Home/Rod Dreher/Lake Wobegon’s Ghost Churches

Lake Wobegon’s Ghost Churches

The reader who sent me this story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said it would fill me with melancholy. Accurate. Excerpts:

For 100 years, Lutherans in this farming community on the Minnesota prairie have come to one church to share life’s milestones.

They have been baptized, confirmed and married at La Salle Lutheran. Their grandparents, parents and siblings lie in the church cemetery next door.

But the old friends who gathered here early one recent Sunday never imagined that they would one day be marking the death of their own church.

When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.

“Sunday used to be set aside for church: that’s what families did,” said Donna Schultz, 74, a church member since grade school at La Salle, in southwest Minnesota. “Now our children have moved away. The grandkids have volleyball, dance on weekends. People are busy with other things.

“I’m really going to miss this,” she added quietly, gesturing to her friends in the lobby. “We’re like family.”

The story reports on scores of churches closing as their congregations dwindle to nothing. More:

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which closed 21 churches in 2010 and merged several dozen others, is again looking at ways to consolidate church staffing and programs.


Most Americans still report that they are Christian, but the worshipers in the pews on Sunday increasingly have gray or white hair. The median age is older than 50 for nearly all mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Pew Research Center, a national polling and research group in Washington, D.C. For Catholics, it’s age 49.

“It’s just a matter of time before many congregations won’t exist,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has examined religious life for three decades. “In the next 20 years, you’ll have half as many open congregations as now. It could be more devastating for certain denominations.”

Some of us religious conservatives have gotten into the habit of looking down our noses at Mainline Protestant churches in their death throes, consoling ourselves that their liberal theology is responsible for their collapse. There is no doubt a lot of truth in that, but it’s not like these fallen-away Mainliners are leaving for more conservative churches. Many of them are leaving church, period. And let’s not forget that no church is in such great shape that it can afford to gloat.

Besides, whatever your theological alignment, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be sad over this:

La Salle Lutheran Church is much like the hundreds of small churches whose steeples rise above Minnesota’s rural landscape. Most were planted more than a century ago, near dozens of small farms with large families and boatloads of the faithful arriving from Europe.

Those were the grandparents of the people at the church today. About 25 members remain, including Bonnie Viland, 86. She recalls when the church was so full of families that folding chairs had to be set up in the aisle on holidays.

“Everybody who moved into town went to the church — except the family that was Roman Catholic,” she said.

Church was a bedrock of daily life. Its absence leaves a large gap — spiritual, social, emotional — that for many seems almost impossible to fill.

Viland, for example, taught Sunday school, brought desserts to countless church events and funerals, “held every office in the women’s organization,” served as church treasurer and church president. On a recent Sunday, she brought the chocolate chip cookies to social hour.

After worship, every single person in the pews headed to the downstairs social hall for coffee and conversation. Schultz watched the folks sitting around the table wistfully.

“I was confirmed here, married here. I thought I’d be buried here,” Schultz said sadly. “I still don’t know where I’m going.”

Read the whole thing. It’s sad, but it’s important. A certain part of America is fading fast. Lake Wobegon, in fact. Think about poor Pastor Ingkvist. I’m actually serious. I know, I know, Lake Wobegon was always nostalgic, but it was based in a world that to some extent still existed, if only in the memories of people still alive today. Now even that is going, as are they. The younger generations stopped coming. And that will be the end of that.

Here’s the most melancholy part of all:

Even if a church closes, it doesn’t mean failure, said the Rev. Taylor.

“When La Salle closes, it leaves a legacy of kind, good people who have passed that on to their children and grandchildren,” she said. “No matter where people go, they will always bring a piece of La Salle church with them.”

That’s a warm sentiment, but it’s not true. It does mean failure. They didn’t pass that on to their children and grandchildren. True, their descendants may have moved away, and might be attending church somewhere else. But that’s not what the numbers nationwide say. If that’s not failure, what is?

Again, my fellow religious conservatives: don’t smirk. There is not a single Christian church that will remain untouched by this.

Take it for granted, and you’ll lose it. Church is not the utility company.

UPDATE: A reader in the comments read (understandably) my saying that the church people failed as my blaming them for what happened. That’s not what I mean. While I am sure that many of these people didn’t do what they ought to have done to pass the faith on to the younger generations, I am equally sure that many did their very best, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the forces arrayed against them — the greatest of which, of course, is the free will of the individual young person. My point in saying “they failed” is to counter the sentimental conclusion of the pastor. This is an unmitigated catastrophe for us Christians.

I read the other day that decades ago, a Catholic cardinal — and maybe the pope, I can’t remember — speaking of the Third Secret of Fatima, said people shouldn’t worry that it foretells a nuclear war. He said that the loss of faith of a continent is worse than a nuclear war — alluding to the possibility that the Fatima secret foretells mass apostasy. From a Christian point of view, this is true: what kills the soul is worse than what kills the body. That’s what I’m trying to get at in the “they failed” comment. They did not succeed in passing the faith on to their kids. Whether they are personally culpable in that is something only God knows.

UPDATE.2: Reader Turmarion:

Doctor Andrew Weil once wrote about the history of alternate medicine–chiropractic, homeopathy, and so on. He noted that these schools of medicine, though they made contradictory (and sometimes false) claims as to how they worked, seemed to produce real, and often astounding cures in the lifetime of the founders and the first generation of followers. Success rates dropped in following generations, despite the later practitioners meticulously following the procedures of the founding genration. Weil’s hypothesis was that the founders and original disciples were powerfully charismatic, and this influenced the patients profoundly. Their belief was so strong that via the mind/body connection, they were healed more or less despite the technique. In later generations, the fervor was lost, and the healing became rarer.

What has this to do with this post, you say?

I think that education–I field of which I have long first-hand knowledge–and religion (lot of first-hand knowledge, there, too) are a lot like medicine in this sense. Neither education nor religion is susceptible of what I’d call engineering solutions. For example, if I have a machine that can make five hundred widgets an hour, it wouldn’t be hard for an engineer to sit down and redesign it to increase the output by fifty percent to seven hundred fifty widgets per hour. You can’t do that in education or religion. You can’t have a school administrator sit down and come up with a method to increase the number of kids who score such-and-such. You can’t have a bishop sit down and come up with a method to get church attendance up by fifty percent, or whatever. If it were possible to do that, it would have been done already, and all the kids would be above average (as in Lake Wobegone) and the pews would be packed.

What makes kids learn, or churches fill, is dedicated, charismatic, true believers as teachers or priests or pastors. Mr. A, if he’s such a teacher, will have a class full of super-achievers. When he retires, though, and Mr. B takes over his class, even if Mr. B does the exact same things as Mr. A, it won’t work if Mr. B isn’t similarly charismatic. Likewise, Pastor X and Pastor Y can do the exact same things–have a social hour, put out a bulletin, offer retreats, etc.–with wildly different results. It’s not an enineering problem; it’s not a matter of method; it’s about the people.

So, the question is, how do you get teachers and pastors who are that kind of charismatic, fervent, true believers? Well, there is obviously no fill-in-the-blank process for doing that. The only thing I could say is to figure out how to make education and ministry more attractive to such people. Both fields, as currently structured, do a lot to drive such people away, and to cause massive burnout in the ones they manage to attract. In any case, there is no “procedure” for solving the problem. It’s a matter of people.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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