 55 percent of people reported that they are absolutely certain of God’s existence. And more people believe in heaven than hell. Some people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

This year, Rowley did a sermon series called “Keep Scripture Weird” — a spin-off of the “Keep Portland Weird” slogan — that acknowledged the many biblical passages that are weird or obscure. These are passages that pastors and longtime churchgoers may avoid because they’re difficult. But wrestling with them together, having a dialogue and being co-learners is what church is about, Rowley said.

Yet, accommodating people who are at different places in their religious journey makes teaching at the pulpit more difficult these days, Rowley said.

“You can’t assume you’re all starting in the same place,” he said.

“Keep Scripture Weird” was also about being more creative, because churches can’t afford to be boring, Rowley said. His strategy is not to be too flashy; there are no laser-light shows or rock concerts at First Presbyterian (although one might catch jazz artists on a given Sunday). But it’s not stuck in the past, either. Maybe a pop song will be played during a service, but it’s tied back to scripture.

“We believe that God is creative. Creativity, then, is godly,” he said,

Appealing only to millennials isn’t a sustainable strategy, he said, because every generation ages and eventually dies.

“God wants us to be an example of a multigenerational community,” Rowley said. “A church is people, so if you don’t have any people, you don’t have a church.”

Hospitality

When the Rev. Jaime Case came to Vancouver’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 2011, he inherited an office with a long L-shaped desk. Frustrated with how one side of the desk separated him from whomever came to talk with him, he one day took a saw and simply lopped that side off.

Case’s focus, and a word he uses often while talking about the church, is “hospitality.” If the church isn’t welcoming, people won’t come.

Hospitality can take different forms. It can be redoing the wheelchair ramp, installing a lift and remodeling the bathrooms to make them more ADA-accessible — an effort dubbed the “hospitality project.” Or it could be widening the entryway into the sanctuary, providing more space for mingling before and after services.

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“Neglect in older churches is one of the most embarrassing things,” Case said, adding that a crumbling church building will zap the energy of the congregation.

St. Luke’s has been at its current site since 1932, having been incorporated as a parish in 1868. When Case inherited St. Luke’s, there was a lot of work to be done, both to the building and to liven the congregation.

The congregation has been growing since 2012, though Case wouldn’t describe it as a large church. Sunday sees about 240 people.

“God gives the growth if it’s appropriate,” Case said.

To improve hospitality, which in turn increased attendance, Case beefed up the Sunday Spanish service. Previously, the service was small and involved clergy who weren’t bilingual. Case, who is multilingual, is also working to bring the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking communities together through occasional bilingual services. Race relations are woven into his sermons.

Earlier this month, the church launched a Christian-based diversity training series with curriculum that emphasizes understanding and being self aware of cultural differences.

Charity

Case came from Texas, where many people feel obligated to go to church. In the Northwest, there’s a more virulent anti-church sentiment, Case said, but also in the West, people are more action-oriented. They want to get involved, make a difference and be a part of something greater.

Years ago for St. Luke’s, that meant writing a check to a charity. These days, it means opening the doors to people who need help through a staffed clothing closet, food pantry and free clinic. Not only are the needy better served when you get to know them, but the church members who are serving them feel they have a greater stake in the church through these living ministries. They’re “good-intentioned, loving people doing the best they can,” Case said.

“People don’t pay attention to how much the church is contributing to society all the time,” Case said. “It’s important not to forget what we’re up to.”

Among the religiously unaffiliated, there’s tension between religion’s perceived good and perceived bad, a sort of love-hate relationship. Most people love churches’ good works, as well as their ability to bring people together, strengthen communities and protect morality, according to Pew Research. But a large number of religious nones say that churches are too concerned with money and power, too involved in politics and too focused on rules. The politicization can turn people away.

As a result, there has been a drive to be more open and thoughtful. In a church, millennials value community over privacy.

When St. Luke’s talked about same-sex weddings, Case urged the vestry not to jump to conclusions. After a long discussion, the marriage policy was rewritten to include same-sex marriages.

Case said he plans to retire in about eight years. Before that happens, he he would like to see the congregation stay at more than 200 people, though numbers aren’t the main thing, he said. It’s about not being complacent in what the church does and is.

“I think that the church is going to be fine,” Case said.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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