Historic New England Churches Face Reality of Closure

     The bell of the South Deerfield Congregational Church in South Deerfield, Mass.) will fall silent at the end of this year. After almost two hundred years of continuous worship, the church has decided to close its doors due to a steady decrease in attendance. Founded in 1818, the South Deerfield Congregational Church decided last April that they would cease ministries at the end of 2016. Jack Cooper, co-moderator of the church, said that this decision came about after “a long, deliberate, prayerful process.” He went on to say, “The way it’s perceived by some people is that this was a failure….But that’s the exact opposite of what happened. This was a faithful response to reality. It was not a failure.” Certainly in the eyes of Cooper the church is not a failure, for it faithfully served its community for almost two centuries.

     South Deerfield Congregational is faced with a problem affecting thousands of churches across the United States, especially in New England: an aging population of regular church attendees with little church growth. In many cases, once church members pass away, they are not replaced. Cooper reflected on this, stating, “We’ve used the expression, ‘We’re four good volunteers away from extinction,’ and that’s what happened. Our situation is a classic, an aging population. You can drive through these towns, and there are closed churches everywhere.” As for the actual church building, its future is in limbo. The state of Massachusetts has regulations on what former churches may be used for, and there are ongoing discussions about what to do with the massive two-story building that stands at the entrance of South Deerfield.

     The First United Methodist Church of Spencer, Mass. also closed this year after 174 years of continuous worship. The pastor of the church, Rev. Nancy Allen, commented on the American cultural shift of the last 50 years. She said that there is a much greater emphasis on the material world and new technologies, which has led to community degradation. She went on to say, “I think as we have grown in our understanding of the world and of ourselves, we’ve become less attached to the things that define who we are, which is our faith in a God who created us.” Many pastors such as Rev. Allen see secularization, consumerist culture and the increasing reliance on science and technology as the reasons for church closures across the country.

     With the closing of multiple historical New England churches, many parishioners have offered visions for the future of church in America. Rev. Don Erickson of the Community Church of North Orange and Tully, near South Deerfield,  argues that as Protestant denominations decline, the church may become more focused on the spirituality that is currently trending among millennials. In his article “Faith Matters: Denominational Death, Church Resurrection,” Erickson writes, “What these two items [trends in atheism and yoga and meditation practices], along with my experience as a minister of a mainline church, tell me is that millennials care less about theology than they do about spiritual practice (e.g., meditation, yoga, centering prayer) and community. A church focused on spiritual practice and community might offer us a model for a new way of being.” Others such as Gracy Olmstead, Associate Editor of The American Conservative, argue that millennials are leaving the mainline denominations in search of a more foundational meaning in life. Olmstead said, “Yet amidst this exodus [of millennials], some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.”

     The examples of South Deerfield Congregational Church and the First United Methodist Church of Spencer point to the reality that hundreds of churches are on the edge of closure in the United States, especially in New England. With these closures, many historic church buildings are now being repurposed, demolished or vacated in hopes of being used again in the near future. Pat Graves, a long time attender of South Deerfield, said upon the announcement of the church closing, “It has had a big impact in our lives, and it certainly will be missed, but things change. The church is not the building.” Regardless of the future of the church, the legacies of these churches will still be felt for generations to come through the effects its members have had in their small communities over the last two centuries.

     Sources: The American Conservative, The Recorder, The Telegram

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