Fewer People in the Pews

A large congregation gathers at Saint Mary Catholic Parish for

Drop-off in service attendance hits some local churches hard
Gilroy – Soccer practice, ballet and karate are pushing God out of bounds.

At least that’s one of the reasons the Rev. Dan Derry thinks California’s population is up but church attendance is down.

“There is such an emphasis on doing things for kids that that becomes their (families’) great priority and there’s less time for reflection and less time for worship … and that, I think, is a bad thing,” said the St. Mary Catholic Parish priest.

Derry, who has served at the Gilroy-based church for 10 years, said St. Mary is unique because it has grown while “nationwide, there’s a trend (of) fewer people going” to church.

St. Mary, the city’s largest church, has 4,000 families registered. About 2,000 of those parishioners celebrate Mass regularly, said Derry. Most Catholic churches have from 2,200 to 2,300 families registered and about one-third attend on a regular basis, he said.

Like many Catholic churches, the growth can mainly be contributed to California’s booming Hispanic population. St. Mary has three Spanish and four English Masses on Sundays.

“Spanish-speaking Masses are filled to the brim,” said Derry. “(Hispanics) seem to have a greater loyalty to the church.”

Although St. Mary educates a large percentage of local children through both the parochial school and church school classes, Derry said they don’t always return to the church.

This year there are 110 local teens in the second year confirmation class and 120 in the first year confirmation class. Of course the Catholic Church is very clear in its directive that individuals shouldn’t go through confirmation unless they’re committed to being a Catholic; actions and expectations don’t always blend, said Derry.

Derry said he’s always “disappointed when attendance isn’t higher.”

Although they haven’t experienced a “drastic fall-off” and English-speaking Masses are usually full, “the point is, why we haven’t experienced a great increase?” he said.

Derry thinks that one of the main reasons church attendance is falling is because white, middle-class Americans are so stressed out.

“They’re just exhausted,” he said.

Derry may be disappointed by St. Mary attendance figures, but it’s the Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran churches being hit the hardest.

The Rev. Bruce Rowlison is quite aware of the declining numbers.

Fifteen years ago, when Gilroy Presbyterian Church moved from its Church Street location to Miller Avenue, the church experienced a three-year dip in attendance, said Rowlison.

The church has also suffered as housing prices have risen and Presbyterian retirees who used to move to California from the Midwest are relocating elsewhere.

Rowlison, who has served at Gilroy Presbyterian for 32 years, began instituting major changes in his church two years ago. He began experimenting with little tweaks about eight years back. On Sunday, the church now offers two different services: one traditional and one contemporary. The contemporary service is what he described as “cutting edge,” because the music and sermon are more modern.

Currently his church has about 700 members and 300 of them attend services regularly.

Rowlison thinks the downward trend in church attendance can partially be blamed on the increased gap between college, marriage and children, since many people return to church once babies are born. Also, back in the day, when couples moved to a new area, the first two things they checked out were churches and schools.

Today, couples are more likely to spend the first couple of years remodeling and landscaping, he said.

So does the pastor think that the decline is simply a passing trend?

“To generalize, the culture is disconnected from the spiritual,” said Rowlison. “I think the church has to relearn how to (thrive) when it is no longer at the core of the culture.”

For the Rev. Mark Wilson, change has been a bit different.

While many of the mainline churches have experienced declines in memberships, some of the evangelical denominations, like Gilroy’s Four Square Church, the Foothills, have seen attendance rise.

Wilson said the 15-year-old church had 15 members in the beginning. Today the Church Street church has between 550 and 700 attendees at one of its two Sunday services and about 1,000 members. He doesn’t know why attendance is falling at other churches – but he does know what works for the Foothills.

The denomination studies the bible cover-to-cover and tells members to read the bible daily. Worship is emphasized and services are very energetic and contemporary.

Raised as a Mennonite, Wilson said he always walked away from Sunday service feeling guilt-ridden and shameful. They’re not judgmental at the Foothills but they are very upfront about what’s right and wrong, according to God.

“We don’t back away from sin, what sin is,” he said. But even “if you don’t live according to the teachings we still love you.”

Still, Wilson said he feels the same as Derry – he wishes attendance and membership was higher.

So, really, in the end despite their differences, all three church leaders want the same results: more locals filling seats on Sunday.

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