Sorting Out America’s Religious Climate

Riley B. Case on July 11, 2023

For the past 34 years I have been privileged to live in Kokomo, Indiana (pop. 50,000), first as a pastor (St. Luke’s UM Church, now Connexion Church) and then as a retired pastor but still active on the church scene. I offer Kokomo as a case study in seeking to understand the changing religious scene in America. My perspective is as a United Methodist pastor with evangelical convictions.

Indiana was at the heart of what religious historians have called “The Western Revival,” or the Second Great Awakening.” From 1800-1850, church membership grew in America from 10 percent of the population to about 30 percent. During that same time, fed by camp meetings and revivals, Methodist membership increased from 1.2 percent of the American population to 5.4 percent by 1850. Between 1810-1850 when the population of Indiana grew 4,000 percent (from 25,000 to nearly 1 million), Methodism grew 9,000 percent (from 755 to 70,000).

Most of Methodism’s growth was from common people and those on the fringes of society, both black and white. Methodists disdained fashion and ruffles and fancy buildings. In the 1850 federal census report of denomination ranking by local church property values Methodism ranked dead last (sample average values of several groups: Unitarians $18,449; Presbyterian $3,135; Baptist $1,244; Methodist $1,174).  Yet it was estimated that in 1850 one of every 10 Indiana school-age children was enrolled in a Methodist Sunday school.

In the course of time Methodism moved up the respectability scale. Poor farmers accumulated wealth and sent their children to newly founded colleges. Those children came back as teachers and lawyers and community leaders. Methodist churches, often the first organized religious groups in communities, became “First” churches where ministers were often referred to (I get this from reading newspapers from the late 1800s on microfilm) as “esteemed” and “distinguished.” Along the way Methodism shed many of its poor, mostly those associated with revivalism and the Holiness Movement. This includes black Methodists who went from being 20 percent of Methodism’s membership in 1830 to more like 10 percent (and today more like 5 percent).

When I entered the ministry in 1956, there were in Indiana three Methodist conferences and two Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) conferences. My annual conference, North Indiana Methodist, was thriving. We enrolled 3,000 senior high youth and 1,800 junior high youth in church camps each summer. District youth rallies frequently would count 500 in attendance. Our Advance giving for missions was second highest in the denomination. Evangelicals and liberals, small church and large church believers, were in close fellowship. In my first fifteen years of ministry, preachers told stories about the growing attendance in their churches.

This changed after the 1968 restructuring as the result of the Methodist and EUB merger. Unfortunately, the merger and restructuring took place as America was amidst social turmoil. It can be argued that the origins of our country’s present cultural wars trace their origin to the revolt of the New Left in the 1960s. This included the antiwar movement; campus radicalism, Black, Brown and Red power advocacy, feminism and gay liberation. Many Methodist and EUB leaders who put together the structure for the new denomination bought into the cultural shifts. Progressive church groups were already enamored with Death of God, the Secular City, and liberation theology. The restructuring refocused previous emphases from such things as evangelism, missions, youth ministry and the family, to obsession with revolution and social action. The restructuring created super-boards that acted like independent fiefdoms.

Many of us were caught off guard. Those of us who identified as evangelical in theology supported the merger because we believed the more conservative EUBs could help balance Methodism’s liberalism. It didn’t happen. Former EUBs were simply swallowed up. EUBs lost conference grounds and campgrounds. Methodist promises (such as saying the merged church would carry on such EUB traditions—such as the service on Infant Dedication in the Book of Worship) were not honored. EUBs often lost in local church mergers.

Interestingly, while establishment religion was being severely criticized in the 60s and 70s, groups like Pentecostals, the Jesus People, and evangelical parachurch ministries flourished.

What happened to the new United Methodist Church? I refer now to Kokomo. In 1970 (at the time of merger), 12 UM churches in and near Kokomo worshiped with a weekly average of 2,355 persons (an average of about 200 per church). By 1980 there were 11 UM churches worshiping with 1,847 per week.  In 2000 10 churches worshiped with 1,764. In 2010 two Indiana conferences merged. Presumably the larger conference would be more efficient and would offer better resources for ministry. Some argued, however, that the overall effect was negative: a much less personal conference, a growing professional staffed bureaucracy on the conference level, and a de-emphasis on local church and district ministries.

Whatever the reason, by 2017 there were only nine UM churches worshiping with 916 in Kokomo. The Covid 19 pandemic affected attendance figures even more. By 2023 Kokomo is down to seven churches (including both UMC and disaffiliated Methodists) worshiping with perhaps only 500 in total attendance. Of course, the United Methodists are not the only ones who suffered. All of the mainline churches have shown declines.

What then shall we say? Is Christianity in deep trouble in America? There is more to the story and again I refer to my area in Kokomo. Kokomo churches together, progressive and evangelical, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, support any number of effective cooperative ministries. The Kokomo Rescue Mission, for example, where I have been a board member for 30 years, operates with a 3 million dollar budget raised largely from 200 or so supporting churches. It has served free meals to over 100,000 per year and provided 20,000 nights of shelter. It takes no tax dollars so it can be free to operate religious programs. It presently is planning a 6 million dollar expansion. This is only one of a number of community ministries supported by local churches.

But the real story is that of thriving evangelical churches. Several times a week I travel from my home outside of Kokomo on state road 26 into town. I am impressed by the churches that I pass. Starting with the U.S. 30 bypass in a stretch of under five miles, I pass nine Protestant churches (not counting the Roman Catholic Church) that worship with (an estimated) 4,500 persons per week. The first church is the Fairfield Christian Church. I do not know the average attendance, but the church has five buildings and hosts a Christian school. Close by, Abundant Life Ministries is a megachurch erecting a $6 million sanctuary. Their weekly attendance across five services averages 3,000 (750 however, are at another site). Across the road is the Church of God in a fairly new building. Down the road, the Brookside Free Methodist Church averages between 100-200. At the next junction (Rd 931 and Indiana 26), another megachurch, Crossroads (a repurposed Baptist church), meets with an average attendance at several services of 1,000. South Haven Wesleyan and by Bethel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal congregation are in the next mile. At the next junction in a prime location is South Creek Church of God (Anderson), a new church building and an outreach that includes church buses and a radio ministry. Go east a little bit and turn north on Dixon Road and come to Northview Kokomo, a satellite location of Northview Community Church, a megachurch in Carmel (in which 10,000 worshiped on Easter), worships with about 600 per week. Next to Northview stands St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on a 20 acre campus.

All of this is in a stretch of less than five miles. An average worship attendance of 4,500 is more than the total for a whole district in a number of UM conferences. And it is only a portion of a number of other thriving churches in Kokomo.

Where do the people come from who attend these churches? Unfortunately, some are former United Methodist or other mainline church attenders. Often when I met persons I have known as United Methodist (in retirement I have filled in or preached at all of our UM churches) I ask where they are attending church at the present – and they name one of the megachurches.

Some conclusions. There is much talk about the decline of church attendance in America. More Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or religious but not practicing (“nones”). Christianity is under severe criticism, especially evangelical Christianity, often conflated with right-wing politics. At the same time, polls seem to indicate that the number of Christians who identify as “evangelical” is holding steady at between 25-30 percent of America’s population. I personally believe the figure is skewed (I believe it is not that many) because a number of persons are using the “evangelical” label to identify politically and not religiously.

Be that as it may, the decrease of the Christian share of the market comes at the expense of mainline or established Protestantism, which in polls appears to have shrunk from 19 percent of the population 30 years ago to about 14 percent today. Unfortunately, our leaders seem either to be unaware of this or simply close their eyes to the reality of the serious problem we face.

Our nation, more than ever before, needs strong churches. Many of us who live both in the evangelical world and in the mainline world pray for revival.

  1. Comment by David on July 11, 2023 at 7:08 am

    There are several reasons why “first churches” declined. These can often be identified as being on corners rather than the middle of urban blocks. In some parts of the country, they ended up as White churches in Black cities. With the urban unrest of the late 1960s and White flight, they lost their membership base.

    In some cases, church decline was due to ethnic assimilation, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. There, you could find French, German, Polish, Irish, and Italian churches sometimes across the street from each other.

    The decline of classical music hastened changes in worship styles. Many adopted what I call the “Radio City” style with massive buildings and services resembling popular entertainment. Small congregations could not compete with this.

    We must not ignore demographics with some groups producing fewer children than others. Of course, not all children follow their parents’ religious practices. This has resulted in some denominations having higher median ages. We just immerged from a pandemic that was more likely fatal to older persons, who were more likely to attend church.

  2. Comment by Sigmagoose on July 11, 2023 at 8:26 am

    I live in rural NW Ohio, only 2 hours away from Kokomo and the same thing has happened in my area as well. I often say that churches really need to go back and study the dynamics of how the 45 year long Cold War shifted America culture in ways that no one could anticipate. The struggle between a better world and trying to keep the world “as is” took a terrible toll on the Mainline church. As mentioned in the article, probably a 1/3 of the Mainline just attended because it was the patriotic thing to do during the Cold War and they really never adopted Christianity or were religious humanists, 1/3 bought into Christian Nationalism which was reinforced by the Cold War tension with Russia and the last 1/3 were actually people who truly wanted to grow in the faith, struggling to find God thru the chaos. The social upheavals split them all.

    I am talking in broad generalities of course as every congregation has its own story, however, you can see that general pattern in the mainline. It is yet to be seen if we take the time to understand our history and learn how to thrive in spite of it.

  3. Comment by Gary Bebop on July 11, 2023 at 2:02 pm

    Northern Indiana is surely a sample of historic religious fervor and transformation. Methodism tried to ignore the post-war parachurch revival in its heyday. Was that an error of religious snobbery? At that time, Kokomo, Winona Lake, and Elkhart Country was an enchanted district. All of Northern Indiana steamed under a kettle of religious excitement, the atmosphere of romantic ardor. The churches grew readily. But the cultural shakeup of the 60s and 70s went on relentlessly and contributed to the Great Reshuffling. Today’s situation is but a grotesque magnification of that turning point. United Methodism now wears the rainbow colors of aging activism, the drape of the confused enthusiast. Study it carefully, but don’t be gulled to invest in the moribund.

  4. Comment by David Gingrich on July 12, 2023 at 7:31 am

    Good, thoughtful article. Thank you. Clearly, the UMC and other “mainline” bureaucracies left the people in the pews. The people in the pews have now left for more faithful worship.

  5. Comment by Russell on July 12, 2023 at 9:20 pm

    More proof that we are ready and in need, as a society, for the next great revival. History would indicate that we are overdue for one.

  6. Comment by Roger on July 13, 2023 at 4:43 pm

    About 20 years ago now, A Rev. Haynes ( similiar name) wrote an article in the Advocate Paper, just what you have outlined with the EUB merger. He was lamenting about how they had pulled out and returned to their locations before the Merger was done. He emphasized about the Infant Dedication in the Book of Worship was not followed by the UMC. Also, He mentioned that the Council on Ministeries program was to have been a check system for the continuance of following the Merger agreement. We now know the Council on Ministeries was a failure, either on its own or inside pressure to not use it. It is good to look at past failures so they will not be committed again. Thank You for this article and hopeful that it will promote new leadership to the Churches that emerge from the GC2024 ( official GC2020 postponed GC).

  7. Comment by Diane on July 16, 2023 at 3:24 am

    Southern Baptists lost about 50,000 members and will certainly lose more as the debate which body parts belong in the pulpit. Saddleback and Elevation , the latter based in NC, a both mega churches have been either booted out or voluntarily upped and left. Evangelicals will continue to decline.

    The author believes evangelical Christianity has been falsely conflated with right wing politics. Wrong. Evangelicals want a national religion – theirs. We already tried a theocracy during colonial days – think 1692 Salem and the evangelical church of that era.

    The copy-cat laws in red states are being written by evangelical organizations who want their religion to be the law of the land. The bans on gender affirming care, for example, are on based on model legislation produced by the Family Policy Alliance, an arm of the evangelical and well-funded Focus on the Family. The exception that appears in most of these bans allows non-transgender children to access the same surgeries and hormonal therapies denied transgender children. This exception was requested by the evangelical Christian Medical and Dental Association. They want their members to have the right to butcher the bodies of non-consenting intersex children while they’re still infants and toddlers to erase their physical appearance of anatomical sex-ambiguity. Except in cases of medical necessity, these “normalizing” surgeries are medically unnecessary and can safely be delayed until the child is older, informed, and can decide for themselves. Evangelical doctors don’t need that exception in the law (the exception has no stipulation requiring informed patient consent), they only want it to re-enforce the biblical belief that there are two, unambiguous sexes, male and female. Intersex people are a problem in this scheme – non-consensual surgery on these children is the religious solution.

    And we wonder why Christianity is under attack?

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