(06/22/2009)
Churches in West Virginia are facing declining membership, financial hardship and changing demographics.

Churches are being closed because congregations can no longer sustain them.

"There is a great decline in church membership in America," said the Rev. Dennis Sparks, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

"This has been true since the late 1970s. We reached our peak in church membership in the late 50s and 60s." Sparks said, indicating the new generation must replace aging congregations.

"We didn't wake up for a long time. New generations will not sit in a service that is based on a model that was established well over a hundred years ago," he continued.

"It is not the way people want to experience spirituality in their worship. We have the ability to adapt and find a new way as the church."

Dr. David Carrico, executive minister, West Virginia Convention of American Baptists Association, said his church remains pretty stable.

"We may have one or two close a year, but we also have new churches being started. Our congregations are being affected more by the change in demographics than by financial troubles."

"You will have a community like Buffalo where people move in because of the Toyota plant, and then there is Ravenswood where people are leaving because of the closing of the aluminum plant."

Some of the churches are becoming "yolked churches," where two or three churches share one pastor. Some churches have had to cut back on staff and programming, according to Carrico.

"We are also helping some churches change the focus of their ministry. Mission work is not just overseas," Carrico said. "It is what you do across the street."

There have been four Presbyterian churches closed in West Virginia this year, according to Gay Mothershead, executive of the Presbytery of West Virginia. Finances and aging congregations are the chief reasons.

The United Methodist Church West Virginia Conference rarely closes churches, according to Bishop Ernest S. Lyght.

"We work with churches with an emphasis on 'healthy congregations.' There are many ways that, that can be defined," Lyght said.

"A healthy congregation is one that can carry out its ministry and mission. That congregation is not defined by the number of people."

The Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston faces many of the same issues.

"The availability of priests is a big issue for the Diocese," said Monsignor Frederick P. Annie, vicar general of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.


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