Nebraska's rural churches struggle to adapt to changing times

St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Gilead, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Alvina Krueger, 90, has been a member of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Gilead, Neb. for her entire life. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Julian United Methodist Church in Julian, Neb., is slowly fading away. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
An average of 10 to 15 people attend Julian United Methodist Church in Julian, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The piano at Julian United Methodist Church in Julian, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The altar at Julian United Methodist Church in Julian, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Julian United Methodist Church in Julian, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The former Evangelical United Brethren church in Julian, Neb. is just one of many abandoned churches in rural Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Grass and weeds have overgrown the sidewalk outside of the former Evangelical United Brethren church in Julian, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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July 17, 2013 - 6:30am

As rural churches in Nebraska face diminishing populations and struggle to attract young people, the future is uncertain.

The United Methodist church in the town of Julian in southeast Nebraska is dying. Only 14 people came to church last week; the average age of congregants is about 65 years old. In five to ten years, Pastor Sandy Streit said, the church won’t be here.

So many churches are closing, all across Nebraska,” she said.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

St. Paul's Lutheran Church in its second incarnation



The members of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Gilead, Neb. already know what it's like to lose a church; their original building, located 2.5 miles south of town, was destroyed in a tornado in 1996. 

"I went to church here all my life," said congregant Charlotte Heller. "And it (felt like) next to losing an immediate member of the family."

Courtesy photo

In response to the destruction, the owner of the church building that formerly housed a Catholic congregation offered to sell it to the St. Paul's congregation. Slowly but surely, the pieces came together.

Take, for example, the pews. The then-pastor for St. Paul's said sometimes, notices of pews for sale were posted in church magazines. 

"They called a place that was in there (with pews for sale), and the next day, they were going to burn those pews because no one had inquired about them," said congregant Marjure Coordsen. "And they just fit our church perfectly."

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

The pews at St. Paul's Lutheran Church

Streit, who also ministers and plays piano for small churches in Nemaha and Brownville, said her church wouldn’t be the first to close in Julian, a town of about 50 people. Just one block to the south and across the street, the former Evangelical church stands empty, a shell of a building: windows boarded up, vines overtaking the porch and the sidewalk, cracks in the window frames filled with the corpses of ladybugs, bees and lightning bugs that were trapped inside when the doors closed for good.

“That’s why I smile, every time, when I get another year (at Julian United Methodist),” Streit said wistfully.

Concern for the future

According to a recent Nebraska Rural Poll conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, at least one-third of those living in or near communities of fewer than 1,000 people say they’re concerned their church may need to consolidate … or close.

Why the concern? After all, that same poll also found that seventy-five percent of rural Nebraskans are members of a church; more than half attend church services at least once a month.

But broadly speaking, Nebraskans are less religious than they used to be.

Back in 1990, only seven percent of Nebraskans considered themselves atheist or agnostic, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey. Two decades later, that number had jumped to 17 percent. Nationally, about one-fifth of the country – and a third of adults under age 30 – were religiously unaffiliated as of 2012, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Two-thirds of the American public said religion is losing its influence in Americans’ lives.

The lack of young worshippers

Marjure Coordsen has seen some of these changes play out firsthand. She attends St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Gilead, a town of about 40 located in south-central Nebraska near the Kansas border. Very few young people attend St. Paul’s these days, she said.

“There’s one church in Fairbury, too – there’s no young people in it,” she said, sitting in the fellowship hall of the white, stained-glass windowed and steepled church. “Whether they actually belong and just aren’t there, I don’t know, but I visited there several Sundays … and there’s no kids in church. Period.”

St. Paul’s has about 5 or 6 teens in its youth group program; another six kids form the children’s choir. Clergy and worshippers I spoke with blamed not only disinterest or young people moving away, but also the plethora of activities that are scheduled on the weekends, like kids’ sports tournaments.

The UNL poll found that lack of young people in rural churches is a statewide issue: About 60 percent of rural persons age 65 and older attend church weekly or more often, compared to only 23 percent of rural persons aged 19 to 29.

“Over the next 15 or 20 years, a lot of these tiny little churches are probably going to close down, just because people are no longer living in these smaller towns,” said Stephen Lahey, an associate professor of classics and religious studies at UNL and an Episcopal priest who ministers in Lincoln and nearby Crete.

Smaller and smaller congregations mean less money for things like general upkeep, heating and cooling, and attracting – and keeping - clergy.

Strategies of sharing

Streit with the Julian church sought certification as a lay minister when the church found itself unable to pay the salary of a full-time pastor.

Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Amidst the talk of faltering church attendance in Nebraska - and the United States - there's often mention made of the contributions growing numbers of Latino Catholics make to the Catholic church. But despite immigration, Nebraska's Catholic population fell from 29 percent of the state in 1990 to 22 percent in 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. And the longer a Latino man or Latina woman lives in the U.S., the less likely he or she is to remain Catholic. 

Additionally, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the share of all Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week has dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012.

For established Catholic churches in Nebraska who reach out to Hispanic populations, integration can be tricky.

"Churches who host (Hispanic congregants) don’t have a lot of mixing between Anglo and Hispanic. members," said Father Julius Tvrdy, a Catholic priest in Harvard, Neb. who has performed mass in Spanish for years. "Often, they're like two separate churches. There's not a lot of co-mingling yet ... I think that’s a challenge for us for the next 10, 20 years: How do we bring those two communities together?"

But the contributions Latinos can make to aging Catholic congregations in Nebraska are clear, said Father Thomas Dunavan, a priest at St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Tecumseh, Neb. who administers Mass in both English and Spanish. For one, the Latino families tend to be younger and tend to have more children.

"They bring a vitality to the church," he said. "If we wouldn't have the Hispanic community here, our parish would be, instead of 190 families, it would be 140, at best. And probably forty of those would  be widows or widowers. And then a bunch of them would be older people, too. Your number of younger people in a smaller area tends to pretty small." 

"The Spanish Mass provides, I think, a very important part of what happens here in Tecumseh," he added. "It makes the priest's life a little busier, but the value of having the liturgy in the native tongue is a real gift."

“I stepped in and I said, ‘Can I help?’”

Streit can do pretty much everything a “normal” pastor could, except for baptisms and blessing the sacrament for communion. She said she can perform weddings and funerals, however.

And rural churches are no strangers to clergy who are just getting their feet wet.

“I think our biggest challenge is getting a pastor,” said Coordsen with the Gilead church. “We’ve had 17 pastors that were student pastors, first-year pastors …”

They now share a pastor with a neighboring church, which is a common strategy, UNL professor Lahey said. He compared it to the pioneer days, when priests travelled by horseback and visited seven or eight different churches in one day.

“That’s a reality again.”

While some churches are forced to share clergy, others share space. The Methodist church in Julian, for example, shared its building with a Mennonite congregation for several years, and the Episcopal church in Crete where Lahey preaches shares its space with an evangelical Hispanic congregation.

St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Tecumseh has also reached out to the Hispanic population, though in a different way: it offers mass in both English and Spanish.

These days, most of the children who attend the church’s youth programs are Hispanic, said Father Thomas Dunavan, adding that the Latino congregants have brought new life to St. Andrew’s.

“I had 85 Hispanics at my Spanish mass, and I got to thinking, ‘If I wouldn’t have a Spanish mass, I probably wouldn’t have hardly any of these people here.’”

What does the future look like?

UNL professor Lahey viewed the challenging situation for rural churches more optimistically than perhaps most:

“It’s an opportunity for change, and an opportunity for growth,” he said. “Christianity is at its most powerful when it is given a challenge, and the way that our culture is changing right now, Christianity is receiving a remarkable challenge. It can no longer expect to be the default religion. And so it has to freshen up. And I think that’s a good thing.”

However, he acknowledged that many small-town churches are resistant to the kinds of changes that might be necessary for survival, such as reexamining positions on same-sex marriages, gay clergy or, for some denominations, married clergy.

“Those churches have operated in a particular way for 60, 70, 80, even 100 years, and the idea of them having somebody come and say, ‘No, we’re going to do it this way,’ that does not work.”

Streit, the minister in Julian, agreed.

“I don’t think (major changes) will ever happen, because everyone has their own church. For the older people, that’s it, you know?” she said. “I play about the same songs all the time because they don’t like new songs: ‘We’ve never done it that way.’”

But churches who can’t think outside the box will not stay alive into the 21st century, Lahey said; when asked what kind of impact that could have, he responded, “It will just be a completely new face of things.”

Despite the challenges, many rural Nebraskans remain hopeful when it comes to the future of their churches. And as one parishioner from Gilead put it, she likes to think that all the young people who’ve left the area are simply spreading their hometown church’s mission across the country.



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