In recent years, more churches are closing than opening. Fewer than 50% of Americans claim to be church members. Within this decline are fascinating numbers about how faith and communities have evolved, particularly in tiny towns where tiny churches once formed as community centers.
Paul Coston was the minister of the Ragsdale Church of Christ until it closed in March.
“You can’t have a church with eight people,” Coston said.
Ragsdale Church of Christ opened in the early 1950s, right around the time church attendance soared nationwide.
“Church membership trends mirror white population trends in the United States,” said Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, a professor at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology. “You had 100 children in Sunday school. You had adults whose not only religious lives but professional and civic lives were related to the church itself.”
Ragsdale was built to represent a small town. Today, that town is part of Manchester, Tennessee, an hour south of Nashville. It’s a town of 12,000. It’s the home of Bonnaroo. And over the years, its churches have sapped Ragsdale’s congregation.
“We have people who’ll drive 30 minutes to Murfreesboro for a hamburger. If they’ll drive 30 minutes for a hamburger, they will drive five miles to worship God,” Coston said.
Coston had ministered at Ragsdale for 19 years. By the end, the only remnants of Old Town were the church and the cemetery.
“Sometimes you got to ask yourself the question, ‘Are we doing the good Lord’s work by just keeping the doors open?’ Coston said.
Coston points to a Gallup poll that found, for the first time in the poll’s 80-year history, church membership among American adults has fallen below 50%.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is dying,” Lizardy-Hajbi said.
She points to a Pew Research Poll that found four out of five U.S. adults believe in God. Nine out of 10 believe in some higher power, according to the poll.
For many, the small church in the small town is a timeless symbol of faith and community. But as small towns dwindle and small churches close, those still there must find faith and community without them.