Fewer Wisconsinites are attending church, that’s according to new research.
For many church members, attending worship services is an important part of the week but researchers with the Barna Group, an organization that tracks trends in the faith community say there’s been a significant attendance drop within the Christian church community over the last 15 years.
A similar trend is happening in the Eau Claire area. In March of 2018, First Baptist Church in Eau Claire held its final service after more than 150 years in the community. This was due to declining membership.
Pastor Jim Ahlquist of Spirit Lutheran Church in Eau Claire says the declining statewide numbers don’t surprise him.
“I’ve been a pastor for 35 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the church.” Pastor Ahlquist has spent two of his 35 years in service at Spirit and says it’s true that church attendance has somewhat declined overall.
While Spirit is holding steady attendance, Ahlquist says the numbers are still smaller than years past.
Spirit Lutheran Church is a merger of Our Saviors Lutheran Church and First Lutheran Church. The two merged back in 2015 to become Spirit, which is one of eight local churches a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) community.
“I think all of our churches and some of the churches in town that used to be thousands and thousands of members have gone way down and are worshipping less than 100 on Sunday,” said Pastor Ahlquist.
He says this isn’t all bad news and can sometimes provide opportunity for different churches to come together to be successful.
“If we can do things together and work together, we can accomplish a lot more,” said Ahlquist.
He says there’s benefit to joining forces because some small congregations can’t keep up with expenses when attendance is declining.
“Maybe some of our buildings are causing a lot of financial angst when we could be joining together and using that money for mission and for outreach and doing what the church is really called to do in the first place,” said Ahlquist.
Jenny Hatleli, Intern Pastor at Spirit Lutheran also provides insight into the issue. She says another reason for declining attendance is because people are changing the way they connect with their faith. As younger generations grow older, it impacts the faith community she says.
“There’s so much research out about our younger generations who are missing the sense of relationships…the sense of touch, communication, face to face and a lot of that has to do with social media that has come into play,” said Hatleli.
Ahlquist says this doesn’t mean the younger generation is lacks faith but that they are just not doing it the traditional way past generations have.
“We have technology these days where they can stream and listen to services and messages over the internet at their convenience.” He says this impacts church attendance numbers as well
Hatleli says while its great younger people are finding new ways to connect to the faith community, there’s something missing when there’s no face to face interaction in the physical setting of church.
“As people who are created to be in community with each other, we’re missing that,” said Hatleli.
Hatleli says physically attending church gives worshippers the chance to grow a sense of community which can be important in combatting issues like mental health.
“Rates of people being depressed, anxiety, and suicide rates are going through the roof and we wonder what’s going on…we forget that we’re called to be a people together in community,” she said.
Hatleli and Ahlquist say this just means faith leaders need to adjust.
“Maybe our young people are up to doing something to renew the church. Maybe it means that we don’t have traditional church like it always used to be…like our parents and grandparents.”
Pastor Ahlquist says maybe instead of waiting for people to come to church to worship, faith leader need to go to them.