The Death of the Midwestern Church

Rural neighborhood churches, once the heart of many Iowan communities, are disappearing along with local schools. The result is a tear in the social fabric of life in the Midwest.
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Oak Grove Christian Church Iowa

Oak Grove Christian Church in Shellsburg, Iowa. (Photo: Lyz Lenz)

Evelyn Birkby started having children a few decades ago, when prospective mothers had no recourse to supportive virtual communities on Facebook, Twitter, or Google. “Honey,” she tells me, “all I had was church. I knew nothing about babies when I first started being a mother. So, I depended a lot on the women at church. We didn’t go to coffee together or spend a lot of time on the phone, because we still had a party line then. Sunday mornings were my life line.”

For a young mother, church was more than religious education—it was Birkby’s community. “Some weeks, I only left the house to go to church,” she tells me. The women in the congregation shared cold remedies for babies, which, according to Birkby, involved “steam and some molasses.” They also shared sleep-training techniques. When I ask Birkby to elaborate, she laughs: “Oh you don’t want to know what we did in the old days.” The church was also where they shared recipes. “We were always swapping zucchini and squash,” she says. “Church was our community center.”

Birkby, an author and newspaper columnist, was born in 1919 and lives in Sydney, Iowa, a town of 1,138 according to the 2010 Census. Birkby was raised by a Methodist minister and recalls a time when traveling ministers dominated the culture of the rural church. “Those traveling ministers planted all these little churches like Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees,” she says. “Now those churches are closing and our community life isn’t what it used to be. We are different now.”

According to the Association of Religious Data Archives, between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 congregations. Contributing to this statistic is the fact that, between 2000 and 2010, 10 percent fewer people identified within a community of faith. The Des Moines Register reported the results of a recent Pew Study that found, “on average, about 54 percent of Iowans in 2010 attended a religious service or believed in a religion's ideas. That's about the same as in 1952 but down 8 percentage points from 1971.”

And with this shift, the very nature of Iowa is changing.

With the exception of South Dakota, a red state, Iowa is more rural than any other adjacent state. But politically, Iowa does not meet traditional expectations of rural constituencies: Iowa is traditionally a swing state, while its more populous neighbors, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois are solidly blue. Paul Lasley, a sociologist at Iowa State, says that Iowa defies conventional wisdom that says rural populations are conservative. “There is certainly a correlation between the two,” Lasley admits, “but Iowa oscillates, which you don’t often see in rural states.”

To explain Iowa’s swing state status, Lasley notes that Iowa has had a reputation as a conservative state with values that focus on farm, faith, and family. But in Iowa, those community values also tend to have what Lasley called a “progressive edge”: Iowa has never had segregated schools and in 1851 became the second state to legalize interracial marriage. In 2009, Iowa became the third state to legalize same-sex marriage. “It’s hard to hate someone when you have to live next to them and you depend on them for help and you sit elbow to elbow with them in the pew every Sunday morning,” Birkby says. “This is what has always made Iowa so great. We are great neighbors, because we have to be. Or we were anyway.”

Reverend Mark Yackel-Jullen is the director for small town and rural ministry at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. While he is not one to sound the death knell for Iowa churches just yet, he does admit that this decline is hurting rural churches the most. “When you already have a small congregation and you lose just a few people, that can push you to the margins. As a result, many churches are closing and consolidating,” he says.

grace church shellsburg iowa

Grace Church in Shellsburg, Iowa. (Photo: Lyz Lenz)

The institutions that formed the backbone of Iowa rural life are crumbling. The Plymouth County Historical Museum, which is housed in the old La Mars High School, has a whole floor dedicated to the remnants of rural churches. Drab old organs are huddled on the yellowing linoleum. One room holds stained glass windows, rectories, and murals retrieved from the small white churches now atrophying in cornfields alongside abandoned schools.

This loss is due, in part, to the continuing move from rural to urban life. Lasley, who has spent many years studying the dynamics of rural communities, notes that, with the increased mechanization and corporatization of farms, neighbors become more far-flung. And as the miles between neighbors grow, so too does the social space that separates them.

According to a 2010 survey of rural life conducted by Lasley and his colleagues at Iowa State, eight out of 10 farmers and their families reported that family visits to the neighbors had “greatly” or “somewhat declined.” Similarly, six out of 10 said that instances of neighbors helping each other have “greatly” or “somewhat declined.” Nine out of 10 said they don’t rely on their neighbors the way they used to.

Lasley attributes this decrease in neighborliness to the shuttering of schools and the decline in church attendance. “There is no glue holding these communities together,” Lasley says, “and it’s making us forget how to neighbor.”

Sports, social clubs, and the Internet are replacing the social void left by churches. But the danger there is that sports and clubs all require spare time—and money. “If someone is working all the time and has less disposable income, where can they go for help? It used to be church. Now?” Lasley leaves the question unanswered.

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Pastor Erika Uthe is 31 and a mother of two. She leads the Evangelical Lutheran church in Ely, Iowa, where, according to the most recent census, the population is 1,776. Her congregation is the only church in a town that lost its school over 50 years ago. Many people in town go to church in the nearby city of Cedar Rapids, which often leaves them more disconnected from the community where they live.

“So many people in this town just sleep here,” Uthe says. “Our biggest challenge is learning how to be neighbors again.” Uthe and her congregation recently expanded the church building, which has a congregation of approximately 325 active participants. (Uthe defines an active participant as follows: “They come to a church event at least once a month.”)

Uthe leads a “Theology on Tap” group that meets at her home, which attracts many people who have yet to step foot inside the church proper. She considers these visitors regular attendees. “So many people are re-thinking church, and so we have to as well. We can’t stop the demographic changes facing our nation and we can’t even force people back into the church, and who wants to do that anyway? So what we have to do is re-learn how to be neighbors.”

Uthe and Yackel-Jullen both see Iowa’s recent swing toward more conservative leaders as a direct result of the loss of churches. Iowa has a Republican governor, two Republican congressmen, and two Republican senators, Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley. And while Barack Obama won Iowa in the general election in both 2008 and 2012, the margins in his favor were narrow in 2012, with Mitt Romney picking up more counties than John McCain had done in 2008.

Yackel-Jullen contrasted the current governor, Terry Branstad, to a former governor, Robert Ray, also a Republican. “In the '70s, Ray invited Vietnamese refugees into our state. Our current governor is doing anything but that,” Yackel-Jullen says, referring to Brandstad’s recent comments about refusing to allow in Syrian refugees. “This isn’t who we are. I hope it isn’t who we become.”

Uthe hates to equate neighborliness with one political ideology over another. “I don’t want to be political,” she says as we sit in Ely’s only coffee shop. “But when you focus on humanity and helping people, it becomes political. Iowans have always been progressive, but if we forget how to be neighbors, if we lose this glue that binds us...?”

She leaves that question, too, unanswered.

Over a year ago, I witnessed my own small church close its doors. Although we were not rural, we were plagued by many of the demographic changes that are closing churches across the state—dwindling regular attendance, and people leaving because they viewed our church as hypocritical and judgmental. My husband and I and some of our good friends started the church because we wanted to build a bridge between us and our neighbors. We envisioned potlucks with the neighborhood, community service projects, and events like a free garage sale that would benefit the low-income families around us. But this vision failed.

Pieces of the church still sit in my basement—plastic pitchers and large serving trays, tokens of something I still desire, something we couldn’t achieve.

I tell all of this to Birkby, who listens sympathetically. Her own church is struggling too, and a nearby church recently merged congregations with another church in a bid to stay alive. She asks me why we didn’t do something like that. I respond that all our complicated attempts and efforts at reaching out had been thwarted by competing personalities, each of whom wanted to go it alone.

“See, that’s the problem,” she says; “you can’t survive unless you become a neighbor and then let other people neighbor you in turn.”

Indeed, that is how churches are surviving: by building bridges into other communities and across denominations. Yackel-Jullen tells me of the Asian-American Christian Reformed Church in Bigelow, Minnesota, which sits right on the border with Iowa and has a population of approximately 300. He recently took a group of students there, where they witnessed a church service that was held in three different languages—Lao, Vietnamese, and English. Afterward there was a potluck, and, while they ate, a Guatemalan Evangelical church began its services in Spanish. “It started as just a Christian Reformed Church with a small congregation,” Yackel-Jullen says. “But it began reaching out and now it is a vibrant part of the community. This is the way forward.”

In their bids for survival, many rural churches are also returning to older models, including reinstating the system of traveling pastors, whereby one pastor will serve as many as two to five congregations. Iowa has also seen an uptick in what is termed Theological Education for Emerging Ministries, where lay-people (those who do not have a seminary degree) are trained to serve in various ministry roles. The TEEM model invokes the upstart revivalists of the Great Revival of the 1800s, albeit—as Yackel-Jullen notes—“a lot more organized and focused.”

This is why Yackel-Jullen has hope for Iowa. He sees these efforts as creating neighborliness, rather than losing identity. "When I talk to congregations who don’t want to change, I explain to them about farmer co-ops, which is another rural model for survival and very progressive," he says. "I also tell them that it’s cooperate or die for many of them, and that makes them change." He laughs a little.

Lasley believes it’s too early to tell what these changes will bring, for either the state or the nation. "Iowa is a great state for the first caucuses because we encapsulate so many of the contradictions and problems that face our whole nation," he says. "If we forget how to neighbor, we will become more isolated and more reactionary than progressive."

In this way, the challenge facing Iowa is the challenge it’s always faced. In order to survive the physical distance between us, neighbors have had to cooperate with one another, forging bonds that define what it is to be a Midwesterner. I have been an Iowan for 10 years now; before that I lived in Minnesota, before that South Dakota, Texas, and California. I have never really thought about how a landscape affects me. I’ve moved too often for it to leave a mark. But this is the place where I had children, where I have needed my neighbors and they have needed me. Where I waded waist-deep in flood water to save my former boss’ family heirlooms. It’s the place where strangers brought me food when my sisters were in a devastating car accident. It is where, even though I live in the middle of Iowa’s second-largest city, I am always five miles from open space and a land that stretches its acres open and feeds the world. I hope that never changes.

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