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Small churches in Harrison, Penn struggle to attract members

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn
Reverend Mary Ann Miller, pastor of the New Life Free Methodist Church in Penn Township, conducts Sunday services July 28. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn Trafford Star

The Rev. Mary Ann Milne of New Life Free Methodist Church in Harrison City feels the pressure of a dwindling church membership.

When she became pastor of the church in 2008, Milne had a congregation of 35 members. Societal changes, the out-of-the-way location of the church and the mortality of its aging congregation have whittled that number down to 15.

“The smaller mainline churches are struggling,” Milne said. “If you are born religious, you will continue with it, but the younger generations are looking for the bigger churches. I visited a megachurch with 6,000 (members); the smaller churches cannot compete with the mega ones.”

Worried about her church's declining membership, Milne last month wrote a letter outlining the Free Methodist origins in the opposition of slavery, helping the poor and needy, and a focus on living a life of “personal and social holiness” in hopes that it might encourage people to visit the church.

New Life Free Methodist isn't alone. Some other small churches in the area have struggled with maintaining church membership and drawing in new young members.

“Sunday morning is not what it used to be,” said the Rev. Meredith Hutchinson, pastor of Denmark Manor United Church of Christ in Penn Township. “We're not a ‘Christian' society; there are many religions (being practiced in America now), and many are represented in our community.”

And proportionately fewer people are attending religious services. According to study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life from 2007 to 2012, nearly one out of every five Americans — 19.6 percent — are religiously unaffiliated. In 2007, that figure was 15 percent.

The study found that young people were more likely to not attend church. Among those 18 to 39, nearly one in three — 32 percent — are unaffiliated. That doesn't bode well for churches with older memberships that are trying to add younger families.

“The members are dying off,” said Milne, whose said her congregation has an average age of about 65. “The children are moving away, and there is a standstill. It is difficult to attract new people.”

Some people don't have time to attend or have other priorities.

“The church is not the hub of people's lives anymore,” said Hutchinson, who said Denmark Manor has about 190 members.

The New Life Free Methodist community is very tight-knit, and according to member Ellen Swick, everyone knows everyone.

“It's like a family,” Swick, 66, said. “But the family has gotten smaller.

“I think a lot of kids are involved in sports now, and a lot of it is on Sundays, and priorities are more towards what the kids do and the convenience of the time of Mass,” Swick said.

When Penn-Trafford School District officials were considering changing their facilities-usage policy in 2010, Milne asked officials not to rent school facilities on Sunday mornings because she didn't want parents to have to choose between youth sports and church. The school board acquiesced.

The Rev. John Titus of First United Church of Christ in Harrison City has a congregation of about 140 members, with an average age of 50.

“The crowd is younger than some,” Titus said. “We haven't lost that many members, but we are losing some due to death. We are slightly concerned; it's not that easy to attract young members.”

Though gaining young members is difficult, the older and longtime members remain loyal to the church they attend.

Clara Mae Dixson has been a member of New Life Free Methodist for 62 years and still remains faithful to the congregation.

“My parents did bring me to the church, but then my father went to a different one, and my mother quit going, but the church had the message I needed to hear,” said Dixson, now 65. “We were like a big family in the church, and I just loved it — so I stayed.”

Dixson recalls the days when the church drew a Sunday crowd of almost 80, but the decline became noticeable in the 1980s.

Small churches also have trouble getting attention, and the use of word-of-mouth can only go so far.

“I think some of the bigger churches have more things in the paper,” Dixson said. “The smaller churches don't have much in the papers, so not many people know they even exist.”

Milne said having youth helps open more doors for the church community.

“We do very well with the small group of people that we have, but smaller churches need more people to do more things,” Milne said.

Swick said most young people just don't have time for church anymore.

“I think, in America, we are going away from God,” Dixson said. “That's not the center of our lives anymore.”

Jacqueline Dell is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-871-2311 or

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