Eastern Iowa churches losing faithful

Members pulling away from organized, traditional religion

 (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
 (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Howard Chapman has no delusions about the status of mainline Protestant churches in the United States, or even in the Corridor. Congregations are shrinking, he says, and likely will continue to do so.

But while many point fingers to the increasing number of so-called “megachurches” — including the growth of at least four such churches in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — Chapman, pastor at First Presbyterian Church, 802 12th St., in Marion, says the problem has just as much to do with a decline in religion in general as it does with structures and affiliations.

“The mainline denominations are declining all the way across the board, there’s no denying that,” Chapman said. “Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists — we’re all losing members. But I don’t know that we’re losing members to megachurches, I think we’re losing members to ‘nothing.’?”

Chapman cited an increasing number of people identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they believe in a higher power but don’t affiliate with organized religion. Others, he said, are moving away from the church altogether.

The Rev. Royce Phillips, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, 2050 12th Ave., Coralville, agreed, pointing to a “post-Christian” society that is drawing people away from the church. “Post-Christian” refers to those living according to the teachings of Jesus but distancing themselves from organized religion or refusing to call themselves “Christian.”

“I think we’re seeing the ‘Walmart-ization’ of churches, where people are looking for the one-stop shop, wanting to find something for everyone in one place,” Phillips said. “There’s a trend toward the post-Christian world, as well — it’s affecting churches across the board.”

Local beliefs

In fact, Cedar Rapids-area churches may be affected more than most across the country, according to a recent report by the Barna Research Group listing the top 15 post-Christian cities in the United States. In that report, Cedar Rapids placed 15th, with 49 percent of residents meeting at least nine of the 15 criteria set by the religious research group. Some of those criteria include a lack of a belief in God, identification as atheist or agnostic, haven’t prayed to God in the last year, and disagree that the Bible is accurate. Full criteria are on the group’s website at

“I think you’re also seeing a declining interest in spiritual things in general, more shopping by churchgoers — ‘I’ll take my kids to this church’s preschool, my older kids to this church’s youth group,’ that sort of thing,” Phillips said.

The proof may be in the numbers. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008 — the most recent survey conducted — there were nearly as many Americans who considered themselves as unaffiliated as there were members of mainline Protestant churches. At the time of the survey, 16.1 percent of Americans considered themselves atheist, agnostic or spiritual, while 18.1 percent reported being a member of a mainline church. Comparatively, 26.3 percent of Americans reported membership in evangelical Protestant churches.

For those searching for a church home a wider range of criteria — and who meets the majority of their needs — may be driving some families to larger churches, said the Rev. Jill Sanders, field outreach minister for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“We have a consumer mentality so people are looking at where they’re going to get their needs met,” she said.

She encourages the smaller congregations to hold fast and to coexist — rather than compete — with the larger churches.

“I see church as more than simply meeting consumer needs. I’m trying to encourage churches to keep their chins up and keep as vital and life-giving as they can be,” she said. “There are some people who are going to fit better in smaller churches. They don’t necessarily want to be part of a large crowd where they may not know who they’re attending church with.”

“I think the mission field is large enough we need all different sizes and shapes of churches,” she said.

Shopping for churches

Still, Chapman said, there is some consumer-type shopping when it comes to finding a home church.

“Sometimes I think a church like mine is like Java Creek or Mr. Beans, and the big churches are like Starbucks,” he said. “You go to Starbucks and you know what you’re going to get, you can go to any Starbucks in the country and you know what they offer. You go to Java Creek or Mr. Beans and you’re in a unique coffee shop, you get their particular coffee and their particular pastries.”

“You could find some pastors who grumble and put down the megachurches, but I don’t see it as competition, I think we’re all on the same side,” Chapman said. “They just have a different flavor than us, and they have a different appeal than we do. We try to be the best that we can and they try to be the best that they can, and we all just remain faithful to what God has called us to do.”

Sanders agreed.

“I’m not arguing that the small-membership churches are the be all, end all of churches, but when a small church doesn’t let its size hinder its outreach to its mission field it can be just as vital as a large church,” she said. “If it’s small and it recognizes the gifts of small and what is their niche ministry, they have an opportunity to be strong, as well.”

What makes a church a home for families has changed much in the last 50 years, Chapman said, and will continue to change in the next 50 years.

“We’re never going to be back to where we were in the ’50s and ’60s where you built a new church and put Presbyterian on the side,” Chapman said. “The name brand carried the church. That’s really when the mainline churches were in their prime; those days are gone.”


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