Calvary Baptist Church in Roanoke is nearly a century old in its location on Campbell Avenue. It’s for sale as declining membership leaves the historic church struggling to pay its high maintenance costs.
Calvary is caught in a staggering drop in membership of churches throughout America as at least half of Americans say they no longer belong to any church denomination. In 1999, 70 percent belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. In 2018, the figure fell to just under 50 percent.
Of that 50 percent, half of them say they are atheistic, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” Pew Research found in a survey last year. Before the pandemic closed churches in Virginia and the rest of the country, Calvary had about 60 people worshiping on Sunday.
Now, with in-person services resumed, that attendance is less than half that number.
In an interview with The Roanoke Times, Rev. Steven Pollard said the church can’t continue to maintain the large, historic building.
“It’s just unwise use of God’s money, really, to go ahead and continue to pour it in there,” Pollard told the newspaper.
The church is not closing. It’s moving to a smaller, less-expensive location.
“We’ve kind of wrapped our heads and our hearts around the fact that the church is people, it’s us,” Pollard said. “We want to stay together, and we want to move forward.”
Calvary is Roanoke’s second-oldest Baptist church, founded in 1891. The Campbell Avenue building opened in 1925.
The decline that churches like Calvary faces, is occurring throughout the country, even in rural “Bible-belt” counties like Floyd. While many still profess a “belief in God,” they also say they are “turned off” by political activism by denominations.
Sit in a church sanctuary, listen to what is being preached from the pew, and you can understand why so many are now seeking other ways to find faith.
Pew Research says its surveys find the biggest generational drop is among millennials, born between 1981 and 1996
Cory Marquez, a 34-year-old ordained minister, left a “traditional” church and now preaches at New Abbey, a Christian LGBTQ “progressive family friendly church” in Pasadena, Calif.
Evangelicalism has really been a group that represents white surburbans. Now the church is including more and more people. There’s a birthing of a universal God that’s taking place right now. We no longer can look at other human beings and say, “Oh, Mexicans? Oh, gay people?” You know somebody now, or you have social media with direct access to these people. It’s harder to alienate people than it used to be. And it’s the same way with God. It’s like, “Oh, those evil Muslims” You mean Raffi over here? His kids go to school with my kids. They have killer BBQs. So I think with that connection point, particularly in a melting pot like Los Angeles, and also because of the internet, we’re birthing something new. The fancy religious term is called syncretism. So that would be like the old-school way when the Catholic Church was colonizing South America and they would go to an Incan village and wipe out all of their temples, and then build a Catholic church right over the ruins of those temples and old gods. Those peoples then don’t fully accept Catholicism. They still bring in their native religion in some way. And that’s what’s happening to all of us right now, and it’s happening at a really rapid rate. We’re all building on top of those old temples really quickly and we’re sharing that information. So there’s a universal syncretism taking place in the Church right now, even if we don’t know it.
I began to understand that after deciding to leave the church of my youth after it became evangelical. I’m sorry, but what they are preaching does not embrace the God that my wife and I know and love. God is far more inclusive.
“It’s less about form and more about content,” Marquez tells Public Broadcasting. “People want something that actually matters for their lives. If the content is literally not healing you, connecting you to something bigger, then you’re wasting your time.”
Diane Winston, professor of religion and media at the University of Southern California, says “many religions just don’t feel relevant to a lot of these young people.”
The young, she adds, have lost trust in religious institutions.
“They don’t speak their language,” she says.
Their scandals, the sexuality improprieties, these problems of, you know, pedophilia, of sexism, of misogyny. Why would you want to give your time and money to an institution that countenances or protects people who do these kinds of things?
We saw some of that need to change when Pope Francis talked about the Catholic Church embracing gay marriage and those of differing gender beliefs and identities.
On Tuesday, we will see if American voters will re-embrace an America that serves all of its citizens, all the different beliefs, philosophies, races and religions that make the nation complete.