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With Ardmore's First Baptist Closing, Other Places of Worship Consider Their Fate

Area religious leaders reflect on declining attendance and their place in a changing culture.

If you are a churchgoer, you no doubt saw the size of the congregation swell over the holidays. Families gathered at synagogue for Hanukkah, scores of children in their best clothes at Christmas Mass. Adults, with the spirit of the holidays in their hearts, placing an envelope with a check inside into a wicker basket.

Maybe you wished the throngs could be near that size all the time.

If they were, perhaps worship houses like  would not be meeting an increasingly common and quiet sort of 21st century fate: closure.

Owing to a shortage of congregants and a host of consequent financial problems, the church has only about $60,000 in the bank and some $3,000 in monthly expenses against $1,000 in revenues, according to a recent article in Philly.com. It draws just 15 attendees per service.

The result is that the 115-year-old church reluctantly plunked down a for-sale sign on its front yard in June.

With religious observation falling nationwide, the question surrounding Ardmore's many other churches is an understandable one: Who's next?

While the area churches Patch surveyed all said they're at sustainable member levels, they understand full well that they're not exempt from demographic shifts that felled First Baptist.

Father Ryan Whitley, Pastor of , said that while his church faces plenty of challenges, it is in no immediate danger.

"We have 120 people in the pews on Sunday between two services," said Whitley, who acknowledged this number represents a marked decrease for the almost 80-year-old church.

He called declining attendance at Christian churches "a national challenge" and pointed to a loss of cultural homogeneity as a driver of it.

"If you look at the statistics, going back 50 or 100 years ago, the USA could be called a Christian nation—meaning Christianity was the majority religion. We've moved from that realm into a realm where we are a religiously diverse nation. We're a religiously plural nation."

Whitley said the challenge for Christian pastors isn't to buck these trends, but to work within them.

"Twenty years ago, people who identified as church attenders went every week. Now they go once a month."

He said the two hallmarks of modern, successful, churches are authenticity and innovation. As an example of both, Whitley cited a church that, rather than wait for members to come to them, went to a crowded subway station to hold an Ash Wednesday service.

But even if all churches operated so intelligently, the reverend conceded that contraction might still be inevitable: the market may just be oversaturated.

"It's possible there are just too many churches," he shrugged. "It's a model from a time when people walked to church, which obviously doesn't hold true anymore."

At the , Father Dennis Lloyd said total Sunday service attendance has declined slightly: from about 75 attendees 10 years ago to 60 today. Considered against national trends, Lloyd said he's pleased with the turnout.

"If you look at the studies," he said, "people are still saying they believe in God, but that they are less and less willing to attend organized religion."

Lloyd added that even among regular church-goers, frequency of attendance has dipped.

"Twenty years ago, people who identified as church attenders went every week," he said. "Now they go once a month."

"That is a major cultural shift."

Lloyd opined that some of this is the fault of the churches themselves. Rather than focus on good deeds, charity, and ministry, they've become inbent.

"We're, in general, a lot more focused on institution issues, institutional purity, and that's a turn-off to people. The more we focus on that at the expense of, for example, the poor, the more people we lose."

At , Pastor James Hodsden said the congregation has been halved in the last 50 years. He was optimistic though, in December when he spoke with Patch.

"As we head towards Christmas, a lot of folks are coming back to church—reconnecting with their heritage and past—and so we have an opportunity to reengage them," he said, adding he plans to take advantage by sharing opportunities to get involved.

"Going back 50 or 100 years ago, the USA could be called a Christian nation ... We've moved from that ... [Now] we're a religiously plural nation."

Hodsden, like Whitley, believes authenticity will be a key going forward, but also added that hypocrisy, or rather a way of thoughtfully addressing it, is just as important.

For any religious institution to work, he said, at its most basic level requires imperfect people consider the lofty moral advice given to them by other imperfect people. This is increasingly difficult for modern minds.

"That hypocrisy pushes people away," he said. "And people wonder, 'how can I be faithful but actually live this out?'"

At the  in Wynnewood, Rabbi Ethan Franzel said participation hasn't wained at all in recent years, but he was careful to qualify their success.

"In the liberal Jewish world, it's very different from the mainstream Protestant world, where, from what I understand, an expression of being a member of the church is coming to services on a Sunday," said Franzel. "Whereas in a synagogue ... people have a wide variety of ways to express their membership."

Of MLRT's 1,100 families and some 3,000 members, Franzel said a typical Friday night service will draw 200 to 300. "In the liberal Jewish community, we never saw huge percentages of our membership coming to worship," he added. 

They do have large numbers of members involved in other aspects of the temple, he said, listing, for example, a monthly speaker series for older congregants, a joint parenting series they and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian host, numerous Bible studies, and social action work with the Jewish Relief Agency.

"Lots of things like that are happening at the synagogue, frankly all the time. Rarely do you see the parking lot at this place empty."

Franzel admitted that his synagogue, and others in the liberal Jewish tradition, make less stringent belief requirements of their members. This may explain their resilience in a time widely viewed as inhospitable to organized religion.

"Judaism itself is based on the concept of deed having pride of place over creed. Although beliefs obviously are an important part of any religious tradition, the Jewish tradition so much more emphasizes what you do as the emphasis of how one expresses oneself religiously," Franzel explained.

"We just present opportunities that we think matter," he added. "And people choose what resonates with them."

Lucas January 06, 2012 at 02:19 PM
In the midst of all this change, the faith of those that are attending must be strong indeed. Perhaps that is another story worth reporting.
Evelyn Yaari January 10, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Thanks for this superb article of a topic not often tackled in journalism. Is it that there is no need for these institutions (I doubt it), or is there a misunderstanding in the institutions about what the need is? What I mean is, if churches attended more to social needs in the context of the religious mission, would they find more engagement with the community? Seems there would be a need for support and guidance in social matters and faith, especially in this time of economic crisis.
Jan A ten Boom February 29, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Why is it scary to have 15 different churches in a community? It is a demonstration of the freedoms we have in this country to express our religious views in a diverse manner. This country was founded by people seeking religious freedom. How can you say that religion is as large as the government? I wish that were true! If it was maybe we wouldn't have all of this killing, hatred and injustice. It would not be a bad thing for religion to permeate our society as much as the government at all levels does now. Would you rather have more government or more religion? It is more than apparent that the government alone can not solve all of society's problems. Having less churches and other places of worship therefore would only lead to an increase of our problems. We need less secularization and more expressions of people's faiths in their everyday lives, to live their faiths, to "just do it".
Jan A ten Boom February 29, 2012 at 04:56 PM
I agree, for a lot of people, "religion" is a habit. Going to worship every week and doing "good" works can be an end in itself, and not a true expression of the faith that they supposedly have, and that is not good. Mankind has corrupted "religion" since the beginning of time. Millions of people have been killed and persecuted in its name. Even in the early years of this country these acts took place, I agree. True worship and true faith means knowing what you believe and putting it into practice. The ideas and ideals of democratic government have similarly been hijacked by those wanting to further their own ambitions, power, etc. Man is imperfect, and anything we touch becomes imperfect, including religion. Only God is perfect. Nevertheless, even if only a very tiny minority of people are true to their faiths and to the ideals of democratic government, society can be a better place.
tinjay July 20, 2012 at 07:21 PM
The church is not using the biblical teachings anymore. Acts 2 and other parts of Acts teaches you how to setup and grow churches using the five fold ministry principle. Hear is a book link to help you, but it demands a paradigm shift in the minds of such pastors before a change can be made; http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/growing-your-church-from-within-seyi-oladimeji/1104427307

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