Our point of view: Changing times, changing churches | Editorial
It is perhaps best understood as a sign of changing times.
Wake Forest Baptist Church, the prominent community institution that meets on the campus of Wake Forest University, has made the difficult decision to disband in the near future “due to declining and aging membership, limited financial resources and a new tenancy policy imposed on the church by Wake Forest University,” Acting Pastor Reverend Rayce Lamb said in a letter Sunday, as reported by John Deem of the Log.
The scene of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of sermons, lectures and ceremonies, the university’s Wait Chapel has served as the spiritual home of the congregation since 1956, when Wake Forest College first moved from Wake Forest to Winston Salem. It has also been the seat of several prominent ministers, as well as a hub for progressive social justice issues, while keeping a firm foothold in established Baptist doctrine.
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These competing forces have sometimes caused friction within the congregation — and with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. The church rode a wave of controversy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, being one of the first churches in the region to perform civil unions for same-sex couples, before same-sex marriage. eventually be legalized – a move that didn’t sit well with its parent organization.
“From marching for civil rights in the 1960s, to caring for AIDS patients in the 1990s, and tirelessly advocating for marriage equality in the 2000s, Wake Forest Baptist Church n ‘has never been afraid to fight for justice and share in the expansive love of Christ,” Lamb wrote in his letter. “The impact this church has had on both the Winston-Salem community and of Wake Forest University cannot be overstated and he will be missed. But, while Wake Forest Baptist Church will cease to exist, the resilient faith of its members will not, and together we will move forward to make the work of God in new ways.
But things are changing. Church membership has fallen from hundreds in the 1950s and 1960s – including Wake Forest students, faculty and staff – to a few dozen today, not enough to keep paying rent. Between now and when the church folds, it will meet in the smaller Davis Chapel rather than the Wait Chapel.
It’s not the only church in the area to close or downsize in recent times. Some churches dissolve because of scandal or internal division—but more because of practical factors like changing demographics or demographic trends—or competition from other churches.
The closure, however, is a reminder that church attendance patterns have changed significantly in the United States for some time now. Last year, for the first time in decades, Gallup found that less than half of American adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.
“Americans’ membership of places of worship continued to decline last year, falling below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend,” Gallup reported. “American church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained close to 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline at the turn of the 21st century. “
This coincides with the rise of “nones” – Americans who claim to have no specific religious affiliation (and therefore check the box marked “none” or “nothing in particular”). Time magazine named the group “the fastest growing religious group in the United States” in 2012, and it has been growing ever since.
But even though they may not be particularly religious, it would be a mistake to identify the no as anti-religious or immoral.
Whether in a church or elsewhere, people seek meaning, purpose, and structure in their lives. Despite its source, many of us seem to agree on the values that help us get through our days and associate with each other in rewarding ways: honesty, generosity, kindness, and compassion.
We could all use a little compassion these days.
Members of Wake Forest Baptist Church have learned these values. We hope they take them with them when they go to new places.