221-year-old Pennsylvania church permanently closes due to declining membership

The First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania
The First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania | Screenshot: Facebook/First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte

After hosting generations of worshipers beginning in 1800 when there were only 16 states, a 221-year-old church in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, is now among the latest casualties of the decline of American Christianity as it permanently closed its doors on Christmas Eve due to declining membership and attendance.

The 15,000-square-foot First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte, located at 203 North Spring Street, had only 40 members before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Centre Daily Times, which reports that the church now has about 25 members and only 12 attend in-person worship services. 

“There’s just such a love among this congregation. We’ve all known each other so long and we know each other’s foibles,” church elder Candace Dannaker told the publication. “I’ll miss our personality, our laughter and our joy in just being together. And, of course, the faith aspect of sharing that with other like-minded people.”

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Dannaker, who joined the church 34 years ago, estimates that there were about 200 people in attendance at that time.

Pam Benson, 77, who has been a member of the church for 73 years, blames the decline of her church on the changing times. Growing up, Benson explained, businesses would close on Sundays, and parents would insist on their children going to church. The competition between churches for new members, she recalled, was also not as fierce.

“It was so different. It was just what you did. Unless you were really sick, it was just what you did,” Benson said. “It’s just change. It’s progression. It’s what happens. Not that I like it, but it is what it is.”

Many pews remained empty at the congregation’s socially distanced Christmas Eve service broadcast on Facebook. But the older adults in attendance worshiped and celebrated the birth of Christ before saying their final goodbyes.

“And the light has splintered the darkness. And hope is ours once more. And this light does call us forward, remembering the past, and walking confidently into the future. And now go in the peace of Christ,” members said together as they raised lit candles before the final hymn.

Data from the National Public Opinion Reference Survey conducted by Pew Research Center from May 29 to Aug. 25 with a nationally representative group of respondents found that only 45% of U.S. adults say they pray daily compared to 58% who reported doing so in 2007 and 55% who said they prayed daily in 2014.

Even though self-identified Christians are still the largest religious group in the U.S., they now only make up a collective 63% of the adult population. When the Pew Research Center began measuring religious identity in 2007, self-identified Christians outnumbered “nones” 78% to 16%.

The study noted that the decline in the number of Christians nationwide was mostly concentrated among respondents who identified as Protestant. Their numbers declined by 10% in the last decade and 4% in the last five years.

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