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Church attendance declining -- but not for those with more dynamic approaches
The First Baptist Church of Union Park and the First Baptist Oviedo are located only 14 minutes apart, but they represent two extremes of a recent study that shows both widespread decline among American churches and instances of astonishing growth and vitality.
Many tradition-bound churches are struggling to attract new members and pay their bills, while a smaller group of churches has discovered prosperity by embracing change and attracting younger members.
"The old way of doing things doesn't work for many groups," said David A. Roozen, professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, which conducted the survey.
The survey found that less than 20 percent of the churches said they were in good financial health in 2008 -- down from 31 percent in 2000. Just 48 percent of the churches reported even modest growth in 2008, compared to 58 percent in 2005.
The Faith Communities Today 2008 survey of primarily Christian congregations found the decline was universal: mainstream Protestant, evangelical Protestant and Catholic. The study concludes that the picture of American churches is a story of persistent and broad-based decline, but also the story of pockets of vitality.
It is the story of two Baptist churches: Union Park and Oviedo.
Union Park Baptist was formed in 1954 and seven years ago had an average Sunday attendance of 300. Today, the church in east Orange County gets half that many. Its congregation is predominantly middle aged and older.
Danny Watson grew up in the church and remembers in the late 1980s when there were 500 people at Sunday worship, and the congregation funded a new education wing and multi-purpose building. Now, he said, they have to scrape by every week to pay the electric bill.
"Our church has been in tight spots before and we got through them. This is the first time something of this [magnitude] has come upon us," said Watson, 53, who works in construction.
The declining membership, along with the faltering economy, have placed the church in a financial bind.
"We are going to die," said Pastor Coleman Pratt, the church's minister for the past 15 years. "We need to rethink the church in today"s culture, today's time. We're still doing church like we've always done it."
This past Sunday, Pratt held the second in what will be 13 weeks of discussions with his congregation on the future of their church. Among the topics was the need for a clear, unifying vision and purpose for the church.
In the Hartford study, a clear vision is one of the hallmarks of the churches that are thriving. Other characteristics that produced growth were: clarity of purpose, openness to change, attentiveness to new members and appreciation of volunteers.
"Sometimes the lack of clarity is really the fact they have so many different visions that are competing," Roozen said.
In addressing his members, Pratt cited a Biblical passage that says without a vision, the people perish.
An hour later, in the new, 3,800-seat worship center at First Baptist Oviedo, Pastor Dwayne Mercer cited the same passage. The vision of Oviedo Baptist is clear, Mercer said: "Reach, teach and send people out. We are trying to reach people for Christ. That is what we've always been about."
A unifying vision is the key to the acceptance of change within a church, Mercer said.
"As people grasp the vision, that makes them more open to change. They realize it's not about them. It's about the people we haven't reached for Christ yet," Mercer said.
The Oviedo church, founded in 1870, has undergone tremendous change in recent years. Its membership has increased from 1,300 a decade ago to more than 4,000 today. It added a contemporary worship service with a rock band replacing the choir about four years ago that attracts an under-50 crowd.
Recently, for the first time, the contemporary service at the Seminole County church out-drew the traditional service, Mercer said.
On the same Sunday that Pratt was edging his congregation toward the risky unknown of change, Mercer was promoting his Facebook site and next week's "Bring a Friend Sunday" in which he vowed not to preach about tithing or anything else that might scare the newcomers away. Afterward, there will be T-shirts and pizza.
"You bring a guest, you get a T-shirt, they get a T-shirt, we eat some pizza and I get to meet them," said Mercer, the church's pastor for 16 years.
Pratt says Union Park Baptist has lost members to Oviedo Baptist, but he has no desire to pastor a church of that size. Bigger is not better. Growth in itself is not the objective. Staying vital and vibrant is.
"This rethinking the church is not about us becoming bigger," Pratt said. "It's about us becoming better."