Although sometimes painful, church closings can spur new beginnings
BLANCHARD, N.D.-Ole and Marilyn Aarsvold and Ken Beckman talk weather, farming, faith and family while sipping coffee and eating doughnuts. But the longtime church friends' recent gathering isn't post-church fellowship. This time they're in the A...
BLANCHARD, N.D. – Ole and Marilyn Aarsvold and Ken Beckman talk weather, farming, faith and family while sipping coffee and eating doughnuts. But the longtime church friends' recent gathering isn't post-church fellowship. This time they're in the Aarsvolds' kitchen on their family farmstead three miles from town. Since Blanchard Lutheran Church here shuttered in 2011, the former congregants don't see each other as much as they once did. "One thing that Blanchard (Lutheran Church) offered the community was fellowship. We never see each other anymore," Ole Aarsvold says. "We all miss seeing each other." The country church that had 17 active members, most of whom were lifelong congregants, is one of many rural worship houses closed nationwide. Although it's not a new phenomenon, rural church closings continue to affect small-town residents. In 2010, more than 1 in 4 rural congregations had fewer than 50 people in the pews, according to a study by David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and only one-third of churches formed between 1600 and 1945 are growing. Population, aging contribute to rural church closings Blanchard, population 26, looks like a ghost town. The post office, churches and other public buildings are closed. Twelve homes, some of which appear deserted, dot the tiny township, and the rest of the residents live on farmsteads. The rectangular plot of land where Blanchard Lutheran Church once stood is marked by two hedges that framed the building's entrance. The church was the hub of the small community 45 minutes northwest of Fargo. Blanchard Lutheran hosted community events like ice cream socials, and parishioners, many of whom were farmers, donated their time and money to Blanchard and its residents. But as the congregation aged and Sunday attendance waned, church members started considering closing the 100-year-old building despite its financial stability.
While studies suggest fewer people are attending church and millennials (people born from the early 1980s to early 2000s) are less connected and interested in religion, the decline in rural churches is more likely due to a decrease in rural population, says Roy Hammerling, a religion professor at Concordia College in Moorhead. "We don't assume school closures and mergers are a lack of concern for education; rather, we see them as a part of demographic shifts from rural to urban areas," he says. "But when churches close, for some reason we see that as a part of a disintegration of traditional values." In 1960, 66 percent of people in North Dakota lived in rural areas. Fifty years later, only 40 percent of North Dakotans lived rurally, according to the 2010 Census, and nearly one-fourth of people age 60 and older lived rurally in 2007. The Aarsvolds, both 74, and Beckman, 72, were the youngest members at their church and occupied the roles of treasurer (Ole Aarsvold), organist (Marilyn Aarsvold) and congregation president (Beckman). The trio encouraged hesitant congregation members to vote in favor of the church closing, and eventually, a unanimous vote sealed the building's fate and it was demolished in 2011. Ole Aarsvold says the congregation chose to tear down the old church to save its dignity. Zion Lutheran Church in Oriska burned to the ground that same year, and the Blanchard Lutheran congregation donated their church furnishings, including the handmade pulpit and cross and their organ, to the church as it rebuilt. Knowing parts of the building were living on made the decision to close Blanchard Lutheran easier. "We knew we were no longer going to be a congregation in Blanchard, but our stuff would continue on, and that made all of us really excited," Marilyn Aarsvold says. "A church is more than a building to get together in-it's a place of fellowship. But if you don't have anybody here, or very few, you don't really have what church is all about." Their final service on May 22, 2011, was a time of both fear and joy. "We were fearful for the unknown and joyful for what we did," Beckman says. "We did the right thing, and it was going to help start up another congregation." Shortly after their church closed, the Aarsvolds, Beckman and several other former Blanchard Lutheran members joined sister church Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Hillsboro. "We've been so familiar with Our Savior's that there wasn't really much of a transition," Beckman says. 'More than a building' When faced with a dwindling church population, not all congregations are as optimistic about closing their church doors as Blanchard Lutheran's members were. The decision to close can be life-altering and painful. The final service or Mass of thanksgiving can be like going to a funeral, says the Very Rev. Luke Meyer of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo. "In most places, people are kind of sad even though they're willing to move in the transition. It's a moment of sadness," he says. The Catholic Church calls closings "mergers," and Meyer has aided in the transition of four or five parishes since 2004. Like many denominations, the Catholic Church focuses on the mergers strongly for at least a year to ensure parishioners find new church homes, which can be challenging. "Sometimes that building for them was more than a building," Meyer says. "It represented their community that they had come to interact with and to worship with, and so sometimes they'll say it's just not the same going to the new place." To help with the transition, the diocese will transport sacred items like art to the parish's new church community so people feel more at home. Some members of Blanchard Lutheran saved items from the building, like hymnals and stained-glass windows. Others weren't as sentimental. It's common to see both attitudes when a church closes, says Jamie Parsley, a priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Fargo. "For some, it's like losing a parent. I weep over that," he says. "I think it must be horrible to lose this place that meant so much to you, where you encountered these sacred moments in your life." But, Parsley says, it's important to remember that the church exists beyond its walls. In rural areas, it can be especially difficult for congregations since the church building is as much a social gathering space as a spiritual one. "Rethinking church" is one way to aid in the transition after a rural church closes, Parsley says. He suggests social media as an avenue for people to be spiritually fed if there's no church building or if they're not ready to transition to a new church. It could also be an attractive way to worship for people who're hesitant to join a church. "I feel like, why not? It will be a challenge for the collective church if that's where we're heading. I still do firmly believe that you have to be together in person, that's an important component of the church," he says. "But that, too, is changing." 'Living stones' Encouraging lay leadership is another option for keeping rural communities faith-driven. "Nobody knows those communities better than the people in the pews anyway," Parsley says. "I think there's some hope in that way for these congregations." Like Parsley, the Rev. Terry Brandt, bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says congregations that focus on ministry outside their walls are often the healthiest. "Many of our small rural congregations are thinking creatively about the future and they're willing to try holy experiments," he says. "Congregations doing things in their own communities, in the state and in the world, those are really the healthy congregations and the ones that will continue to be here in the future." Another way rural churches can subsist is by strengthening their outreach. The diocese's Meyer encourages parishioners to invite friends and family to church to build the community. "The people themselves are the living stones, part of the living organism that moves with or without a building," he says. Although the members of Blanchard Lutheran joined other parishes, they hold on to the memories that were made in the white building framed by two green hedges. "I can't help but look at it every time I drive past," Marilyn Aarsvold says. "We all do." One church closed as it was fading and gave another church new life. And that's an important part of Blanchard Lutheran Church's journey, Brandt says. "Parts of that congregation are continuing on in the light of another congregation," he says. "In the midst of struggles, congregations realize the church is the people." The changing face of rural life and churches In 1960, 66 percent of North Dakota residents lived in rural areas. (Census Bureau) In 2010, only 40 percent of North Dakotans lived rurally. (Census Bureau) Nearly one-fourth of people age 60 and older lived rurally in 2007 (Census Bureau). In 2010, more than 1 in 4 rural congregations had fewer than 50 people in the pews, according to a study by David A. Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Only one-third of churches formed between 1600 to 1945 are growing, (Hartford Institute for Religion Research)