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.