Grassy Creek United Methodist Church in Surry County. Courtesy of The Duke Endowment.
The 18 pews at Parker’s Grove United Methodist Church were warmed by longtime member Kenneth Brantley, and before him, his parents and grandparents. With the sun streaming through the sanctuary windows, the seats have a brown patina burnished by generations of worshippers. Church organizers in the 1870s raised $650 to build this white, weatherboard house of prayer about 20 miles north of Fayetteville on an acre provided by Cader Parker.
For decades, through both good times and the Great Depression, the church served mostly farm and sawmill hands. By 1964, Parker’s Grove had a record 168 members, including a young Brantley, who recalls squirming through preaching and Sunday school. “This,” he says, “is where we learned the scriptures.” Then his friends grew up and left, and his family grew old and, one by one, moved a stone’s throw to the graveyard across the narrow country road.
Four years ago, the Rev. Don Mitchell stood here. Worshippers came lugging fried chicken and potato salad for lunch after Mitchell’s message declaring the church’s closure. “All things have a season, the Bible has taught us. A season of growth and vitality and living out God’s will to the fullest in our lives,” he preached. “But there’s a point where we have to pass on these gifts and graces to the next generation.”
Brantley, one of eight remaining members, stifles tears as he recalls that day. “I was born and raised here, and this had been my only church,” he says. “I never thought I’d be the one closing the doors.”
Parker’s Grove is the tip of an iceberg as North Carolina’s religious world undergoes unprecedented transition. It’s not just isolated rural parishes: Charlotte’s Selwyn United Methodist Church, in the heart of the affluent Myers Park neighborhood, held its last official service on Feb. 2. Plans call for the church property to be redeveloped for residences as Selwyn merges with another congregation a mile away.
“Over the next 20 years, I think probably 25% of the churches in North Carolina will close their doors or replant as very different congregations,” says John Butler, director of business services of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. New generations are opting for a spirituality distinct from the small, close-knit congregations that have played a vital role in the state since its inception.
The secular implications of religion’s changing face are profound because of the sector’s largely unnoticed $13 billion annual economic impact in the state, says Brian Grim, president of the nonprofit Religious Freedom & Business Foundation based in Annapolis, Md. Many N.C. church leaders contend Grim’s estimate is understated.
Theologians, demographers, economists, church leaders and others say the change touches all Tar Heels, even the half — or roughly 5.2 million — who never darken a church door. Religious institutions provide billions in services that would otherwise be footed mostly by taxpayers.
While each dying church has its own story, the collective impact is immense because they serve as anchor institutions in most communities, says the Rev. Rob Webb III, who heads The Duke Endowment’s rural church program. The Methodist-linked foundation has awarded more than $3.7 billion to churches, hospitals, colleges and other groups since it was organized by business magnate J.B. Duke in 1924.
At least 50 North Carolina houses of worship are closed and for sale. Parker’s Grove is asking $180,000, while a similar church in Crumpler in the far northwest mountains of Ashe County is on the block for $105,000. In Winston-Salem, there’s a $5.3 million listing for a modern design with an austere cross dominating its front façade. A classic brick with imposing white columns and a steeple is on the market for $2.5 million in west Charlotte.
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The real count of abandoned churches is likely several times higher because many simply sit idle. The state’s largest denomination, the 1.5 million-member Southern Baptist, set aside $2.7 million of its $30 million budget last year to aid 80 to 100 mostly small, new churches, but still treaded water as an equal or greater number closed.
“Schools might consolidate, and factories might have moved away, but the church remains and is tremendous social capital,” Webb says. “People trust them, so we want to convert that into catalysts for change, to drive human and economic community advancement.”
Religion ranks alongside sectors such as tourism and retailing as important economic drivers. The most obvious impact is direct spending, “paying the light bills, paying the local insurance agent, fixing up the buildings, paying the preacher,” says Grim, a former Pew Research Institute analyst considered a leading authority on religious trends. The spending averages more than $260,000 a year at the state’s churches, most of which flows back into the surrounding community.
With about 15,700 churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, North Carolina has more at stake than most states when it comes to the health of the spirit. Pew Research ranks it the nation’s 10th most religious, with 75% believing in God, compared with a national average of 65%.
To be sure, there’s lots of vitality in North Carolina religion. The state has 59 megachurches with weekly attendance topping 2,000 — fifth-highest in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Hartford Institute for Religious Research, based in Hartford, Conn. Matthews-based Elevation, a nondenominational church affiliated with the Southern Baptists, says it has weekly average attendance of 29,000 at 19 locations, mostly in North Carolina. Other giants include Arden’s Biltmore Baptist, with 6,021 average weekly attendance, and Hope Community Church, a Raleigh-based church with branches in Morrisville, Apex and Garner and an average attendance of 7,854. Annual budgets of the largest churches top $10 million.
Catholicism has also boomed. There were fewer than 100,000 members in North Carolina in 1980. Today, more than 500,000 are registered members, and perhaps an equal number aren’t official but also identify as Catholic, buoyed by a burgeoning Hispanic population and in-migration from the Northeast and Midwest. The Charlotte Diocese’s membership has grown by an average 4% annually since 2011, says Jim Kelley, its development director. St. Matthew Catholic Church in south Charlotte is believed to be the nation’s largest Catholic parish with 34,000 members and 11 weekend Masses.
Still, trends suggest the declining influence of churchgoers. A decade ago, more than half of Tar Heels attended services weekly, a figure that has decreased to 38%. Membership in religious organizations nationally has dipped 20% since 1999, according to researchers at surveying giant Gallup and the Pew Institute. Judaism is experiencing similar strains as Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and others, says Leonard Rogoff, historian of the Raleigh-based Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina. He estimates the state’s temples and synagogues count about 50,000 members, which has remained steady because of relocations from the northeast U.S. to the Triangle, Charlotte, the Triad and other urban regions.
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Bishop Hope Morgan Ward oversees the Garner-based North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, which covers 56 eastern North Carolina counties with 790 churches and about 226,000 members. That’a a 5% decline since 2010, even as the state’s population has grown by 10%. Nationally, United Methodist membership is fewer than
7 million, down from a peak of 10.7 million in 1970.
The average age of Tar Heel Methodists? “Too old,” Ward laughs. Though research is sketchy, it’s likely near 60. “We know the average age of our clergy is in the upper 50s, and the average age of members is at least that,” she says. “Reaching out to younger members is something we constantly do.”
Ward says religion is undergoing the same transitions as society as a whole, including a declining loyalty to traditional institutions. She remains hopeful that churches can respond effectively. Curiously, Parker’s Grove Methodist and its aftermath is an example. Its final eight members were absorbed by Erwin United Methodist, a church 8 miles away led by Don Mitchell.
“It’s thriving, inclusive and involved in the community,” Ward says. Though Sunday attendance averages only 125, Erwin Methodist serves as a community center with space shared by Boy Scout troops, a Salvation Army thrift store and a social worker. Part of the state’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs through its grounds. It provides transportation for needy members to doctor and hospital appointments, a food pantry and other functions.
A study sponsored by the Duke and Lilly endowments concluded Erwin United has a $1.16 million annual impact on its Harnett County community of 5,000, slightly more than the $1 million average of eight similar Methodist churches in the Raleigh and Asheville areas. The study was based on an estimate of the general public outlay for social services if churches didn’t step up.
“We’ve been looking for ways to partner with other services,” Mitchell says. “But I was shocked. We never looked at most of what we were doing as having a monetary value.”
Across the state, other examples abound. Southern Baptists crisscross North Carolina with some two dozen children’s homes that Butler says cared for more than 1,000 children last year, providing more than 121,000 days of care for abandoned, neglected and abused youths. The Baptists also maintain a network of assisted-living and retirement homes for the elderly and extensive services for the aged seeking advice on Medicare and Social Security.
In eastern North Carolina’s Pender and Carteret counties, the impact of religion is real, too. The smell of stew and coffee from church kitchens permeates the cool air of late-winter mornings, where kitchens are staffed by volunteers from Baptist churches, still dishing hot meals to victims of Hurricane Florence two years after the storm devastated their homes.
Donations bought materials for rebuilding and food for more than 1 million meals. “The total impact will be about $40 million when you factor in the multiplier effect of thousands of people volunteering,” Butler says. The conference’s men’s division has more than 12,000 trained disaster-relief volunteers, second only to the American Red Cross nationwide.
In Charlotte and Raleigh, officials cite similar disaster relief and social-services campaigns by church groups, including the Diocese of Charlotte’s Catholic Charities, which Kelley says provided more than 23,000 hours of service last year. “That’s an impact that someone would have to pay for if we didn’t have those volunteer hours,” he says.
The economic impact of religion also shows in hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investments each year. A Duke Endowment analysis of Methodist churches and property in western North Carolina concluded their combined assessed value tops $1.4 billion, most of it tax-exempt.
On a September morning in Gaston County near the gothic Belmont Abbey College, men in pristine white robes and hard hats wield shovels and recite Psalm 47 as they break ground for the diocese’s $20 million St. Joseph College Seminary. “The Lord most high is awesome,” they chant. The diocese also recently raised $65 million for schools, ministries and other uses, Kelley says.
The seminary will train 40 priests when it opens later this year and represents the kind of project that creates millions in construction payrolls, materials and other spending. Kelley says members contribute about $7 million a year to its 19 diocesan schools and almost $2.8 million to public charities in 46 western North Carolina counties.
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Ward, the Duke Endowment’s Webb and other church leaders fret over the fundamental question: Is the world — and particularly its younger inhabitants — tilting secular?
“We see less trust for institutions,” says Butler, the Southern Baptist Convention official who was a mortgage banker before becoming a pastor. Many in the Gen X, Gen Y and millennial age ranges “are skeptical, and rightly so in many cases, of religion, government, politics, Wall Street, our institutions as a whole. And that’s carrying over into the ways they practice religion.” Baptists have been lax in courting Hispanic newcomers, along with Asians and other immigrants, he adds.
“I don’t think [younger generations] are becoming less religious,” he says. “It’s just the way they express themselves. They want to be involved, but they also want to be hands-on involved. They don’t like to be told, ‘I’m supposed to go to church on Sunday morning at 11.’ They’re not content to just sit in church. They want to get out there and help.”
At Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist Church, in the heart of one of the state’s most affluent neighborhoods, leaders are questioning if they should break the tie that binds them to a brand. The 2,200-member church was founded in 1943 and is known for its progressive slant. A lawn sign declares “Jesus Was An Undocumented Immigrant,” while restroom signage reads “Those Who Identify As Men.”
Members will decide by 2021 whether to banish “Baptist” from its title. Newcomers “make assumptions” based on the name, says Benjamin Boswell, the senior minister, including that some Baptists are ultraconservative, gender exclusive, racist and unwelcoming. He says that Christianity faces an identity crisis because of changing demographics and notes that his church also attracts people of other faiths and nonbelievers.
The transitions are forcing church leaders into brutal introspection. “I have a concern we’re becoming less religious,” Webb says. “We’re fraught with stories about church bureaucracy, nefarious sexual scandals in the Baptist and Catholic churches, and [United Methodism] is struggling with issues of human sexuality and marriage. I honestly think that turns people away from religion.”
In January, a group of U.S. Methodist leaders announced a plan to split the denomination, one branch for traditionalists who oppose ordination of homosexual individuals and same-sex marriages, and another that celebrates diversity and LGBTQ rights. A vote is expected this summer to determine the church’s stance, which has divided Methodists for many years.
Meanwhile, economics is forcing once competing churches to merge. Charlotte’s struggling Johnston Memorial Presbyterian Church and Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, with dwindling and aging congregations, have been absorbed by the larger, multisite Forest Hill Church. Experts say such mergers produce larger, stronger churches that can bring business acumen and scale to common endeavors such as improving early-childhood education, health care and disaster relief.
While most businesses shy from endorsing religious views, Grim says a surprising number of organizations increasingly provide for internal employee activities of a spiritual nature. He points to “faith-friendly” Tyson Foods, which has placed about 100 chaplains representing diverse beliefs in plants. The Arkansas-based meat company — which operates about a dozen N.C. production plants — also maintains a prayer book on the company’s website for employees. “You hear about Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A,” Grim says, “but this goes much deeper.”
Other hopeful signs? Kelley and other Catholics cite renewed interest in the priesthood by young men. In Raleigh, Methodist Bishop Ward says, “We’ve got a steady stream of young women and men being called into the Christian ministry who are learning to serve as pastors, as teachers of the faith. There are signs of vitality as well as signs of diminishment.”
Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the 6,200-member N.C. Council of Churches, says Christianity isn’t “confined to an old building out in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t have enough people to keep the doors open and the lights turned on. The spirit is doing a new thing that may not be tied to buildings and institutional bureaucracy.”
None of which lessens the pain of transition for church members like Kenneth Brantley. On the pews at Parker’s Grove, the little white church in the country, neighbors and family gathered to bury his mother and father in the graveyard across the road.
Before he joins them, he says he hopes another church, maybe a small startup like Parker’s Grove in 1875, will come. “I’d love to see that,” he says. “I really would.”