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America is Losing Faith: Church Attendance Hangs in the Balance

by Katrina Spencer

Former Vinegar Hill Magazine editor and content manager Katrina L. Spencer has completed her first year in pursuit of a master’s degree in journalism and media at the University of Texas at Austin. There her coursework has led her to carry out local reporting, photography and data visualizations. She finds herself interested in “countercultural, generational trends,” one of which you can see here in a story that highlights two Austin churches and has overarching implications for the United States’ religious identity.

“Forsake not the assembling of ourselves” is a biblical command that encourages Christians to gather with one another. Richard and Jan Moore, 70 and 74, do just that. 

Every Sunday, they make the 64-mile round trip drive from Taylor to attend three services at the Church of Christ in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, making Sunday fellowship a full day’s effort.

“I was raised in the Church of Christ, so I’ve known nothing else my entire life,” Richard Moore said.

But on Easter Sunday, only 33 people gathered in the worship space, which can seat about 300.

Meanwhile, across Interstate 35 in East Austin, open parking spaces were hard to find that day at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Those who arrived late were held at bay by suited ushers in the foyer as a youth group of uniformed praise dancers participated in a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. On stage were 30 choir members dressed in bright pastels and about 300 people seated in the pews.

“We do need more space,” said Doris Fresch, 79, expressing a desire for a reserved section for older people. She has been a member of Mt. Zion for 59 years.

Long-time Mt. Zion Baptist Church members Doris Fresch, left, and Mary Ann Barnett chat, seated before a panel that records the church’s history in East Austin on March 28, 2024. The church was founded in 1873, making it over 150 years old. In 2024, Fresch and Barnett will have been members of Mt. Zion for 60 years. Photo credit: Katrina L. Spencer

The two churches — one largely white, the other largely Black — demonstrate the uneven realities of Austin’s Protestant Christian congregations during a time when most Americans have stopped going to church. COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated the decline in churchgoing and, when institutions reopened, many people simply didn’t return. It’s created an unpredictable landscape that churches are navigating.

“No one knows what the church of the future will look like,” said Sarah Gaventa, dean of students at Austin Theological Seminary. Gaventa has witnessed foundational change in curricular approaches used to prepare leaders for work within the body of Christendom.

About 70% of Americans belonged to a church in 2000, but fewer than 50% did so 20 years later, according to a Gallup report.

Youth pastor Reverend Brandon Wooley, right, distributes candy to the young people he serves in youth church at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2024. In addition to his pastoral role, Wooley is pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo credit: Katrina L. Spencer

Jim Davis and Michael Graham wrote in the opening lines of their book “The Great Dechurching” that this transition is “the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshipers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all.” 

Fifty-six percent of Gallup poll respondents reported that they seldom or never attend religious services at church, synagogue, mosque or temple, which may point toward a broadening secularization of society in the United States. 

Twenty-eight percent of adults in the U.S. are religiously unaffiliated, according to 2023 Pew Research, and have come to be known as “nones,” or people who respond with “none” when asked about their religion. This number was only about 16% in 2007.

The discourse documenting the change isn’t happening solely within the church. Sarah McCammon, National Public Radio correspondent and author of “The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church,” said it’s getting harder for the American public to hold onto ideas that separate us. 

Her work examines some of the sociological tensions encountered by children of the 1980s whose Christian upbringings clash with their 21st century values. 

“People born into evangelical families during that era have reached adulthood at a time when the country is more diverse than ever,” she wrote in her book. 

Some of the teachings evangelicals were exposed to in church contend with the lives they now want to lead. Countless Christians are going through a process of “deconstruction,” she wrote, a process that leads them to critically examine what they believe and at times tolerate dissonance or philosophical frictions.

“Many exvangelicals report feeling relief after giving up the struggle to affirm doctrines that violate their deepest intuitions about morality,” she wrote. 

Ron Bell, the 70-year-old pastor at the Church of Christ in Hyde Park, recalled that in his younger days people would ask each other which church they attended, not whether they attended at all.

Minister Ron Bell, right, and Richard Moore, “jack of all trades” to the church, discuss the upcoming Sunday’s sermon on May 1, 2024. Minister Bell said that the book “The Great Dechurching” by Jim Davis and Micahel Graham made good points in recognizing how churchgoers developed new habits for Sundays during the pandemic and have not made their way back to in-person church meetings. Photo credit: Katrina L. Spencer

“I’m at a loss as to how you could turn that around,” he said.

At Hyde Park’s Church of Christ, there’s no undercurrent of dissatisfaction, no cliques and no division, he said. However, “money-wise, we’re really kind of tight,” he said, stating that limited membership can only support so much church activity and maintenance. 

After COVID, “we barely were lucky if we hit 50” attendees.

Having held his position for 14 years, Bell is clear-eyed, even frank, about what is before him. He rents out spaces within his church to groups that do homeschooling and practice theater as an additional revenue stream.

He describes the church as a “donut church,” no longer drawing people from its immediate neighborhood but relying on people like the Moores to make the commute from Austin’s suburbs.

Mt. Zion’s youth pastor, the Rev. Brandon Wooley, attributed some of Mt. Zion’s success to its deep footprint within the East Austin community. 

“If a lot of churches move from the mindset of trying to get members and starting to create disciples across the world, I think more ministry can be done,” he said. “We have to go out into the community. I believe Mount Zion has been doing that.”

Mt. Zion’s senior pastor, the Rev. Daryl Horton, has been in his current role only since June 2021 but has already steered Mt. Zion through major change, weathering the literal storm known as Icemageddon 2021 and the ensuing building renovation following flooding.

“Up until the pandemic, we did no livestream. We had no Facebook,” he said. “We had to learn how to adapt within a week’s time. The pandemic actually pushed us into a place of using technology in a way that we never have before.” 

The church’s health, Horton said, is due to many factors including its reputation, partnerships and collaborations. Mt. Zion, for example, has paired with the University of Texas’ School of Nursing to secure a grant to support African American mental health and wellness. The church’s criminal justice ministry performs outreach to incarcerated people, focusing on their re-entry into the local community. Also, the church’s tradition of food giveaways at major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas remains intact.

“I think it goes without saying that you have to have a healthy financial commitment from the membership, because it’s hard to do things if you can’t keep the lights on,” Horton said.

Like Bell, Horton, too, is circumspect about change in the community. 

“It’s no longer Black and brown people who predominantly live here. And so there becomes an opportunity to try to figure out, ‘How does Mount Zion maintain her identity? How does Mount Zion maintain her purpose and her vision, knowing that the members no longer live across the street?’” he asked. 

While many areas in East Austin are historically Black, gentrification has introduced residents who aren’t. Horton aims to create a welcoming environment for people of a variety of backgrounds.

“They need Jesus just like everybody else,” he said.

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