Area churches struggle with declining attendance, retention of youth

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple This photo was taken at a recent midweek noon Mass at St. Mary Church in Warren. Youngstown Catholic Diocese Bishop George V. Murry said declining Mass attendance has led to a new pastoral plan for the Diocese involving a regional approach to Mass times and sharing of priests. However, declining church attendance is not a problem unique to Catholicism.

WARREN — Making church relevant to families is a key many pastors say is essential for drawing younger couples and youth into the pews.

While some churches are able to maintain their membership numbers, other churches have seen a decline in attendance over the past decade. Church leaders across the area from every denomination admit putting more people in the pews is a problem they are all trying to resolve.

Economic factors, population shifts and other factors have contributed to the decline for many denominations. An aging church population where members are homebound or in nursing homes is a factor for the empty seats as well, some area pastors said.

Bishop George V. Murry of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown last month released a letter on pastoral planning stating parishes may need to combine in the six-county Diocese into regions, where priests will be shared to cover Masses. He said the decision is two-fold: declining attendance and a declining number of priests, noting many priests in the Youngstown Diocese are 60 and older — with six expected to retire this summer and only one being ordained.

Murry said fewer people are living within the Diocese now than in 2000.

“The difficult economic climate continues to cause people to move out of the area. We are also experiencing more deaths than births within the region. Population is projected to continue to decline over the next 10 years. While we cannot directly affect this trend, we cannot ignore it in planning for the future,” Murry’s letter stated.

Murry said there has been a significant decline in Catholic affiliation and participation.

“The number of people registered at our parishes has declined 36 percent since 2000. In addition, general participation in parish life has decreased even more. Specifically, regular weekend Mass attendance has decreased by 60 percent; the number of baptisms, first communions, confirmations and sacramental marriages are approximately one-third of what they were in 2000,” he said in his letter.

But the problem is not uniquely Catholic.

The Rev. William Leitch of Living Lord Lutheran Church in Howland said the 12 Evangelical Lutheran churches in the area have experienced a weekly decline from 766 people attending each week eight or nine years ago to 528 people attending weekly now.

“We have seen a one-third decrease in members in nine years. The churches are doing what they can to try and turn this around,” Leitch said.

Leitch said job and family responsibilities, including children taking part in sports and school events on weekends, compete with church attendance and play a factor in absences. He said the church does what it can to offer programs and services to all ages, including an outreach involving younger generations.

He said 20 years ago, the Trumbull Association of Lutheran Churches group began to see a decline. In the past 10 years, sharing of ministers among different Lutheran churches began.

Leitch said merging and forming new congregations is not always favored as some people will leave because they do not want to drive to another church.

The Rev. Marc Runyon of Central Christian Church in Warren said it has an older congregation.

“The economics of this area played a big role with the church congregation. Unfortunately, many churches have not been able to retain the grandkids of the members. Our church has seen a gradual decline over the years in younger families. In the 1970s and 1980s, we had a big vital youth group and youth programming, and now that group is gone,” he said.

Runyon said the older congregation has stayed faithful, but in recent years, some have died and the numbers are continuing to decline.

“We do try and make efforts to reach out to the community around us. We put fliers out inviting people to Easter service. In May, we will have a neighborhood cookout,” he said.

Karen Fumerola, music director for 30 years at First United Church of Christ in Warren, said youth are generally active at church through high school, but because of leaving to go to college or into the military — and later on their own with job and family responsibilities — they see “the time commitment for church become harder and less important for them.

“As the music director, I have seen the younger people who used to sing in the choirs leave. The choirs are often the older generations of the church,” Fumerola said.

The Rev. Jeff Baker, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, said many church congregations are getting older, and churches need to develop curriculums and programs to reach young adults and children.

“We have been trying to make more connections to the youth and younger parents, offering them and primarily the children a good Christian education. We are encouraging families to be engaged with the ministries we offer,” said Baker, noting one of the programs the church offers is a community garden.

“The church has always gone through cycles. It just seems now in this country that people identify with being spiritual, but not religious. We need to focus on making church relevant in people’s lives,” Baker said.

The Rev. David Black, pastor of both Calvary Presbyterian and Covenant Presbyterian churches, said, “We have a smaller congregation at both churches because a number of younger people have moved out of town. My own daughters went out of state to get jobs. There was a member who worked at GM who had to leave because he was being transferred.”

He said even the older generation is shrinking because they are homebound or in nursing homes and are unable to attend services. He said the congregations at both churches has been steadily shrinking, with 30 to 35 people attending weekly service.

Black said the Calvary building is older and needs work, but many projects and upgrades are costly. While initial talks have included merging the two churches, it does not appear favored by members.

Black said while some Presbyterian churches are struggling, others — such as Champion Presbyterian and Warren First Presbyterian — seem to be doing well with youth groups.

He noted the growing congregations include Victory Christian, Believers Christian, Rust City and Grace Church, which will be moving later this year to a new location at the former McMenamy’s in Niles.

Howland United Methodist Church pastor, the Rev. Matt Darrin, said the church is planning an addition for classrooms, community room and offices because of increasing membership. He said churches need to stay active in the community and provide programs and services to reach all age groups.

The church offers a backpack program for Howland elementary school children, and he and his wife, Janelle, lead the Howland High School drama club.

“We try to stay active in the community and in the lives of young people and children through the work that our church does in the community. We have a strong children’s ministry,” he said.