Author Topic: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations  (Read 2043 times)

D. Engebretson

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RNS recently reported on a Faith Communities Today survey that discovered what many of us already know: Small and mid-sized congregations, especially within mainline denominations, are in decline.  Significant decline. 

https://religionnews.com/2021/10/14/study-attendance-at-small-and-midsize-us-congregations-is-hemorrhaging/?fbclid=IwAR3yBK2ok4ofO0zuwsp8zsZ0A3KyXgNNbQRgZrIQSee29pP2Q1OnTq1Esjg

No doubt the pandemic has hastened what was already in process albeit at a more gradual pace. In fact, I believe that it is a significant reason for the seemingly sudden decline, although the article does not really note this. They note that half of the country’s congregations just before the lockdown had 65 or fewer people in attendance on any given weekend, a drop from a median attendance level of 137 people in 2000." For people like me, who live in a more sparsely populated rural community, the findings are not encouraging as far as growth prospects: "Nearly half of the country’s congregations are in rural areas (25%) or small towns (22%), while the 2020 census found that only 6% of Americans live in rural areas and 8% in small towns." There's a demographic shift, as they also note: "The country’s changing demographics may be key to rural and small-town decline. Young people have been moving to urban areas; businesses and industries have also left these communities bereft of resources and talent."

I think that overall, to be a bit more spiritual about this, the decline has roots in what Paul wrote about to Timothy (1 Tim 4): "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith..." This corresponds with other studies documenting the rise of the category known as "nones" and the falling away of recent generations compared to the older ones. The study notes that while Christian churches are in decline, "the only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish."

For those in the larger 'mega' churches, however, it might sound more encouraging: "Congregations with 1,500 people in attendance were best able to avoid decline; 71% of those large churches grew over the past five years. That may suggest many people are abandoning midsized congregations for megachurches that have full-time clergy, greater financial and physical resources and a diversity of ages and races among members."  They also leave smaller, more traditional churches to go to these larger ones, in my opinion, because of the greater tendency of its worship to favor a more casual and entertainment-type format. Based on the marketing strategies made popular decades ago, they cater to those looking for a place that more resembles their culture and popular music tastes. But these churches are also quickly becoming indistinguishable from the world outside their doors.  It's only a matter of time before this decline catches up with them as well.

Pastor Don Engebretson
St. Peter Lutheran Church of Polar (Antigo) WI

peter_speckhard

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #1 on: October 29, 2021, 03:46:36 PM »
The problem, too, with the move of people away from rural and small town congregations is that it is for all practical purposes impossible for a new church to be for them what their old church was for them. They get frustrated, which makes them think that if they can’t get what they want anyway, a more wholesale change might be worth trying, or else they only worship when they visit home.

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #2 on: October 29, 2021, 04:12:30 PM »
I think that overall, to be a bit more spiritual about this, the decline has roots in what Paul wrote about to Timothy (1 Tim 4): "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith..." This corresponds with other studies documenting the rise of the category known as "nones" and the falling away of recent generations compared to the older ones. The study notes that while Christian churches are in decline, "the only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish."


I suspect that when Timothy was written, the Christians were a smaller minority of the population than they are now. They were not only competing with other religious groups; but also emperor worship (or patriotism,) which for most others, was no problem. Pledging allegiance to one more god was no problem for them; but it was for Christians (and Jews).


I think that many of us were spoiled by the unusual growth and activities of the church during the 50s & 60s. However, where I grew up in Oregon, at its best in the 60s, about 30% of the population claimed church membership - the lowest in the nation. Another difference I realized (somewhat more vividly when we lived and served in the midwest,) was that we had no extended family in the state. My folk's parents and all their siblings lived in other states. We did not have family gatherings. Churches did not have four and five generations being members.


As some have predicted, Loren Mead, most notably, we are returning more to a first century situation, rather than what we remember in the 20th century. Not only were the Christians a minority, but the world was actively hostile against Christians. The mission field is the congregations' neighborhood, rather than Africa or Asia.


Unfortunately, Lutherans, having grown out of a state church mindset, is less equipped to reach out to an unbelieving world calling for conversions than are group like the Baptists. While I've had Baptists (and Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses) come to my door promoting their congregations; I've had Lutherans state quite forcibly, "I'll never do that. You can't get me to go knocking on doors."
"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

peter_speckhard

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #3 on: October 29, 2021, 04:23:31 PM »
A big difference today, however, is that everyone in the first century didn’t think they already knew about Christianity, and the Christian witness on any concrete point was not always being contradicted by established “Christian” churches siding with the pagan culture against Christianity.

Dan Fienen

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #4 on: October 29, 2021, 04:34:35 PM »
I think that overall, to be a bit more spiritual about this, the decline has roots in what Paul wrote about to Timothy (1 Tim 4): "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith..." This corresponds with other studies documenting the rise of the category known as "nones" and the falling away of recent generations compared to the older ones. The study notes that while Christian churches are in decline, "the only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish."


I suspect that when Timothy was written, the Christians were a smaller minority of the population than they are now. They were not only competing with other religious groups; but also emperor worship (or patriotism,) which for most others, was no problem. Pledging allegiance to one more god was no problem for them; but it was for Christians (and Jews).


I think that many of us were spoiled by the unusual growth and activities of the church during the 50s & 60s. However, where I grew up in Oregon, at its best in the 60s, about 30% of the population claimed church membership - the lowest in the nation. Another difference I realized (somewhat more vividly when we lived and served in the midwest,) was that we had no extended family in the state. My folk's parents and all their siblings lived in other states. We did not have family gatherings. Churches did not have four and five generations being members.


As some have predicted, Loren Mead, most notably, we are returning more to a first century situation, rather than what we remember in the 20th century. Not only were the Christians a minority, but the world was actively hostile against Christians. The mission field is the congregations' neighborhood, rather than Africa or Asia.


Unfortunately, Lutherans, having grown out of a state church mindset, is less equipped to reach out to an unbelieving world calling for conversions than are group like the Baptists. While I've had Baptists (and Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses) come to my door promoting their congregations; I've had Lutherans state quite forcibly, "I'll never do that. You can't get me to go knocking on doors."
I agree with most of what you say here. My quibble is that I think that it is worse than even you suggest. In the First Century, there was hostility to Christianity. It was a small, minority religion. It was also very different in its monotheism from the polytheistic syncretistic religions around it. And it began primarily from the fringes of society.


One advantage that it had was that it was new. There were people who were dissatisfied with the religions that they grew up with and which were around them and so were looking for a new faith. There was much religious foment in those times. Exotic religions were being explored, Eastern from Persia and points east, Egyptian cults, esoteric mystery religions, and Gnostic cults were all being tried. Christianity was in that mix, and eventually won out.


We are now an old religion that many consider tried and worn out. It is no longer rebellious to become Christian as it may have been in the First Century.


So, Brian, I mainly agree with you. I just see that there are some important differences with the First Century that we need to recognize.


I will also note, that for the First Century Christians, success did not come by modifying their beliefs and practices to fit in with the larger cultural and religious trends. They were from the beginning different. They succeeded while not fitting in.
Pr. Daniel Fienen
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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #5 on: October 29, 2021, 05:01:12 PM »
I think that overall, to be a bit more spiritual about this, the decline has roots in what Paul wrote about to Timothy (1 Tim 4): "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith..." This corresponds with other studies documenting the rise of the category known as "nones" and the falling away of recent generations compared to the older ones. The study notes that while Christian churches are in decline, "the only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish."


I suspect that when Timothy was written, the Christians were a smaller minority of the population than they are now. They were not only competing with other religious groups; but also emperor worship (or patriotism,) which for most others, was no problem. Pledging allegiance to one more god was no problem for them; but it was for Christians (and Jews).


I think that many of us were spoiled by the unusual growth and activities of the church during the 50s & 60s. However, where I grew up in Oregon, at its best in the 60s, about 30% of the population claimed church membership - the lowest in the nation. Another difference I realized (somewhat more vividly when we lived and served in the midwest,) was that we had no extended family in the state. My folk's parents and all their siblings lived in other states. We did not have family gatherings. Churches did not have four and five generations being members.


As some have predicted, Loren Mead, most notably, we are returning more to a first century situation, rather than what we remember in the 20th century. Not only were the Christians a minority, but the world was actively hostile against Christians. The mission field is the congregations' neighborhood, rather than Africa or Asia.


Unfortunately, Lutherans, having grown out of a state church mindset, is less equipped to reach out to an unbelieving world calling for conversions than are group like the Baptists. While I've had Baptists (and Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses) come to my door promoting their congregations; I've had Lutherans state quite forcibly, "I'll never do that. You can't get me to go knocking on doors."
I agree with most of what you say here. My quibble is that I think that it is worse than even you suggest. In the First Century, there was hostility to Christianity. It was a small, minority religion. It was also very different in its monotheism from the polytheistic syncretistic religions around it. And it began primarily from the fringes of society.


One advantage that it had was that it was new. There were people who were dissatisfied with the religions that they grew up with and which were around them and so were looking for a new faith. There was much religious foment in those times. Exotic religions were being explored, Eastern from Persia and points east, Egyptian cults, esoteric mystery religions, and Gnostic cults were all being tried. Christianity was in that mix, and eventually won out.


We are now an old religion that many consider tried and worn out. It is no longer rebellious to become Christian as it may have been in the First Century.


So, Brian, I mainly agree with you. I just see that there are some important differences with the First Century that we need to recognize.


I will also note, that for the First Century Christians, success did not come by modifying their beliefs and practices to fit in with the larger cultural and religious trends. They were from the beginning different. They succeeded while not fitting in.

a) note that the stats on half the small congregations which had been cut in half in attendance over 20 years from 137 to 65 were taken BEFORE the lockdown.  Uh-oh.
b) I'll say this - a lot, and I mean a lot, of congregations would be happy with 65 in person in worship this Sunday. Across the Protestant board.  Meaning - 30 to 50 is more like it these days. 
c) Let's say the 137 was accurate and that around 1990 that number was 150.  In worship.  Meaning another 200 people were affiliated.  That was considered to be a relatively typical sole pastor plus secretary, musician and sexton congregation.  So if 65 means 175 tops people involved, the stretch to pay the staff is steep.  Volunteers, retirees, part-time this and that is what's happening.
d) Do those staff solutions bring more vital mission outreach to bring in new adherents?  My opinion is absolutely not.  But those are the solutions in a great majority of situations. 
e) Other solutions - merger, close and re-plant, find rental income or some third source income - are being tried. 
f) The relative lack of success of these efforts is due to demographic shifts, the attraction of bigger congregations that do have program variety, and the surrounding culture.  My own opinion is that the left-right battleground paradigm for culture wars is not so much the thing as the simpler explanations - work schedule weirdness produces Sunday as the time to do other things; football; soccer; relaxation.  What's the percentage of people who watched online and now are comfy watching church when they want to in their jammies?  That's a reasonably strong number, in my opinion. 
g) so one of our core concepts - not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together - is up for grabs. 
h) those using guilt and the outstretched index finger pointing at Bible passages are going to lose.  The patient techniques may work better, but more than likely what's really needed is a lot of personal touch outside the sanctuary, on the street and at the mall and the shopping center.  Encouraging words.

As others have pointed out, the Message should and really cannot be changed.  The delivery system over the next two decades will definitely be changing as the lights wink out in thousands of small church buildings.

Dave Benke

The Areopagus and Athens itself were thought to be the home to 30000 gods at the time of Paul. 

Charles Austin

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #6 on: October 29, 2021, 05:27:04 PM »
Peter writes:
A big difference today, however, is that everyone in the first century didn’t think they already knew about Christianity, and the Christian witness on any concrete point was not always being contradicted by established “Christian” churches siding with the pagan culture against Christianity.

I comment:
I can only take your words - The Christian witness “on any concrete point” And Contradicted by established  “Christian” churches siding with the pagan culture against Christianity - to be references to liberal churches such as the ELCA.
I dare to say again that it seems to me, with this being your assessment, your position as moderator of the ALPB compromises and contradicts everything the ALPB has stood for during its 100-year history. “Siding with the pagan culture against Christianity”? That can be your opinion, of course, but I think it disqualifies you from holding any position in the ALPB.

Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, Nw York and New Jersey. LCA and LWF staff. Former journalist. Now retired, living in Minneapolis.

D. Engebretson

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #7 on: October 29, 2021, 05:37:12 PM »
Without falling into the trap of looking back thinking the past was always better and more religious (in the Christian sense)....I do think, however, that our culture is becoming increasingly and more rapidly secular, and where it is 'religious' there is a trend toward the neo-pagan religion and practices.  In my local newspaper today I saw an article from the RNS entitled "How some 'Jewitches' embrace Judaism and witchcraft."  At one time this might have seemed 'fringe,' but I sense it is far more common and accepted in the society-at-large. 

I predict a smaller Christian church and more of the above. 
Pastor Don Engebretson
St. Peter Lutheran Church of Polar (Antigo) WI

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #8 on: October 29, 2021, 05:44:04 PM »
Peter writes:
A big difference today, however, is that everyone in the first century didn’t think they already knew about Christianity, and the Christian witness on any concrete point was not always being contradicted by established “Christian” churches siding with the pagan culture against Christianity.

I comment:
I can only take your words - The Christian witness “on any concrete point” And Contradicted by established  “Christian” churches siding with the pagan culture against Christianity - to be references to liberal churches such as the ELCA.
I dare to say again that it seems to me, with this being your assessment, your position as moderator of the ALPB compromises and contradicts everything the ALPB has stood for during its 100-year history. “Siding with the pagan culture against Christianity”? That can be your opinion, of course, but I think it disqualifies you from holding any position in the ALPB.
Do you have an opinion related to the topic? If not, don’t post.

Dave Likeness

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #9 on: October 29, 2021, 05:48:50 PM »
Church Consultant Lyle Schaller died in 2015 at the age of 91. 
He wrote many books about how to improve parish life.

He maintained that the most important statistic in a congregation
is their weekly worship attendance.  He put little credence in the
number on the membership rolls of a parish.  A healthy parish will
have actual people in the pews on Sundays rather than touting
their membership list.  Some congregations may have 600  folks
for their membership but only about 150 each Sunday in worship
Another parish numbers 400 members and has 200 in worship each
week.

« Last Edit: October 29, 2021, 05:51:34 PM by Dave Likeness »

Brian Stoffregen

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #10 on: October 29, 2021, 06:23:30 PM »
I agree with most of what you say here. My quibble is that I think that it is worse than even you suggest. In the First Century, there was hostility to Christianity. It was a small, minority religion. It was also very different in its monotheism from the polytheistic syncretistic religions around it. And it began primarily from the fringes of society.

One advantage that it had was that it was new. There were people who were dissatisfied with the religions that they grew up with and which were around them and so were looking for a new faith. There was much religious foment in those times. Exotic religions were being explored, Eastern from Persia and points east, Egyptian cults, esoteric mystery religions, and Gnostic cults were all being tried. Christianity was in that mix, and eventually won out.

We are now an old religion that many consider tried and worn out. It is no longer rebellious to become Christian as it may have been in the First Century.

So, Brian, I mainly agree with you. I just see that there are some important differences with the First Century that we need to recognize.

I will also note, that for the First Century Christians, success did not come by modifying their beliefs and practices to fit in with the larger cultural and religious trends. They were from the beginning different. They succeeded while not fitting in.


The first era of Christianity, according to Loren Mead, was the period before Constantine (which brought about the rise of the state church).


He argues that the main differences was that in the first century, Christians were put to death because of their beliefs. The persecution was extreme and real. They couldn't advertise their worship services, for fear they would be discovered and tried, jailed, and executed, as traitors to the empire (because they wouldn't worship the Roman and Greek gods; nor declare the emperor "god and lord."


Whatever persecution Christians in America may face today, is pales compared to that of the first century. This also meant that for anyone who converted, they knew that they were risking their lives. It was a whole different kind of decision than deciding to attend a worship service or (in ages past,) a Billy Graham Crusade.


The church spread because the people (there really wasn't a roster of clergy yet,) were willing to witness to Jesus and the changes he brought to their lives and the new community that (secretly) gathered in his name.


In spite of the persecutions, Acts indicates that the church kept growing. The believers were willing to suffer and even die for the faith. I'm not sure that we can say that for many of our church members. I'm certain that we can't point to most church fellowship as being better than the fellowship one experiences at a lodge or even a bar.


A friend (raised Roman Catholic, attended an ultra-conservative mega-church, in southern California, studied, at a college level Judaism and Islam - and went to Israel and Saudi Arabia to further his education in those religions and the languages of Hebrew and Aramaic,) but recently joined a Mormon church because of the way they made him feel when he gathered with them. He knows their beliefs and disagrees with many of them - and told the missionaries that. They didn't care.

This brings up another paradigm of the changing church - one by Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith.

[T]he nearly two thousand years of Christian history can be divided into three uneven periods. The first might be called the “Age of Faith.” It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated. During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.
 
The second period in Christian history can be called the “Age of Belief.” Its seeds appeared within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity when church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally. Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenants about him. [pp. 4-5]


Cox sees the church entering into a third period, which he suggests we call the “Age of the Spirit.” He concludes his chapter with a brief description of this period:

The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it. No wonder the atmosphere in the burgeoning Christian congregations of Asia and Africa feels more like that of first-century Corinth or Ephesus than it does like that of the Rome or Paris of a thousand years later. Early Christianity and today’s emergent Christian appear closely akin. [p. 20]


Or, to summarize even shore distinctly:

0-400 CE – faith IN Jesus – people trusted Jesus
400-1900 CE – faith ABOUT Jesus – fights occurred over right theology
1900 CE – experience of Jesus – this began with the modern Pentecostal experience
"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

Charles Austin

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #11 on: October 29, 2021, 06:31:52 PM »
Yes, Peter, my opinion is that some small and midsize congregations are holding their own and thriving, among them numerous urban congregations who welcome those whom you say are working against Christianity.
We have told ourselves for generations what a “church“ looks like, how it should be organized, and what it should do. We have been wrong about numerous things, and some of these we have changed.
The model of congregations with 400 or more people, might not completely pass from the scene, but it will no longer be “normal.“
I have seen, in New York City and elsewhere, surviving and thriving congregations. And as noted above, often they are congregations that Peter considers to be working against Christianity.
I have seen in New Jersey and New York City at synodical  and ELCA events, lots of people who are excited about proclaiming the gospel, working for justice, living a Christian life and serving their community.
Future congregations will, I believe, will be cross denominational perhaps Lutheran/Presbyterian, Lutheran/Episcopalian, Methodist/Lutheran.
Same gender marriage is being accepted in our society and large numbers of these churches will accept that as well.
It is possible, although I would not predict it, that congregations living and teaching as if it were 1920 or 1952 will die slow deaths. My concern is that we not completely lose the people, daughters and sons of those congregation, Who will not live and teach as though it was 1920 or 1952.
We can, and must work hard to make sure that what they live and teach contains the essentials of the gospel.
« Last Edit: October 29, 2021, 07:40:53 PM by Charles Austin »
Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, Nw York and New Jersey. LCA and LWF staff. Former journalist. Now retired, living in Minneapolis.

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #12 on: October 29, 2021, 07:34:06 PM »
In regard to Charles' post, I don't believe the statistics separated out the beliefs and practices of the congregations, only the average attendance. 
The second percentage discouragement is that the churches with small attendance in small town/rural settings are also experiencing loss of population in general, so a smaller pool to pick from.
The third percentage discouragement for small attendance churches is that the churches with large attendance are doing better and are harboring more and more folks from the smaller congregations.

Another study might provide more statistical evidence from across the cultural divides among Christians.  However, if the small town/rural congregations are by nature more socially conservative - and that's demonstrable - then the loss of energy and number in that sector of congregations hurts conservative Christianity more severely, at least that's my take.  And if those with a broader range of practices are located in and around urban centers, they will have the responsibility to take a more robust role in catechesis of the faith, even as they risk lots of splintering over the variety of practices which they do or don't tolerate.  And the bigger churches, which across Protestantism are more cultural-engaging in music and outreach, and yet attempt to hold a Bible-based Calvinist message, may end up caving downward on catechesis. 


So - teaching the faith is going to be an interesting intersection.  In my opinion.

Dave Benke


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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #13 on: October 29, 2021, 07:43:49 PM »
My point about churches contradicting Christian teaching was in response to Brian’s point relating the 21st Century to the 1st Century. While the pagan nature of the culture might be growing similar, the engagement of the church with that culture will have to be completely different.

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Re: Study: Attendance hemorrhaging at small and midsize US congregations
« Reply #14 on: October 29, 2021, 08:18:28 PM »
Almost all of my friends, both life-long and recently acquired, have left the church. Rightly or wrongly their distaste for it is fed by the Franklin Grahams, Jerry Falwells, the Crouches, the Bakkers, the Copelands (with Kenneth's multi-million dollar plane), the Osteens, ad nauseam, preaching their prescriptions on how you may live. Many of the aforementioned loudly proclaim which side of the fence you must be politically or you are not on God's side. I have one foot in the door and the other out. As a Gay man, there is no place for me in the congregation that I attend (LCMS) which is only to take my mother who is 98 and still wants to go when she is able. It is virulently anti-Gay which makes me very sad if not disgusted.