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South Dakota churches suffering decline in affiliation and attendance

Anyone who attends church in South Dakota is probably already aware of a troubling trend afflicting religious organizations and churches across the state and nation: the slow but steady decline in church membership and attendance.

It may be fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer people in the pews or fewer volunteers at charitable outings. It might be a pastor or priest who serves more than one congregation or is in a temporary post as a fill-in. It could also be the closure of a local church or growing concerns that closure could be imminent.

Those are some of the outward signs of what religious leaders and experts say is a dramatic decline in religious affiliation and church attendance that began in the late 20th century, picked up pace during the COVID-19 pandemic, and remains a growing cause for concern in the post-pandemic era.

Membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the largest churches in South Dakota, is down 40% over the past 30 years nationally and has fallen by almost 10% in South Dakota over roughly the past decade. Attendance at Lutheran churches in South Dakota is down about 14% since 2013, and the ELCA recently closed churches in Newell and Bradley, S.D.

Catholic and Methodist churches are also seeing declines.

In the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese, which serves all of East River South Dakota, records indicate that church attendance in 2022 is down 26% compared with 2010 and that membership has also fallen.

The decrease in church affiliation and attendance follows other patterns that show Americans are turning away from organized religion and many of its tenets. Surveys show that among Americans, belief in God is lower than ever; that trust in religion is way down; and that fewer people believe the Bible to be the true word of God and instead see it as a book of only fables or legends.

Perhaps most worrisome for church leaders in America and South Dakota is that in recent surveys, the people who do not affiliate with any religion, the so-called “nones,” are the fastest-growing segment of the national population as indicated in surveys about religion, faith and beliefs.

Religious scholars and church leaders say the decline in church membership and attendance is being fueled by many factors, most of them cultural shifts within society at large. They include demographic changes that are reducing rural populations where churches are a cornerstone; greater political and cultural divisions within modern society that are driving people apart; generational changes that have made young people less willing to join groups; and self-inflicted wounds within organized religion in the form of sexual and financial crimes and scandals.

Even as membership in many churches in South Dakota has fallen, holidays and special events can still fill the pews, including at this Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sioux Falls. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls

On a practical level, a decline in church membership and attendance reduces church revenues and availability of human capital, and can thus weaken a church’s ability to bring people together and perform charity work and other good deeds that help individuals and a community survive and thrive. It can also eliminate or reduce the effectiveness of a long-relied-upon way that people in cities large and small come together to get to know one another, to commune and form lasting personal relationships that strengthen communities.

On a spiritual level, some church leaders feel they are in a fight for the soul of the state, of the nation and of individual human beings.

Zach Kingery, a pastor at two United Methodist Churches in southeastern South Dakota, said it is impossible to overstate the important role churches play in communities and the lives of individuals. To Kingery, attending church is one important way people learn not only to get closer to God, and to live together in harmony and mutual support, but also to live a more godly life that makes the world a better place.

“Every week we close the service and I tell people that they are sent out into the world to share the word of God and be the light of Christ, to be more like Christ, to reach out to others and to help people,” he said. “Peace, patience, joy, love, goodness, kindness, all the fruits of the spirit; those are meant to be shared with people.”

Richard Swanson, a religion professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, said the drop in religious affiliation and attendance is troubling because now, perhaps more than ever, people need a place to gather, to share in triumphs and tragedies, to commune with other humans and a higher power, and to seek and perhaps find deeper meaning in their lives and in the world.

Swanson said the reduced interest in religion and church attendance in America could have the long-term effect of making individuals and communities more callous to the pain and suffering of others and less willing to help.

“I grew up believing that in the universe, it is expected that little kids would not go to bed hungry, or that other basic problems must be solved,” he said. “To me, losing a religious community would take away the place where I would learn social responsibility. Church communities have been one of the places where that sense of social responsibility has been fostered.”

Religious leaders in South Dakota are well aware of the declining interest in and engagement with churches across the state, and they are taking steps to reverse the trend.

On a national level, the Catholic Church just kicked off a three-year effort that will trickle down to the diocese and parish levels and include a detailed look at attendance and membership trends while also seeking local solutions to increase church membership that can be duplicated across the country. The Sioux Falls diocese recently created a new position to foster growth of churches and to more assertively seek new church members.

The ELCA in South Dakota recently created a rural liaison position to aid small towns in protecting the church populations they have, but also to listen closely to the needs of rural churchgoers or potential members and respond to any desires or concerns to spur greater membership.

Church leaders in various denominations across the state are acknowledging they must adapt to the cultural changes happening outside the church. While still sharing the scripture and promoting the virtues of Christianity, church leaders say they must be more welcoming and upbeat, listen more to the needs of individuals and communities, and foster an environment of encouragement and support within the church.

“As the world keeps turning and changing around us, we expect the church to always be the same … well, nowhere in scripture does it say the church will be the same,” said Constanze Hagmaier, bishop of the ELCA South Dakota Synod of the Lutheran church. “God will be the same, but nowhere does it say the church must be the same. If we can’t hear the voices that are out there and respond with faith, then we’re emptying the church on our own; we’re just helping them pack and go out the door because we refuse to open ourselves up to actually listen.”

Those kinds of changes, Swanson said, will be critical to the future of churches and organized religion. “Without soul searching and without honesty, the church has no future at all,” he said.

And the loss of a church, or decline in its reach or influence, can hasten the demise of small towns in South Dakota that are already suffering population loss or languishing economically.

Swanson said the loss of a church, especially in a small town, can be seen as one more reason for some residents to move away.

“Does it matter to the town if there’s a grocery store or a church? Well, yes, it matters a great deal,” Swanson said. “The town I grew up in lost its last grocery store, and now people say the town is hollowed out and there’s nothing left. The loss of a religious community in a small town has that same impact because no longer is there a space where you sit with people, sing with people or think with people and explore spirituality with people.”

Synod Snapshot: Lutheran church in S.D and U.S. in decline

Here is a look at some key data points from the past seven years for the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or Lutheran church, and below find statistics on the national ELCA Lutheran church system. Other organized religions in the United Stated are seeing similar declines.

South Dakota ELCA

Category                 2013           2020         % change

Churches                208              202              — 3%

Members                106,000       96,700          — 9%      

Avg attendance      28,480         24,476           — 14%     

Member giving      $47.0 mill    $42.6 mill    — 9%

Total income          $56.3 mill   $49.2 mill    — 13%

Operating costs      $32.9 mill   $36.2 mill     + 10%

National ELCA

1990: 11,100 congregations; 5.24 million baptized members

2020: 8,895 congregations; 3.14 million baptized members

30-year change: congregations down 19%; membership down 40%

Sources/notes: Membership numbers for SD and US are for baptized members; average church attendance shown for South Dakota is for 2013 and 2019; operating costs do not include debt payments, capital improvements or mission support. Source is ELCA reports.

Survey data reveals depth of decline

The downward slide in church attendance, affiliation with religion and trust in religious organizations are well documented in national Gallup polls taken over the past few decades.

The number of Americans who self-report as having no religious affiliation nearly tripled in the past 20 years. The number of so-called “nones” rose from 8% in 2001 to 21% in 2021. For several years in the 1950s, only 1% of Americans reported no religious affiliation.

The importance of religion in the lives of individuals, and religion’s influence on the country as a whole, are also falling. Individuals who said religion is very important in their lives fell from 58% in 2001 to 49% in 2021. Gallup polling in 2001 showed that only 39% of Americans felt the influence of religion was falling in the United States, compared with 78% who said its influence was falling in 2021.

Poll results also show a decline in belief in the Bible, God, angels, heaven and hell. 

Those changing beliefs have resulted in lower religious affiliation and reduced church membership and attendance, according to Gallup.

In 2001, 66% of Americans said they were a member of a church or synagogue, but in 2021, only 47% said they were members of a church, falling below a majority for the first time in the 80 years Gallup has asked that question. As recently as 1970, church membership was at 70%, where it hovered for more than six decades.

Meanwhile, attendance at churches (either in person or virtually) has also fallen significantly in the past 20 years.

In 2001, 42% of Americans said they attended church weekly or almost weekly and 41% said they had attended church in the past seven days. Only 15% said they never attended church.

Twenty years later, the slide in church attendance was clearly evident. In 2021, only 31% attended regularly only 29% attended in the past week. The number who never attend church services doubled to 31% in 2021.

During that 20-year period, faith in the Bible also fell. In 2001, 20% of respondents considered the Bible to be only fables or legends, but by 2021, that number had risen to 29%.

In addition, satisfaction in the role of religion in America has also declined, with 64% of people satisfied with the role of religion in the country in 2001, compared with only 48% in 2021.

All of these results come against the backdrop that Americans still believe religion is a generally positive force in the country. In a 2013 poll, Gallup found that 75% of respondents said the country would be better off if more people were religious, and only 17% said greater religious affiliation would be a negative factor for the country.

Recent national polling also provides insight into why fewer people are engaging with religion or attending church. The most common reasons people gave for not attending church were preferring to worship on their own (44%); disliking organized religion (36%); or simply not considering themselves very religious (33%). Other factors leading to non-attendance include not wanting to be asked for money (16%), health problems (10%), and not feeling welcome (9%).

The factors in why people do attend church regularly appear to indicate that the message delivered is far more important than who is delivering it, where it occurs or the communal nature of church gatherings.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, three-quarters of churchgoers said the top factors were related to the content of sermons, including those that brought them closer to understanding scripture or those that were somehow made relevant to their individual lives. Conversely, vibrant social activities, a dynamic leader or a good band or choir were far less influential in attracting people to a church.

While religious affiliation in South Dakota is higher than the national average, the state is experiencing many of the same declines in church membership and attendance, according to the Pew Research Center.

According to a 2014 national Pew survey broken down by state, almost 60% of poll respondents in South Dakota described themselves as evangelical or mainline Protestant, which includes Lutherans, who make up about 25% of total churchgoers in South Dakota, and roughly 22% said they were Catholics. No other religion had more than 1% affiliation in South Dakota.

Regular weekly church attendance was at 36% in South Dakota in 2014, compared with a national figure of 30% that same year but below the 41% who said they attended every week in 2007.

The percentage of state residents who rarely if ever attend church in South Dakota was 17% in 2007, but had jumped to 27% in 2014.

About 18% of South Dakotans described themselves as “nones,” or having no religious affiliation, more than double the percentage from a 2001 survey that showed only 8% of state residents reporting no religious affiliation.

“Without soul searching and without honesty, the church has no future at all." -- Richard Swanson, professor of religion at Augustana University

Causes of decline not easily reversed

Swanson said demographic changes, especially in rural areas, are playing a large role in declining church membership and attendance.

As rural populations have shrunk, and young adults have increasingly fled small towns where they grew up to reside in larger cities, churches have suffered a generational break in attendance patterns, Swanson said.

“For people that grew up in small-town South Dakota, going to church was something they just grew up with; going to church was for them simply as ordinary a part of life as going to the grocery store or going bowling,” he said. “People have been fleeing rural communities for a century, and when they land in big cities, they discover they don’t have the same patterns there, and that population has become significantly disconnected from churches.”

Another reason for the declines in organized religion is the influence of politics within individual congregations as well as national religious denominations, said George Tsakiridis, a professor of religion at South Dakota State University.

From strong positions on abortion, sexuality or even the response of governments and individuals to the COVID pandemic, the more that political and cultural views permeate the church, the less likely some people will be to attend regularly, Tsakiridis said.

“You have political emphases within those denominations that then affect people in the pews. It allows people to say, ‘Hey, I don’t agree with this political stance the church is now taking, so therefore I don’t feel comfortable here anymore’,” he said.

The decline in church attendance can be traced in part to divisions in American society that have deepened in recent years, whether based on political party, liberal versus conservative thinking or in regard to religious beliefs, said Tsakiridis.

Swanson also sees the divide in politics and culture in America oozing into churches and hurting their ability to appeal to a wide range of people from differing backgrounds or ideologies.

“People have commented on the decreasing ability of Americans to talk to one another with civility,” he said. “People in church organizations, just as people in political discussions, have found themselves engaging in vitriol more than in conversation, and that’s a piece that has split some congregations, and it drives some people away.”

Meanwhile, the sometimes binary approach to good and evil, and worthy and unworthy, that can arise in religious preachings, does not create a welcoming feeling among churchgoers or those who may consider joining a church, Swanson said.

“If people are done with politics, people are also done with religion in the same way because they’re tired of the yelling and the blaming and the rigidity that goes with religion,” Swanson said.

Swanson said religion, like other social groupings, has historically attracted leaders who are narcissistic or who have the capacity to abuse or disregard others, and he theorized that the church in America has been slow to recognize that fact and to take steps to protect churchgoers or better screen for potentially troubled leaders. The abuse of children and vulnerable adults by priests and others in the Catholic Church, and the cover-up of the abuse and transfer of abusive priests from one place to another, has caused a distrust of religion in general in America that is hard to shake, Swanson said. 

Religious organizations are not alone in having abused human beings, Swanson said, noting that sports, education, entertainment and business and industry have all had to face improper behaviors from people in power. But the damage done to the church in such cases creates a deeper sense of pain that has turned some people away from organized religion in a general sense, Swanson said. 

“People approach a community of faith, and somewhere deep in their being, they expect it to be a safe place,” he said. “When that safety is compromised, and people are assaulted in a religious context, it affects us deeply, more deeply than if that occurred someplace else.”

Meanwhile, the average age of churchgoers is rising, and people who eventually die or become unable to attend church are not being replaced by younger adults, Tsakiridis said.

George Tsakiridis

“You have a lot of older churches. So many of the people in those churches are 60, 70 or 80 years old, and those mid-aged families that are missing often formed the heart of churches,” Tsakiridis said.

Some people who never attended church or no longer do so may have a hard time making sense of the role religion is supposed to play in their lives, he added.

“My own theory is that many people shy away from organized religion either because they struggle with the problem of evil … they wonder why a good God would allow all the bad things we see in the world,” he said. “Or they struggle in a personal sense in that they grow up in a church that was very restrictive or hypocritical in their view, so they moved away from it.”

Tsakiridis said people who are spiritual may feel that they can do better on their own without the support of a church to tell or guide them how to live.

“They still have some spirituality in that they believe in God or a higher power, and they live their life according to that, but they don’t feel the need to attend church as part of that belief,” he said. “They think to themselves, ‘If I’m focused on just being a good person or helping my fellow human beings, I don’t see the need for the church to create that within me.’”

On a basic level, Tsakiridis said, many people would like to see the church as a place to feel better about themselves and the world around them, and the sometimes didactic approach of religion has turned some of those people away.

“When people go to houses of worship and are made to feel bad about themselves … they wonder why am I being treated this way,” he said. “They’re not thinking about whether this church has the proper theology or not, they’re going to gauge how they are treated and how they feel in that community.”

Swanson and Tsakiridis both said one big danger of the decline in religious affiliation and church attendance is that some people may fill the gap religion once played in their life by joining groups with far less noble motives.

“If people don’t feel loved, that’s not good for a society because there’s suddenly a bunch of people who are not having a key need met in their lives,” Tsakiridis said. “Whether it is social gatherings or intimate faith relationships in spiritual life … something is lacking and is going to create problems for our society.”

For example, individuals who have unmet spiritual needs may be more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, violence or radical political views either to cover up their pain or seek solace with others who feel alone or who think alike, Tsakiridis said.

“Religion is one of the roots of our community that we’re losing because we don’t have that stable place to go to to meet those needs,” he said. “That affects the rootedness of individual human beings, and if there’s a need that’s not being met, that can start to take uglier forms.”

Connecting with children and young adults is seen as an important way to grow church membership in the future. Here, Methodist Pastor Zach Kingery teaches scripture to children at the United Methodist Church of Wessington Springs during a "Young Disciples Moment" in 2022. Photo: Courtesy Laura Kieser, UMC

Churches react and adapt to reverse declines

Hagmaier said declining membership and attendance led to the recent closure of Lutheran churches in Newell, in Meade County, and in Bradley, in Clark County. The pastorship at Grand River Lutheran Church in Buffalo is one of several Lutheran churches without a pastor, she said. In some rural regions of South Dakota, Lutheran pastors have taken on “poly-site” leadership roles for two or more congregations at the same time, Hagmaier said.

The church is also looking at new ways of keeping communities engaged, including using technology to allow for remote attendance or encouraging lay church members to take a more active role in spreading the gospel outside the walls of the church.

Hagmaier said churches of all denominations need to be more flexible in the messages they deliver and how they are shared, and can only do so through a deep examination of what people are seeking in their lives in an ever-changing world.

Hagmaier, elected bishop in 2019, acknowledges that changing the messaging and message delivery in churches will not be easy or quick. In some ways, the church must provide to potential members the sense that religion is a way to help not only oneself but also the community and the world as a whole.

Constanze Hagmaier

“Oftentimes, when we look at civic resources and civic engagements, it’s all about what can I do, it’s all about me, me, me, me, me, and how we need to save ourselves, and if we can’t do that, we get frustrated and all these things bubble up and we start pointing fingers and conflict arises,” Hagmaier said. “But the church, ideally speaking, has this other voice, this countercultural voice, where if we take ourselves out of the picture and put God at the center, and that’s part of our message, then we can take our own differences away and look at life from a different lens, and work for communal good.”

That new reality — and a subsequent effort to align church messages more closely with the needs and desires of individuals — is true for middle-aged or older people, but is especially true among children and young adults, who may, or may not, form the backbone of churches and religion in the future, Hagmaier said.

Changing and adapting is critical in reaching and attracting the next generation of Americans and South Dakotans, who look at the world and institutions with a more critical eye and demand more payback for the time and energy they invest in a church or any organization, Hagmaier said.

“If we still think we live in the times that we lived in when our forefathers founded the land and the church, and these young people have all the pressing issues that we are not able to talk about, then they won’t be interested,” she said. “If the church is not relevant in their lives, they won’t participate in church or be part of a church. They’re very selective in how they engage.”

For example, Hagmaier said, trying to use traditional methods to collect offerings at church may not work for children or young adults.

“If all I do is pass a basket … I’m not sure my kids would make an offering,” said Hagmaier, who has three children. “My kids, they never owned a checkbook and I don’t know that they even carry cash.”

Churches need to adapt and react to changing trends in church attendance very soon due to a breakdown in generational church attendance that could have grave long-term consequences for organized religion, Hagmaier said.  “We’re coming now to a generation where the parents never went to church,” she said. “Right now, 7-year-old children are like, ‘Church, what is that?’”

Yet Hagmaier added that the church cannot and should not be so reactive to cultural changes in society as to lose focus on the core values and tenets of Christianity and the Lutheran church.

“The church has a clear and profound message at which the true God is at the center and from there we reach out to offer an alternative way of life. But if the church loses the focus we become fear driven and operate from a preservative mindset,” she said. “If we believe that in everything God’s at the heart of things we are free to engage in our culture and offer an alternative.”

Father Scott Traynor holds a new position within the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese called the Vicar for Lay and Clergy Formation, which puts him at the center of new efforts to invigorate church membership and attendance in the diocese. Traynor said that when Bishop Donald DeGrood took office in 2020, he immediately sought to reduce the trend of declining engagement with the Catholic Church in eastern South Dakota, and Traynor’s new position was part of that effort.

Traynor said the Catholic Church throughout its history did not need or desire to be too evangelistic in its approach to attracting new members.

“The bishop put forth a very clear vision statement for the diocese: to build a culture of lifelong Catholic missionary discipleship through God’s love,” Traynor said. “That is a very clear and organizational focus for the efforts of our diocese to build up that culture precisely to disrupt that culture of decline in attendance and belief.”

Scott Traynor

Traynor said the missionary effort will be based largely on work at the local congregational level in order to show support and take advice from Catholics who know what their communities and individual churches need to thrive.

Traynor said the Catholic Church for centuries relied on generational support in which parents attended church with their children, who then attended church with their children and so on. But Traynor said that process has been disrupted by foundational changes in society in which people are less interested in and attuned to the tenets of Christianity.

“We are in not just a generational change, but a change of epochs, from Christian to a newly resecularized culture … in Western civilization,” he said. Forty to 50 years ago, the Catholic parish was really the center of community activities, in that families had their entire social network organized through the parish, and that’s just not true today.”

Traynor said his role is to learn what existing and potential Catholics want in a church, and to seek out new, innovative ways of connecting people to the church and to God.

“People are drifting along with the mainstream culture today; they’re going to tend to go further and further away from the church,” he said. “If parents desire to pass on their faith to their children and their children’s children, it takes a very focused, intense and sustained effort to make headway because it is not occurring naturally. It’s not enough to just have a church building and expect that people will show up.”

Traynor said that in South Dakota, about 30% to 40% of people who identify as Catholic attend mass weekly, which is 10% to 15% higher than the rest of the country but still not a number to be celebrated. One goal of the church’s new missionary efforts will be to encourage churchgoers to share their passion for God and scripture with Catholics who have stopped attending in order for them to return to the church.

Traynor said the Catholic Church in the United States in June launched a 3-year growth effort called the Eucharistic Revival, which is aimed at renewing the church through personal encounters with Jesus. The program invites creative initiatives first at the diocesan level, then at the parish level, finally culminating in a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July 2024.

In the Sioux Falls Diocese, officials have gathered data on births, first communions, confirmations and marriages within the church and are comparing it to demographic data to look for places where the church might be weak or strong, and then adapt missionary strategies accordingly.

When it comes to the sexual-abuse scandal and cover-ups that have rocked the worldwide Catholic Church, Traynor said the church has embarked on a major effort to enact safeguards that will prevent such abuse in the future.

“The church has become a very proactive and exemplary leader in creating safeguards for children and vulnerable adults,” Traynor said. “The church can never do too much to ensure the safety of children, so I would never say the church has done enough. But I would also say that in the world today, the Catholic church or school or parish is probably the safest environment of any public organization for any child.”

And yet, Traynor acknowledges that the stain of abuse may not have yet been cleared in the minds of many Americans, and that it may have led in part to reduced Catholic Church membership and attendance.

“We’re very focused and aware of this problem, and when it comes to that group of ‘nones,’ the person who may have lost that basic trust in either God or organized religion or the church, if they have lost that, there’s been a rupture of trust and the best thing you can do to evangelize or help them take another step closer to Jesus and the church, is just to be a good human being to them and show that you are there to serve people’s real needs, and share that the Catholic Church has a rich tradition of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, educating people and giving them health care, and visiting the imprisoned and marginalized.”

Two boys help out at Bethel Church in Edgemont, S.D., in 2020. Small-town churches across the state are working to remain viable by encouraging youth involvement and also by trying to attract priests and pastors to rural areas. Photo: News Watch file

Priest and pastor shortage a concern

Some religions, the Catholic and Lutheran churches among them, are also seeing a decline in the number of new priests and pastors who can run churches, and the shortage is more acute in rural areas. Officials from both churches told News Watch, however, that while recruiting and preparing new priests and pastors is a concern, the nationwide shortage of new church leaders has not yet become a major factor in church declines in South Dakota.

And yet, recruitment of new leaders and church employees overall is an ongoing part of efforts to stabilize religious organizations. Hagmaier said the South Dakota Lutheran church offers new employees who move to the state an incentive in which the church pays off their student loans.

But finding pastors to commit to churches in sparsely populated rural areas remains a challenge, Hagmaier said.

Hagmaier said working as a pastor provides solid if not spectacular pay and benefits; starting pastors receive a salary and benefit package ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 a year in value, she said.

Rural positions become less attractive if pastors have to worry about the viability of a small-town congregation, she said.

“If your rural area is emptying out, with just a few people there, it’s hard to support a pastor’s salary, and if there’s nothing left for ministry, that’s a concern,” she said.

Hagmaier said 75% of the ELCA congregations in South Dakota are considered rural, which creates challenges in filling open pastor positions or meeting unique needs of rural residents who want to attend church.

That problem led the synod recently to create the new rural liaison position to work with small communities, to keep the local Lutheran church viable and to learn what residents want and need from their church.

In communities where the church doesn’t have a pastor or faces some other type of uncertainty, the liaison visits the town for two weeks to talk to church members and others in the community to stabilize the church and also find solutions to local problems, Hagmaier said.

The liaison recently visited the towns of Trent and Revillo in East River, and Hot Springs and Edgemont in West River, to help those churches maintain stability while they search for new pastors. In Edgemont, where there is no pastor, the rural liaison stepped in to aid in the burial of a church member and provide support to the community after the death.

The new approach to strengthening rural congregations, which Hagmaier refers to as “presence and accompaniment,” is an example of how the Lutheran church is trying to respond to declining church membership and attendance in a collaborative rather than heavy-handed way.

“I don’t even like my kids to tell me what to do, so why would I want a bishop to tell me or my community what to do?” she said.

Hagmaier remains optimistic that with some innovation and new focus on listening and adapting to the needs of rural communities, the Lutheran church can continue to thrive in South Dakota.

“I’m very excited about the future of the church and rural ministry, but it most certainly will look different than it did before,” she said.

Wessington Springs United Methodist Church Pastor Zach Kingery, at left, plays bass with the Praise Band during a community event at Shakespeare Garden in 2019. With Kingery are band members, left to right, Kirk Luymes, Lila Hoffman, Jessie Baker, Jessica Kingery and Lisa Edwards. Photo: Courtesy Lynda Luymes, UMC

Young pastor takes positive approach

Kingery, 34, is a Kansas native who has been the pastor of two United Methodist churches in Jerauld County in east-central South Dakota for nearly six years.

Throughout his tenure as pastor, Kingery has been aware of the declining church membership and attendance across the country, but he has taken numerous steps to grow his congregations in Alpena and Wessington Springs.

“Going to church just for the sake of to going to church, that cultural obligation to go to church isn’t present anymore,” Kingery said. “There is a cultural decline in attending church, and it’s easier to walk away from church when it’s seen just as an institution, something we’re just supposed to do when it doesn’t really fit into your daily life and there’s no connection with it.”

Kingery said he has tried to create an atmosphere of positivity and encouragement in his congregations; he has developed close personal relationships with churchgoers; he has adapted sermons to be relevant to the small-town, rural congregations he serves; and he has taken the approach that Sunday sermons are a chance to put people on a path to living and spreading the word and ways of God after church services end.

“There is an increase in attendance at a life-giving church, those that are very present in their community, and very active. We’re trying to shift the narrative from a church you just go to once a week to being a place you come to that encourages you for the week ahead.”

Kingery said he knows that people come to church in part to feel more upbeat and more supported in their lives, even in times of pain or sorrow, and also to gain insight into the word of God that can help them live better, more complete lives.

While he often challenges church members to change and improve their lives, even if it takes conviction and hard work, he knows churchgoers do not sit in pews and listen to sermons to be made to feel guilty or bad about themselves.

“Church isn’t a place for condemnation, but is a place for conviction and encouragement,” he said. “If I stand up and tell you you’re a sinner and scream at you, you’re not going to be encouraged to change your life.”

Instead, Kingery uses scripture as a conduit to share the word of God in a way that encourages church members to think deeply about problems and challenges in their lives, and to find a path toward improvement. And, he said, he asks them to share their positive religious experiences and belief in God with others, which can hopefully lead to greater church membership and attendance.

Kingery said that at the roughly 240 Methodist churches in South Dakota and North Dakota, the average weekly attendance is about 40 people. Even in two towns with small populations, Kingery said he has seen an increase in attendance during his six years as pastor, to about 45 people a week in Alpena and 65 to 70 each week in Wessington Springs. At Christmas and Easter services, he sometimes counts more than 200 people in attendance.

Kingery said he was encouraged this year to confirm 13 youths into the Methodist church in Alpena and another seven in Wessington Springs.

In order for churches to thrive and grow attendance long-term, Kingery said, church leaders must do more to engage with youth and make religion a larger, more integral and valued part of their lives.

“There was this movement that if we serve pizza and play games, that young people will come to church. Then they get older,” Kingery said.

Instead, Kingery said he invests his time and energy in creating deeper, most honest connections with youth in order to show them the power of God but also to provide an opportunity to listen and work through the difficult questions young people have about their lives and the world around them.

“The teenagers I’m seeing be more invested in church are asking important questions and I’m doing my best to give them answers, even if sometimes the answer is that I don’t know,” Kingery said. “The ones that are responding the most are those who are finding connections and community through church. They ask hard, tough questions, and when you work with them through it and try to find answers together, then they want to be there.”

Zach Kingery

Kingery refused to be daunted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it created in enabling people to gather safely. Starting in March 2020, he watched as church attendance fell by more than half, and then dwindled even further as the virus spread.

In response, Kingery bought an FM transmitter and began offering weekly sermons over the radio. In an unusual take on the drive-in movie concept, as many as 85 church members would pull up to the church, remain in their cars, and listen to the sermons on the radio together while safely separated.

“They parked like how they sat in church, a few feet apart, and everybody turned their radio on,” Kingery said. “They got to wave at each other and say hello from a distance.”

Kingery also offered his sermons through online video platforms such as YouTube and on Facebook, a practice he continues to use in the post-pandemic period. The online sermons allow people to hear his preaching even if they cannot attend in person, and enable former church members who have moved to tune in from other states or from outside his pastoral area in South Dakota.

Kingery said turning the tide back toward greater church participation and attendance — and a stronger connection to God — will require pastors and other leaders to be more mindful of what people are seeking in their lives, and to deliver important messages in a way that inspires and encourages others to join.

“That’s what the churches are kind of catching onto. Are we inviting people to church, am I being the church outside of these doors, how am I connecting with God during the week and connecting with others?” Kingery asks himself. “It has become more of an inviting process where other people in the community are catching on and being involved.”

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About Bart Pfankuch

Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach. Contact Bart at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.