In Central Maine, churches face a very difficult reality. A Central Maine mainline church may have great programming, a wonderful minister, meaningful worship, an enthusiastic Christian Education program, a heavenly choir, and a friendly, welcoming and open congregation. And, yet, a church may still not be able to sustain its membership numbers, let alone grow, and it may not be able to continue its existence into the future—for little, or no, fault of its own.
We can build it, but they still may not come—simply because they don’t live here anymore.
The once mighty industries that fueled the economy of Central Maine and the towns and cities therein—textiles and paper, in particular—are almost non-existent. And the people that worked in those industries, well, they are mostly gone too.
In Augusta, Maine, for instance, the population shrunk significantly between 1980 and 2000. In an especially significant category, one that signals the numbers of families with young children, the population of people under the age of 18 shrunk by 25% in that twenty year span. In nearby Waterville, the population in the same category shrunk by almost as much. Some of those people, and the families to whom they belonged, moved to some of the smaller communities in the area, but not all of them. While the population between 2000 and 2010 has stabilized in the region, the decline in the years between 1980 and 2000 was considerable.
We see the toll of the population decline on schools, hospitals, the small, struggling downtowns, and in the real estate market. Yet, so many churches continue to believe that they are somehow immune to the dynamics of the communities in which they exist.
And, while we fail to engage the numbers, we also don’t really consider the other dynamic altering our communities—they are getting older. In the small city where my church, Old South Congregational United Church of Christ, exists (just south of Augusta), the median age increased from 32, in 1980, to 42, in 2000. Overall, Maine is now the oldest state in the country.
In addition to all of this bad news, there is yet one more big piece of unwelcome news: Maine is the least churched state in the United States. Although there is some debate about this fact (some Oregonians believe that they are the least churched and some Vermonters believe that they “win” this prize), Maine is clearly among the least churched. According to one study, only twenty-seven percent of Maine residents self-identify as Christian.
We can build it, but they may not come. That’s the challenge, and reality, of our churches in Maine.
It’s not that numbers are critically important to who we are, and what our mission is. After all, Jesus never said anything about the church with the most people being the church that he would love best. But, numbers are significant to the bottom line. It is unfortunate that our physical plants don’t magically shrink in tandem with the decline in our attendance numbers. Our smaller congregations are stuck with buildings that are too large and expensive to maintain.
This is the challenge that churches in Central Maine face: what if we build it and they don’t come? And what does that mean for our future? And perhaps the most important question of all: Will we face this unwelcome reality openly and faithfully, or will we simply ignore it and pretend that a brighter day will just somehow happen?
My hope is that we can engage this unwelcome reality, in faith and in hope. It won’t be easy, that’s for sure, but the alternative is to watch churches, one by one, cease to exist. For me, that’s a possibility that is just too awful to contemplate.
Our future is certainly different than our present, but it’s important to remember that that’s always been true. So, where is God calling us to go and how is God speaking to us about who we are and who we will be?
It will better for us to think through and discuss this question, prayerfully—together, as a church—and to ponder anew what it means for us to be the church in this place. May God’s Spirit carry us through and lead us—push us—to new life in the midst of this challenging environment.