Bob Neal

Chances are you won’t go to church tomorrow. Or that you won’t go to synagogue today or didn’t go to a mosque yesterday.

If so, you’re part of a trend in which Maine is a leader. We are the fourth “least churched” state in America. Only Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have lower rates of church membership. It’s about 34% in Maine, but far fewer than 34% of us attend.

A report this week by the Public Religion Research Institution showed that the drift continues away from exercising religion. Fewer people are members of and fewer yet attend worship.

A great deal of that drift happens as church members age out. Baby Boomers are 57 to 75 years old. As they become disabled or die, no one younger is moving up. If a 50-something walks into my church house tomorrow, she’ll lower the average age. Maybe by a lot.

According to, about 2.7 million church members become inactive every year. They leave because they have been abused, disillusioned or simply neglected, it said. The result: About 4,000 churches close every year, about 1,000 open.

I was a member who voted to close the New Sharon Congregational Church (UCC) shortly after its 220th anniversary. I am now a deacon in another Protestant church (Shorey Chapel Congregational UCC in Industry). So, I have both an inside view and an affinity for churches.


If you’re among those I described in the lead, this may not much matter to you. But before you turn to the comics, consider some seldom-talked-about effects of losing religiosity and churches.

PRRI found among the 6,000 people it surveyed that those who attend religious services are more likely, maybe by far, to participate in civic life. Going to town meeting, joining civic clubs, contacting people in government, serving on civic, nonprofit or community committees, etc.

Your post on Facebook may attract lots of “likes,” but it won’t do much, if anything, to improve the world. Rotary clubs and serving on community committees can do a great deal.

As religions lose members, their ability to be of service to people in need declines. Churches, temples and mosques for years have been major donors to those in need. Who needs help? What kind of help? Money, firewood, snowplowing, child care, food? How do we deliver the help?

When government replaces private charity, need turns into a political issue. When the government steps in, the cookie cutter replaces the passion for doing good. I’ve never known a church to ask someone to fill out a bevy of forms in order to receive help.

National Public Radio reported the PRRI study on Tuesday, but The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Associated Press did not. At least, I can’t find it on their websites. None of those is big on covering religion, anyhow, and when the Post and Times do write about religion, comments from readers run pretty strongly anti-faith. The most common: “Tax the churches!”


Generally, churches don’t pay taxes. But many churches own real estate and sometimes use those holdings to raise money. About 12 years ago, the city of Rockland began taxing churches for real estate not directly involved in worship.

A couple of weeks ago, a lawsuit by a church in Rockland was dismissed. Aldersgate United Methodist Church had sued the city over a tax bill that a few years ago was nearly $7,000. Aldersgate’s church house was exempt, but the parking lot and parsonage were taxed.

It seems that if a church uses some of its land to earn money, that acreage should be taxed, as it’s in the for-profit sector. But aren’t the parking lot and parsonage integral to worship? Is the parking lot at the Red Cross integral to its disaster relief and blood donations?

Good works aside, religious institutions that close take out another bit of our lives. Community. My late wife and I used to talk about writing a guidebook to Maine’s bean suppers. But almost all are held on Saturday, and it would have taken scores of weekends to visit them all.

Beyond the food, we would have rated the community atmosphere at the suppers. Do the hosts introduce themselves to newcomers? How friendly are people? Do folks table-hop to catch up with friends and neighbors? Do some people go just to see friends? All elements of community.

She used to wait at the door of the New Sharon Methodist Church while I made the rounds, after eating, of all the folks I hadn’t seen in a while. Those suppers are gone. The suppers at our own church vanished years ago as our numbers shrank below critical mass to run a kitchen.

That’s just one aspect of churches chipping in to community. They also sponsor scouting troops, often provide the adult leadership. They sponsor kids’ softball and baseball leagues. They publish community calendars that list residents’ birth, marriage and death dates, as well as community services such as trash pickup and library hours. They offer their buildings for meetings and events.

A lot more dies when a church closes than just a house in which a few people pray every week.

Bob Neal is going to use this space for a shameless plug. Shorey Chapel is sponsoring a supper from 5 to 6 p.m. today at the Industry Town Hall. To raise money and spread a bit of community. Neal can be reached at [email protected].

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