Anyone who goes to church in South Dakota is likely already aware of a troubling trend plaguing religious organizations and churches across the state and country: the slow but steady decline in membership and church attendance.
It could be fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer people on the benches, or fewer volunteers on charity outings. This may be a pastor or priest who serves more than one congregation or who holds a temporary position as a substitute. It could also be the closure of a local church or growing concerns about the impending closure.
These are some of the outward signs of what religious leaders and experts say is a dramatic decline in religious affiliation and church attendance that began in the late 20th century, accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and remains a growing concern in the post-pandemic era.
Membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the largest churches in South Dakota, has declined 40% over the past 30 years nationally and dropped nearly 10% in South Dakota over the past decade or so. Attendance at Lutheran churches in South Dakota is down about 14% since 2013, and the ELCA recently closed churches in Newell and Bradley, SD
Catholic and Methodist churches are also experiencing declines.
In the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, which serves all of East River South Dakota, records show that church attendance in 2022 is down 26% from 2010 and membership has also decreases.
The decline in church membership and attendance follows other trends that show Americans turning away from organized religion and many of its tenets. Polls show that among Americans, belief in God is lower than ever; that faith in religion is declining; and that fewer people believe the Bible to be the true word of God and instead see it as a book of fables or legends.
What is perhaps most disturbing to church leaders in America and South Dakota is that in recent surveys, people who are not affiliated with any religion, the so-called “nones” , are the fastest growing segment of the national population, as indicated by Religion, Faith and Belief surveys.
Religious scholars and church leaders say the decline in church membership and attendance is fueled by many factors, most of which are cultural shifts within society as a whole. They include demographic changes that reduce rural populations where churches are a cornerstone; greater political and cultural divisions within modern society that keep people apart; generational changes that have made young people less inclined to join groups; and self-inflicted wounds within organized religion in the form of sexual and financial crimes and scandals.
On a practical level, a decline in church membership and attendance reduces church income and the availability of human capital and thus can weaken a church’s ability to bring people together and accomplish charities and other good deeds that help individuals and a community survive and thrive. It can also eliminate or reduce the effectiveness of a long-used method by which people in cities large and small come together to get to know each other, commune, and form lasting personal relationships that strengthen communities.
On a spiritual level, some church leaders feel they are struggling for the soul of the state, nation and human beings.
Zach Kingery, pastor of two United Methodist churches in southeastern South Dakota, said it’s impossible to overstate the important role churches play in communities and the lives of individuals.
“Each week we close the service and I tell people that they are sent out into the world to share the word of God and be the light of Christ, to be more like Christ, to reach out to others and to help others. people,” he said. said. “Peace, patience, joy, love, goodness, kindness, all the fruits of the spirit; these are meant to be shared with people.
Richard Swanson, professor of religion at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, the decline in interest in religion and church attendance in America could have the long-term effect of making individuals and communities more desensitized to pain and to the suffering of others and less willing to help.
“I wake up believing that in-universe it’s expected that little kids don’t go to bed hungry, or that other basic issues need to be addressed,” he said. “For me, losing a religious community would take away the place where I would learn social responsibility.”
Church leaders in South Dakota are well aware of declining interest in and commitment to churches across the state, and they are taking steps to reverse the trend.
At the national level, the Catholic Church has just launched a three-year effort that will ripple down to the diocesan and parish levels and include a detailed examination of attendance and membership trends while seeking local solutions to increase participation. membership that can be duplicated across the country.
Church leaders of various denominations across the state recognize that they must adapt to cultural shifts occurring outside of the church. While sharing the scriptures and promoting the virtues of Christianity, church leaders say they need to be more welcoming and optimistic, listen more to the needs of individuals and communities, and foster an environment of encouragement and support.
“As the world continues to revolve and change around us, we expect the church to always be the same…well, nowhere in scripture does it say that the church will be the same,” said Constanze Hagmaier, bishop of the ELCA Synod of South Dakota of the Lutheran Church. “If we cannot hear the voices out there and respond in faith, then we are emptying the church on our own; we just help them pack up and get out because we refuse to open up to really listen.
These types of changes, Swanson said, will be essential for the future of churches and organized religion. “Without introspection and honesty, the church has no future,” he said.
The number of Americans who report having no religious affiliation has nearly tripled in the past 20 years. The number of so-called “nones” has risen from 8% in 2001 to 21% in 2021. Poll results also show a decline in belief in the Bible, God, angels, heaven and hell.
About 18% of South Dakotans described themselves as “none” or having no religious affiliation, more than double the percentage of a 2001 survey that showed only 8% of state residents said no religious affiliation.
One of the reasons for the decline of organized religion is the influence of politics within individual congregations, said George Tsakiridis, professor of religion at South Dakota State University.
Strong positions on abortion, sexuality or even the response of governments and individuals to the COVID pandemic, the more political and cultural views permeate the church, the less likely some people will be to attend regularly, Tsakiridis said. .
“You have political overtones within those denominations that then affect people on the pews. It allows people to say, “Hey, I don’t agree with this political stance the church is taking now, so I don’t feel comfortable here anymore,” he said.
Father Scott Traynor takes on a new position with the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls called Vicar for Lay and Clergy Education, which puts him at the center of new efforts to reinvigorate church membership and attendance in the diocese. .
Traynor said the Catholic Church throughout its history has not needed or wanted to be overly evangelical in its approach to attracting new members.
Regarding the sexual abuse scandal and cover-ups that have rocked the global Catholic Church, Traynor said the Church has embarked on a major effort to put safeguards in place that will prevent such abuses at the coming.
“The church has become a very proactive and exemplary leader in creating safeguards for children and vulnerable adults,” Traynor said.
Some religions, including the Catholic and Lutheran churches, are also seeing a decline in the number of new priests and pastors who can lead churches, and the shortage is more acute in rural areas.
This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit online news organization about sdnewswatch.org.