As church attendance in Christian denominations ebbs and flows nationwide and in Walla Walla, the Union-Bulletin examines local trends in a two-day series today and Monday.
WALLA WALLA — The graph the Rev. Birch Rambo holds in his hand tells a story no pastor wants to hear.
The blue bars represent baptized members at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Catherine Street, where Rambo has led the congregation since 2008. Other than a bit of an upward surge in 2004, the numbers have hovered around the 500 mark for nearly a decade.
The red bars showing actual worship attendance, however, are what concern Rambo — and many leaders of mainline churches around the country facing a similar trend.
The graph, dating back to 2002, shows attendance numbers at St. Paul’s have declined slowly but surely over the past decade, from an averaged high of 200 back then to just a tick over 100 people in 2012.
The downward trend affects many functions of churches, including the collection plate. In a recent newsletter to congregants, Rambo, 43, said declining attendance helped contribute to “financial predicament” that put the parish checking account in danger of being overdrawn.
While St. Paul’s has savings to draw on, developing a better annual pledge procedure — sometimes referred to as the “fall begathon,” Rambo said with a smile — and church growth is necessary to prevent the money problem from becoming chronic.
Income from endowments and trust accounts is enough to employ a priest and keep church facilities usable for a while, but a continued decline in financial giving will force staff cuts and St. Paul’s members to make decisions about the kind of church they want.
And those trust funds are meant to be income generators, not slush funds, he said.
“In a world that is changing faster than we can blink, the possibilities for the future of St. Paul’s are endless, terrifying, and exciting. The only thing that is certain is that we cannot go on for long as we have been,” Rambo wrote in his fall newsletter message.
It makes him heartsick for his flock, where the median age is 65, but the Episcopal Church is one of many in the same predicament, he said. “We are in very good company.”
It’s not the lack of money so much as it’s dearth of people in the pews, said the Rev. Steve Woolley, who retired from St. Paul’s pulpit nearly six years ago. For more than four decades, mainline church attendance has been dwindling, across the country and on the whole, accelerating in the past 20 years, he said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of Americans surveyed say they seldom or never attend church, up from 25 percent in 2003.
Even then, how often people say they go to church is not necessarily the same as how often they actually do, Pew authors said in the September report.
“Among the growing share of religiously-unaffiliated adults in the U.S., the vast majority say they are not looking for a religion, and relatively few (5 percent) say they go to services weekly or more often,” the report stated.
Another Pew forum on the decline of institutional religion found the most atrophy among those who identify as Christian, with Catholic and Protestant churches — including white evangelical, white mainline, black Protestant and Mormon — all showing drops or stagnation in growth since 2007.
Meanwhile, people identifying as atheist, agnostic and “nothing in particular” have increased by more than 4 percent.
More men than women and more college graduates than those without degrees claim to have no particular church doctrine, the Pew survey found. The trend holds the same across income levels, with a slight rise in the Northeast part of the country.
And in 2012, 20 percent of white Americans said they are unaffiliated, while 15 percent of black and 16 percent of Hispanic Americans said the same.
Nationally, the Episcopal Church managed to defy the downward trend for a spell, seeing a slight increase in members 10 or 15 years ago, Woolley said.
“Boy, that sure made us happy,” he said. “But it was an accident of circumstances that lasted a couple of years, then we returned to the decline.”
Southern Baptists churches, the largest in membership in the Protestant denomination, are experiencing the most rapid drop, he said.
Numbers released in June by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources showed 105,000 fewer Baptists in 2012 than in 2011, part of a six-year trend as reported by The Associated Press. Evangelical churches — defined by the National Association of Evangelicals as focused on salvation, a belief the Bible is the ultimate authority, and teaching the gospel through missionary and social-reform efforts — thought themselves immune from drops in attendance, Woolley said. “They crowed that it wasn’t happening to them. But it is.”
The Roman Catholic Church thought the same, he said. But, at least among its non-Spanish-speaking members, the ebbing of people at services looks the same as it does everywhere else, he added.
“The question always comes down to, ‘What on Earth is going on?’” Woolley said.
Corporate worship in America boomed after World War II ended, due to increased population, gratitude for having come through the war and fear of nuclear annihilation, Woolley explained. “The churches, golly, they just exploded.”
Now, though, “we’re back to where we were 100 years ago,” he said.
The Eastern Washington and North Idaho Episcopal diocese is made up of 41 congregations.
“Only 10 of those are self-sufficient,” Woolley noted. “Those others are in little towns where the town itself is dying. Omak, Colville, Ritzville ... there’s nobody in those towns.”
The Episcopal Church in Colfax, Wash., for example, sees four people in regular attendance, he said. “Maybe five.”
It’s the same case in Walla Walla as elsewhere, Woolley said. The unaffiliated — “the so called ‘Nones’” — do desire spiritual nourishment but “they don’t believe they can find it in a particular church.”
Today people are stretched thin for time, as well. Weekends offer many forms of entertainment and commitment, he pointed out.
“When my mom and dad went to church, and I went with them, it was what we did. No question about it,” he said. “Your status in the community was judged by that.”
Nowadays, however, church attendance, or even membership, is no longer important to social standing or a career, Woolley said.
The phenomenon trickles down to service clubs, as well.
“The old questions used to be, ‘Are you a Lion, Rotarian or Kiwanis?’ And now that is not essential to your success in your career,” he said. “People are not wanting to commit themselves to the discipline of a membership that requires more of them than they want to give.”
The question for now, for every church, is “What are we becoming?’” Woolley pondered. “Because the model of 1950 is not working. Every time we try to solve it, we come up with the wrong answers.”
Both Woolley and Rambo agree — this is a trend to watch evolve, but not with trepidation.
When he asks himself what the church — on a global scale — will be in the future, Rambo said he gets “all excited” about the possibilities, drawing on his former career as a evolutionary biologist.
“Some of what the church tries will work and some of it won’t,” he said. “It will look very different in 20 or 30 years.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.