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For many the holiday season is a time to reflect, be charitable and make a biannual visit to their local church. But between Christmas and Easter, some southern Wisconsin church leaders are left to scratch their heads and ask the question, “Where did everyone go?”

National surveys continually show a decline in church attendance across the country — a fact that Bill Kapp, pastor at First United Church of Christ in Sauk City, said began in the late 1960s and “has been on a decline ever since.” Noting that demographics play a significant role, Kapp said it’s somewhat easier to find new parishioners in a town like Sauk City, which is close to Madison and has people moving in on a consistent basis.

“But you know there’s an old saying that for every established member you need seven new members to replace them in terms of them offering support in the life of the church,” Kapp said.

While Gallup polls over the last 70 years have shown that about 40 percent of Americans say they attend church regularly, David Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, revealed in a study he conducted that “the actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40 percent the pollsters report.”

The disparity may be a result of people stretching the truth when asked if they attend church on a regular basis. A 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute noted that one in seven people falsely claim church attendance when surveyed. The study credited “social desirability bias in self-reported religious behavior.”

Whether the numbers are 40 percent or 20 percent it is clear that a vast majority of Americans have chosen activities other than going to church on Sunday mornings.

Changing culture

In times gone by the only building open for business on a Sunday morning in small-town America was the local church. It was the thing, or only thing, to do — wake up, eat breakfast and then go to church. Kapp thinks church-going habits began changing in the early 1990s.

“I think our culture has changed more in the last 25 or 30 years than in any other point in the history of the world,” he said. “With the Internet there are different ways now to experience church. In the old days shops were closed on Sunday. In this era we have soccer games and bands marching in parades (on Sunday mornings). You have all kinds of activities happening on a weekend.”

Rev. Joseph Corbin of First Presbyterian Church in Reedsburg said his congregation has seen a decline in attendance over his 22 years of service — from a past attendance of 55 people on a typical Sunday to 35 or 40. He echoed Kapp’s thoughts about American culture on a Sunday morning.

“Families with children that are into sports activities indicated that a lot of the different sports clubs like wrestling, soccer or baseball usually have tournaments or away games and a lot of that happens on the weekend,” Corbin said. “It’s frustrating but if they want to do that, that’s the only time they can do it.”

Why people go

There is no single reason why people go to church. Perhaps it mirrors the Geico Insurance ad slogan — “it’s just what you do.” People’s grandparents went, their parents went and now they go and are taking their kids. For others it’s an opportunity to give back to the community — or a pathway to developing a relationship with God and “finding the meaning of life.”

Rev. Marianne Cotter of First United Methodist Church in Baraboo said although the church’s national attendance has declined, the Baraboo church’s numbers have remained steady over the last five years. However, she said a church’s vitality is more than its number of parishioners.

“Some people say if you just look at the numbers of people who are in attendance that’s a discouraging kind of picture and that leads you feeling kind of deflated,” Cotter said. “But I think this congregation looks at what ways are we impacting the community.”

Cotter thinks people in general are still hungry for answers. “People are intensely interested in spirituality. As an institution the church is suffering but that doesn’t show any lack of desire to learn about God.”

Cotter said a major part of why people stay involved in her congregation — despite declining numbers overall at her Baraboo church in the last 15 years — is to make a difference in people’s lives. She said First United Methodist has made a significant impact on the community and the world, noting a neighborly store the congregation sponsors offering free clothing, a community garden serving a local food pantry and a Thanksgiving food drive.

For Cotter, however, a church should go beyond just being a place for fellowship and offering assistance to its community. “I think that’s how you reach out to the people who are outside the walls of the church,” she said. “You offer them a place where they can bring their questions and bring who they are as people in the 21st century, but also to recognize that all of us have that spiritual hunger within us whether it’s inside the church or out.”

Portage resident Nancy Hibbard — who spent 11 years in Haiti as a Christian missionary — has had waves of attending and not attending church on a regular basis, but ultimately has found that she is “spiritually fed” when she is with other Christians. “I feel like when I don’t go I’m missing something. When I go to church I feel like I grow closer to Jesus and the relationship flourishes — and I want to spend more and more time there.”

Rev. Steve Keller of United Presbyterian Church in Wisconsin Dells said most of what drives people to church is values. “People want to come back to ‘where have our values gone?’ Whether we like it or not in this country our values are set on a faith-based community,” Keller said. “Everything years ago was based around the church.”

Why people don’t go

Part of the reason churches have struggled to consistently increase membership is a stigma that can be attached to the religious. Whether it’s a fear of being judged or concern about overzealous preachers, most church leaders say it’s a complex issue with no single clear-cut cause.

Cotter says that while her church strives to make its worship “inviting and easy to come into,” she said “it can be very scary coming into a church if you’ve never gone to one before. It takes a lot of courage.”

Ironically, an institution such as the American church — while in many cases an epicenter for acceptance — sometimes backfires when it comes to accepting people, especially the younger generation.

“Younger people do perceive the church as judgmental and very condemning,” Cotter said.

Another issue plaguing churches is trust. Rev. Tom Countryman, pastor of Portage United Methodist Church said “there was erosion in confidence in institutions in the last half-century. People don’t trust (entities such as) government and school boards.”

Countryman said that erosion of trust has grown to include churches.

“At the same time, churches — which were at one time held in high regard — have lost that regard,” he said. “Pastors are no longer considered one of the key people; pastors used to be very trusted. Churches used to be trusted institutions. Right now banks don’t like to lend to churches anymore. They used to be considered a good financial risk by a bank.”

Some church leaders say religion for many has become almost like an insurance policy with God; there’s really no need to attend church on a regular basis until trouble hits.

Hibbard has encountered several non-church-going friends in her life who wonder why she “doesn’t just stay in bed on a Sunday morning” and is later mystified that those same people ask her to pray when trouble arrives in their lives.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Madison went as far as posting a slogan on city bus signs saying “sleep in on Sundays.” The organization’s co-founder, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said “our country is becoming much more secular,” noting that many secular groups have seen enormous growth and become more skeptical of religion.

“I don’t know anybody that would enjoy being preached at or being told they’re sinners that might go to hell unless they’re saved,” Gaylor said. “Or why they would enjoy hearing that infidels and non-Christians would be going to hell.”

Rev. Joe Fricke of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mauston, however, said “ignorance breeds ignorance.” Referring to a Time magazine article that reported that America’s religious knowledge is “a mile wide and three inches deep” he noted there is a vast misperception among many about what Christianity is about and its purpose.

“A lot of people have a surface knowledge of what the Bible teaches or they believe a lot of the stuff that they see on the Internet or in the media about what the Bible says or whether it’s credible or not,” he said. Fricke sees that as a significant reason why a majority of Americans choose not to go to church.

‘Spiritual but not religious’

It’s a phrase that seems to have caught on with many Americans in recent years — “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s almost as if it’s uncomfortable for some to admit to friends or co-workers they attend church. Whether it’s because religion has taken a hit from priest sex scandals or remnants from television preachers who went astray, the phrase has taken root.

Television shows like Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” regularly explore that theme — sometimes emphasizing that logistical matters of how and where you develop your spirituality, or your relationship with God, don’t necessarily matter as much. In other words, what’s important is your personal relationship with God or a higher power — it doesn’t necessarily have to be performed inside the physical walls of a church. In a recent episode of “Super Soul Sunday” a guest commented, “I’ve seen plenty of good church-going people that kick the dog ten minutes after they get home from church.”

Some church leaders, however, have a different take on “spiritual but not religious.”

“I hate that expression,” Countryman said. “It is impossible to be spiritual without religious because those are two sides of the same coin. There has to be a tangible manifestation for that to be real.

“Someone could say ‘I’m musical but I’m not a musician.’ So you don’t sing and play an instrument but you’re musical? What does that mean?” Countryman said. He noted spirituality has to manifest itself in some “concrete and fleshed form. Religion is that half of the equation that is the realization of (being) spiritual in the world.”

Corbin also is mystified by people declaring they are spiritual but not religious. “The Bible teaches us that when we gather together, we’re stronger than when we’re alone.” He added that when he asks people why they don’t want to express their spirituality in a church, a common response is “they go into the litany of the church is full of hypocrites.”

Corbin re-emphasized his stance.“The body of Christ dines together, worships together and serves together. There are no ‘Lone Ranger’ Christians.”

Creative growth

Many church leaders seem to agree that the days of hoping a church will get new members by people simply walking into a formal service on a Sunday morning are gone. A common theme has developed to tackle the problem — get creative. The main goal seems to be consistent: break down the formality of a traditional church service.

Several years ago Countryman realized that not only do people work Sunday mornings, they also may be turned off by a formal church setting. To lighten the atmosphere he created “Pizza Church” in Portage — an informal church service that takes place on Monday evenings with contemporary music and yes, pizza. He said the pizza delivery guy will often arrive right in the middle of a sermon.

Corbin also recognized that non-church-going people can be put off by the formality of stain-glassed windows and booming church organ music. Years ago he created “Cowboy Church,” a Monday service “with old-time gospel hymns that will get your toes a tappin.’”

In September, Kapp created a Wednesday evening “contemporary church service” for his congregation in Sauk City. At 5 p.m. every Wednesday the community is invited for a casual, free potluck dinner served in the church’s basement. A shorter 35-minute service is then conducted from the pulpit complete with pre-recorded acoustic guitar music, a church member playing along on bongo drums and Kapp delivering his sermon in a T-shirt and jeans.

Cotter even headed a recent Sunday morning service on climate change, inviting speakers to guide church members on how anyone make a difference in keeping the planet clean.

The future

While American churches likely will always be steeped in traditions dating back centuries, it’s clear many are embracing a changing culture in the 21st century. Change can be difficult for storied institutions, but church leaders continue to offer a message of hope — not only for making our world a better place, but also in spreading the word that church doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable hour spent only at Christmas and Easter.

Whether it’s eating a sausage and pepperoni pizza while listening to the word of God or dancing in church aisles to bongo drums, churches appear to be spreading their wings and opening their minds.

Kapp said at his recent Wednesday evening contemporary service, “I am thankful that we have a God who will never forsake us. We have a God that wants us to live in peace, whether it’s men or women, black or white, Muslim or Christian.”