In 206 years, Christ Church UMC in Southwick, Massachusetts, has survived changes to its name, facilities and membership. After more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, members voted in May to permanently disband the congregation on July 1 due to their dwindling numbers, and the pastor decided it was a good time to retire too.
“The time has come for this congregation of Christ’s holy church to disband and take leave of this building,” the Rev. Ken Blanchard said at the church’s final official service on Sunday, according to Mass Live. “It has served our holy faith well. It is fitting, therefore, that we should take leave of this consecrated house, lifting up our hearts in thanksgiving for this common store of memories. … This is my farewell to pastoral service.”
When the church was started in 1816 with just eight members, the faithful met in private homes and district school houses. The preaching was also done by Methodist ministers known as “circuit riders” because they traveled by horseback throughout numerous towns, a brief history of the church posted on their website explains.
Over the years the community would grow in size and witness and untold number of important milestones for families.
“How many people have been baptized, confirmed, married, or buried from here? How many sermons, hymns, prayers, and acts of worship have flowed from the hearts, minds, and souls of its ministers, laity, and constituents?” the church recalled in a note.
“There are also connections with the broader community. How many people ate at its various strawberry dinners, potluck suppers, or Mother's Day pancake breakfasts? Did you ever go to one of its rummage sales, auctions, holiday sales, or ‘Meet the Candidates’ nights? How many lives were served by hosting meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous, providing space for weight loss groups, or educational programs offered by the Southwick Historical Society? And what about sponsoring Scout troops and other community organizations?”
Carol Jones who passed out red carnations to the approximately 30 people who showed up for the final service said her connection with the church is deep.
“I was christened here,” she told Mass Live. “My brother was the treasurer for 40 years and then I was the treasurer for the next 10.”
Church officials explained in their brief history account that they had started to accept that they were at the “end of an era” around 2019.
“With diminishing numbers and an aging population, by 2019 church members began to recognize that we could no longer do what we once did,” the note added. “So we have come to the end of an era: the closure of the church on July 1, 2022.”
Jones said she saw the end coming, too, when all the younger people moved away.
“The kids are all gone now,” she told Mass Live. “They moved away and at my age what else could we do.”
Another member, Carol Locke, who has been a part of the church for 22 years agreed. She said much of the revenue-generating work of the church required younger people and the church is short of that.
“We are a very old congregation. Most of us are over 80 and we can’t do the potluck dinners and the craft fairs and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “It has been (a big part of her life), but unfortunately, I think the time has come.”
Many churches like Christ Church UMC, have been making the difficult decision to close permanently because their membership isn’t sufficient to sustain their operation financially.
After declining for years, the First Presbyterian Church of Des Moines in Iowa, which had been in operation since 1848, held their last service in April because they were unable to recover from the membership losses they suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were declining and the pandemic killed us,” said Kathy Smith, who had been a member of the church since 1984.
Last December, the 221-year-old First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, permanently closed its doors on Christmas Eve due to declining membership and attendance.
The Potter’s House of Denver also announced plans in December to sell its $12.2 million megachurch in Arapahoe County, Colorado, and go completely virtual due to declining donations amid the pandemic.
Chestly Lunday, an expert in innovative leadership who has helped churches and companies lead in the digital age, recently told The Christian Post that one of the biggest reasons behind the declining statistics in traditional church membership is that the younger generation and innovative Christians have migrated online while older adults refuse to adapt.
“What we're seeing [now] is the exodus of the late majority [from traditional churches],” Lunday said. “We're not seeing the exodus of early adopters [of technology], and the early majority of innovators. They've been gone already for a while. So what you're seeing now, like one major church, where pre-pandemic people were coming 1.4 times a month, now they're coming 0.8 times per month, meaning one of the best communicators in North America can't get somebody [in church] to tell [them about Jesus] once a month a year anymore. That's what that means.”
Christ Church UMC member Mabel Johnson, who is 92, was sad to see her church close but she has accepted that she has come to the end of an era.
“I was brought up in the Advent Christian Church in Westfield. That got sold, and now this,” she told Mass Live. “I guess when you are my age all you do is say goodbye to things, to people and things.”