Traditionally referred to as “mainline,” many traditional, Protestant churches including Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist are under great stress. Some older Catholic congregations are struggling, too. Many of these congregations are aging, with a startlingly high percentage of members (and pledgers) over 80 years old. Some have already closed their doors. More will soon join them, if trends do not change. This would be a terrible loss to our interconnected cultures of faith, community, and politics.
Many unique, elaborate, and historic buildings in our cities and towns house either mainline, or older Catholic congregations. The buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to re-purpose. Occasionally, a church building gains new life after being sold to a new congregation. Even so, many of Kansas’ most treasured historic buildings are endangered. Their loss would leave both literal and figurative holes in our communities, affecting all those local groups who meet there during the week, like Alcoholics Anonymous. Many are also used as polling places.
Even more devastating will be the loss to our faith culture. These churches represent the “moderates” extolled to get off the fence and support the Civil Rights movement in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail — a poignant reminder that the struggle for civil rights was faith-based and church-organized. Their moderating influence was much like political parties, back when effective leaders played a pivotal role in transforming some of the more extreme (and rash) impulses of supporters into sustainable political programs. Both parties today have thrown aside many of these old fuddy-duddies—the hated “establishment”—instead becoming captive to a small groups in their respective activist bases, who hate the other party and communicate via social media. Disgusted, most others withdraw from politics entirely.
We see this polarity in the faith community, too. Too many Americans now believe that one must either be a fundamentalist, or a “none,” the latter being the trendy new term meaning, secular. It does not have to be this way.
In their book, For the Common Good, Ed O’Malley David Chrislip relay the story of Pastor Lance Carrithers. Upon becoming pastor at First United Methodist Church of Dodge City, Carrithers noticed that in a town with a well-established and growing Hispanic population, First United Methodist’s congregation was nearly all-white, and older. The church had no plan to grow. Furthermore, there was a good deal of racism toward the Hispanic community.
Carrithers began reaching out to the Hispanic population, first by stressing faith-based messages of love and inclusion in sermons. Later, a predominantly Hispanic congregation began renting space from First United Methodist. When their own pastor moved on, they joined the regular services, led by Carrithers. Technical changes included hiring a Spanish-speaking coordinator and creating a soccer field.
Adaptive changes were harder. Carrithers set the tone early, stressing a faith-driven message of inclusivity. He also delivered straight talk during sermons. He spoke of how the church could do great new things if they embraced change — and how they would wither away otherwise. He called upon congregants to take their faith mission seriously and not be a “country club church.”
Reaction was mixed. Some longtime congregants left. Others accused the new members of being in the country illegally. Carrithers responsed that churches are for inclusion, faith, and community, not checking documents. It was painful—but rewarding, as growth and diversity came.
The experiences in Dodge City point the way to a different path — and new hope — for this state’s struggling, and still desperately-needed, mainline congregations.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.