That decline reflects the experience of older religious institutions around the country. Those who have left the Catholic Church, for instance, now outnumber those who have joined it 4-to-1, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2008 survey. The large Protestant denominations have lost more than a million members in the past decade or so. The most telling statistic may be the number of Americans who declare themselves “unaffiliated” with any church tradition; it has been rising since the 1960s, and it topped 16 percent in 2010, according to Gallup.
The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.
Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”
After the service, people of all ages gather in the coffee shop and concession area outside the gymnasium, chatting, reading the newspaper, and browsing the bookstores. To be clear: That’s the church coffee shop, the church concession area, the church gymnasium, and the church bookstores. Many in the congregation wear T-shirts and sneakers; no man wears a suit. “They seemed to just take care of their own,” says Nancy Hopper, who joined Union Chapel in 1993, when she grew unhappy with the rural church she had worshipped at. “I like reaching out to the community.”
If Parris’s church is fresh, new, and relevant, John Hunt, the head usher back at High Street, knows how his church is perceived. “Some people think it’s cold and unfriendly,” he says. Mendenhall, too, knows he’s failing to reach people, as are other traditional churches struggling to keep pace with the times. As the 60-year-old Methodist pastor puts it, “Churches are still stuck in the mentality that we just have to fling our doors open, and people will come. That’s not the case anymore. Just look around.”
Traditional churches often cater to people who no longer exist—men and women guaranteed long marriages, many children, and a single job that lasts a lifetime. Today, as people search for moral grounding in an uncertain world, what is more relevant to them, Mendenhall must wonder: choirs or rock bands? Church-basement socials or Starbucks? Bake sales or yoga classes? Missions that serve the poor overseas or those that help the church’s own destitute neighbors?
It’s not that Mendenhall isn’t trying to adapt. He very much wants to draw the same people that Union Chapel serves—or even just to recover some of his own flock. High Street Methodist’s poverty campaign is now focused more on Muncie’s poor than on the needy overseas. It has a nontraditional service with somewhat modern music. Mendenhall has reached out to a downtown-based vocational-education college in hopes of attracting students. Back in his office, he is intrigued to hear about Parris’s coffee shop and wonders if something similar might make his church a gathering spot. But he’s not sure his white-haired church board would go for it. “The way we’ve always done it,” he says with a sigh, “is not going to do it.”
“THE LIGHT GOT DIMMER”
Maranda Whitehead remembers fondly her son Jordan’s first days at the neighborhood public school. He was “excited, happy, thrilled to go to kindergarten,” she says. It was downhill from there. Teachers could barely keep track of the students in their crowded classrooms; they had no money to keep up with modern trends in technology or education; and after the early grades, they taught a rote style focused on the state’s compulsory tests.