Rhode Island Churches in Decline

The state of Rhode Island is experiencing a decline in church attendance and an increase in church closings, according to researchers.

Although growing disaffiliation with organized religion is a nationwide trend, in Rhode Island this trend is more pronounced. According to the Pew Forum on Religious Life, Rhode Island is one of the least religious States in the Union and Gallup found that only about 30 percent of the population attends church weekly.

Juliet Bongfeldt, pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Kingston, is dean over the Rhode Island Conference for the New England Synod of the ELCA. In an interview with The Christian Post, Bongfeldt said that there were many reasons for this decline.

"I think there are a lot of factors. I think our society is becoming more secularized. I think there are a lot more demands on people than there were previously – what they are doing with their kids and what they are doing with their own jobs and the different activities that people are engaged in," said Bongfeldt, who oversees a congregation with a regular attendance in the 50s.

According to Bongfeldt, activities that people were involved in used to be overseen by the congregation and the church community.

"The church used to be the center of people's lives. It's now become one of the things on the periphery for a lot of people," said Bongfeldt.

Bongfeldt's remarks come as Cathedral of St. John in Providence, once a prominent Episcopal church, announced that it would be closing down on Sunday, April 22.

The Rev. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, told Rhode Island Public Radio that approximately 50 churches in the state have had to close down in the past five years – a trend expected to continue.

"It might even reach 100 because we have a number of smaller churches that are on shaky grounds. It's a huge problem. This is not a small problem," said Anderson on WRNI in Providence.

Efforts to reverse this trend vary from congregation to congregation, said Bongfeldt, but often involve charity work and getting out to the community.

"Each church is doing its own thing, trying in its own way, reaching out in different ways to different communities," said the ELCA pastor, noting that some churches have started up food aid programs.

"Other churches provide summer day camps, or Vacation Bible School, or weekday playgroups for young children and their mothers."

Bongfeldt also noted that her church, Good Shepherd, has "a new ministry in Providence to Hispanic people: La Iglesia Luterana. They have 50-60 worshippers."

"Another church in Providence, originally founded by Swedish immigrants, is now ministering to a multi-cultural congregation and to the community at large, with a music school and help with settling and advocating for new immigrants," she said.