Maine religious leaders hope to stem drop in attendance

Only New Hampshire has a higher rate of people saying they rarely or never attend services.

by | July 31, 2022

Religious attendance is on the decline in Maine, the third least religious state in the nation, according to Gallup polls. Shown here is the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Lewiston. Photo by David Damon.

Anita M. Madore shifted in her wooden pew at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Lewiston. It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday and the seats around her were mostly empty. The 84-year-old has attended mass six days a week since she was a small child, and for decades has watched attendance slowly thin. 

The priest, who, performing double duty, would travel to Holy Trinity Church in Lisbon Falls an hour later to deliver another mass, gave communion to around 35 congregants in Lewiston, most of them middle-aged or older. 

“When we had Covid, the people started to stop attending, though people stopped before we had Covid, too,” Madore said. “The church was beautifully full. It’s starting to fill up a bit more again but it’s been really slow.”

Religious attendance is on the decline in Maine, the third least religious state in the nation, according to Gallup polls. This decrease is prevalent not only in the state but nationally; a study by the Pew Research Center shows that one year before the pandemic hit, only 31 percent of U.S. adults attended religious services once a week or more. The percentage dropped from 39 percent in 2007. 

The portion of Americans who say they are a member of a church, synagogue or mosque is also dropping. When Gallup first measured membership in churches, mosques or synagogues in 1937, 73 percent of people surveyed said they belonged to a religious institution, and the figure remained steady until dropping to 68 percent in 1990. Since then it has been on a severe decline, dropping below 50 percent of the population in 2020 for the first time since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago.

Pew also reported that just 34 percent of Mainers surveyed in 2014 believed religion was very important in their lives and only 22 percent went to services at least once a week. Forty-seven percent said they seldom or never went; only New Hampshire reported a higher percentage, with 51 percent saying they seldom or never attended religious services.

The pandemic exacerbated the trend, several Maine clergy members said. Damon Mayrl, a Colby College sociology professor who focuses on religion, believes there is no one reason for the decline locally and nationally.

“Every generation is a little less religious than the ones that came before it,” he said. “One of the things that we’re seeing in more recent years is kind of a growth in the number of people who were raised in families that did not have any religious affiliation.”

This trend has impacted many places of worship, forcing them to reassess the services they offer or, in some dire cases, close their doors. Some are combining services with other denominations, or using virtual services to create a sense of community.

Rev. Karen Munson, a district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, oversees about 70 churches in central and southern Maine, and for the last six years has helped them either adapt or close.

The Methodists use yearly vitality studies, interviewing leaders of each church to determine whether it should remain open or begin shutting down.

In 2007, Methodist churches in Maine totaled 22,245 members, according to the church’s New England Conference statistician, Joy Mueller, with an average in-person attendance at 8,712. By 2019, membership had fallen to 15,544 with in-person worship attendance at 5,290. In 2021, two years into the pandemic, membership was 14,066 and in-person attendance dropped to 3,237.

“If you think about it, there’s not a single church still open in the world that Jesus’ disciples opened, right? No human organization lasts forever,” Munson said. “That’s one of the things we work with the churches on, saying it’s OK, it’s normal for organizations not to last forever.”

Like the Methodists, Lutherans have seen a sharp decline in their numbers, according to a report from the New England Synod in December 2020. Four of the 16 churches in the state did not report data in 2020, meaning The Maine Monitor could not conclude their online versus on-site attendance. Those that did report averaged 69 active participants with a combined total of 1,952 baptized members. The Synod did not have past data for Maine, but between the years 2019 and 2020, Lutheran churches in New England saw an 8 percent decrease in baptized members.

According to Rev. Will Barter, the associate to the Lutheran bishop for Maine, there has been “quite a significant decline in Sunday attendance” for the church.

“I mean, we are sort of in the same boat, I think, as most other mainline churches,” he said. “So I would say that some of our church’s attendance is down quite dramatically and other churches, it’s sort of leveled off. But overall, our numbers are much smaller on Sunday mornings than they used to be.”

Barter said the Lutherans have needed to collaborate with other denominations, like Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. For example, in Windham, he said, a Presbyterian pastor assisted a service. Barter, who also works as a psychologist, was ordained in 1982, and says he noticed the drop-off in attendance begin in the mid- to late 1990s. The decline has only accelerated with the pandemic.

“I don’t think our congregations are going to ever fully recover from the folks that were lost during COVID, who stopped going,” he said. “I think those numbers have crept up a little bit, but there’s still some slippage there.”

Fewer and fewer young Americans believe religion is a big part of their life. According to a Pew research poll, the lack of religious affiliation among millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) has risen drastically. In 2007, 25 percent of millennials told surveyors they were unaffiliated with a religion. By 2019, the number hit 40 percent, something Munson is pushing her churches to ponder.

“I’ve been pointing churches to 2030,” she said. “That’s when the baby boomers will have pretty much left leadership positions. If you think generationally, the baby boomers were huge participants in both the leadership positions and as financial donors. I’ve been using 2030 because that’s just where they get to an age where they’re not going to be doing that anymore.”

Born between 1946 and 1965, baby boomers tend to be strongly affiliated with a religion — in 2007, Pew reported that only 14 percent were unaffiliated, and that number only rose three percentage points by 2019.

Munson also works with closing churches on cementing a legacy, whether it’s keeping a building open as a thrift store or food pantry, or donating the rest of their money to a cause important to them. Mayrl, the Colby professor, believes that as religious institutions, especially in rural areas, close, the communities they serve could start to be negatively impacted.

“Particularly in rural areas, congregations play a really important role in the social safety net,” he said. “These are areas where there aren’t often a lot of social services provided by towns and cities, there’s just fewer resources for that. So a lot of the task of kind of caring for people who are falling through the cracks often falls on religious communities.”

In Stonington, the United Methodist Church held its final Sunday service on June 26. There were about 38 people in attendance, many older with white hair. A few used walkers to get around.

A church pamphlet said the congregation was consecrated in 1829.

“This church has been an anchor, a teacher,’’ said parishioner Collie Varick, 87. “It’s a sad day for me, too.’’

Congregants head to their cars following the final service at United Methodist Church in Stonington. Photo by David Dahl.

The trend — fewer parishioners and fewer churches — is illustrated among other denominations. 

Dave Guthro, the Portland Catholic Diocese communications director, said that the diocese has not closed a church since 2013 and has actually opened two new churches in recent years. In some cases, churches have been combined into single parishes, which he called “simply an administrative move.”

“The diocese has 141 churches in Maine all organized into parishes, but sometimes parishes/churches are partnered for efficiency reasons,” he wrote. Anita M. Madore’s church in Lewiston is in an institutional partnership. In July 2020, parishes in Lisbon Falls, Sabattus and Lewiston became part of the Prince of Peace Parish. These churches are now “under one umbrella to expand and grow ministries and services,” Guthro wrote.

This has also helped the church deal with the priest shortage, a problem faced by Catholic dioceses around the world. In fact, Guthro wrote, “Maine has always struggled with the number of priests that it has.” Currently the diocese has 73 active priests, plus retired and international priests to assist in services.

Guthro said he believes the pandemic may have strengthened the religious beliefs of many Mainers. Like other places of worship, Catholic churches live streamed services. Priests also heard confessions in parking lots and outside churches, he said. 

“It is wonderful to see full churches again, but both in our parishes and as a diocese, we’re connected virtually much better than ever before,” he wrote. “The crisis has convinced many who doubted that being connected this way is crucial in our world today.”

The Catholic approach has been mirrored by the Lutherans in the state, Barter said. 

“What we’re seeing more of is congregations reaching out to try to collaborate with other churches or look at some creative ways to remain a church presence,” he said. “We don’t have any right now in Maine, but I think we will have what’s called a two-point parish, which would be two congregations get together and form a parish, but they still have their own kind of worship site. They would share a pastor, and then have one other pastor who floats and helps with services.”

Craig Fortin, a pastor at the East Auburn Baptist Church, said he believes the future of religion in the state will consist of a more consolidated approach.

“In the next 10 years, I see the churches actually coming together, and I see churches being more united on the important things and less divided on the unimportant things,” he said. “So I see maybe less churches, but larger churches, just because I feel like there’s going to be a lot less differences that divide us moving forward.”

He believes that one reason a greater portion of Mainers tends to be less religious has to do with their independence. 

“I think Mainers are a rare and interesting breed of people,” he said. “I think we all have this mindset of ‘I’m all set, I’ll take care of myself.’ It’s hard to admit a need or dependence on a higher being when we have that mentality.”

The East Auburn Baptist Church has about 700 members, Fortin said. During the pandemic, pastors at the church met with leaders of other local churches to discuss how to handle the social-distancing restrictions. Fortin said they still keep in touch, and some churches are struggling to gain back the attendance they lost during the pandemic.

“Since Covid, people are happy to have about 60% of what they have had before,” he said. “That seems to be the norm, at least what it was about four months ago. Trying to get those numbers back to where they were has been an issue for a lot of churches.”

Just across the Androscoggin River from the East Auburn Baptist Church, behind a discrete door on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, sits the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center. According to the Sun Journal, an estimated 40 percent or more of the Lewiston school district’s 5,000-plus students are from immigrant families; many are practicing Muslims.

The Pew Research Center reported that less than 1 percent of Mainers are Muslims, yet Abdullahi Abdi, the director of the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center, said the mosque’s numbers are not decreasing or small: He claims to see about 6,000 people regularly attending prayers. 

“Islam has increased since 2006,” he said. “Seven days a week we pray, we pray five times a day, have Saturday and Sunday schools, and observe all Islamic holidays.”

Saleh Hamud, who also works at the mosque, said they do worry about youth attendance, since school often obstructs the ability to pray in the mosque. 

“The youth are changing, taking the position of not going to worship,” he said. 

The mosque is quite large, with other vibrant communities in Bangor and Portland. These institutions do not experience the difficulties faced by smaller religious groups around the state. 

But smaller institutions sometimes struggle to keep members, such as the Abbot Evangelical Free Church in Abbot Village, a Piscataquis County town with a population of 650. The church has seen a steady decrease.

“Crises are an accelerator,” said Pastor Ryan Austie. “They don’t necessarily change what we do, but they change how fast we do things. If you look at church attendance over the last even 100 years, there’s a pretty steady decline.”

Austie, who began working at the church in December 2020, said he was told attendance used to be about 90-100 people. Currently, services average around 50 people, he said. In an effort to stem this decrease, the Abbot Evangelical Free Church, like other religious institutions, has pushed to provide online services. 

“Across the board, yes, attendance has largely been impacted,” he admitted. “To mitigate against that, a lot of churches have gone digital as well. That’s helped a lot because many people, who for the most part didn’t feel safe being in a crowded room, were able to meet digitally.”

Austie gets together with other central Maine pastors that meet around once a month, which he said has been helpful in discussing approaches to recruiting and maintaining membership.

“We’ve tried really hard to look behind the curtain as far as what is motivating (this decline) and what is driving it,” he said. One conclusion he has come to is “hypocrisy” and the rise of the religious right.

“With the advent of the religious right in the 80’s, I think that put the church in a general trajectory so that Christians across the board tend to be aligned or recognized or perceived to be aligned with the right when that’s not necessarily the case,” he said. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy, and I hate that it’s a reality, but it is a reality.”

That point was mirrored by Mayrl, who said the politicization of religion has affected attendance and membership of different organizations.

“Within the past 30 to 40 years, there has been a shift where now we increasingly see people’s politics driving their religious affiliation,” he said. “In a large part we think this is a backlash to the religious right to the increasing sort of connection between a particular style of religion and a very prominent one from politics. What we see is that the disaffiliation rates tend to be higher among people who are liberal.”

According to a Pew survey, only 19 percent of Democrats in 2007 claimed to be unaffiliated with religion, while in 2019 that number rose to 34 percent. For Republicans, 10 percent were unaffiliated in 2007, with that number increasing by only 6 percent in 2019. 

Mayrl believes there is a current “hollowing out of the middle,” and those who remain more strongly religious are “increasingly committed, devout and increasingly often conservative.”

This has been affecting the effort by many to recruit and retain members. Glenn Davis, a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) in Windham, said recruiting new members has been hard, though he is focused on spreading “light” and positivity.

According to the church’s website, there are 10,987 members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Maine. There are 26 congregations, consisting of 18 wards and eight branches. In 2010, Church News, the church’s news outlet, reported 10,350 members in the state, suggesting membership has held steady.

Davis joined the LDS church when he was 25, and now at 53 is serving as a Stake President, teaching and training other church leaders. While previously working as a church bishop in Windham, he joined the Windham Area Clergy Association, where he worked with leaders of other faiths to discuss and share ideas for maintaining membership.

“I worked with other pastors and ministers of other faiths and we had a great time, we did a lot of things together,” he said, adding that he’s seen “smaller congregations not be able to finance, or they’re just too small and can’t keep the lights on, basically.”

Davis said the Church of Latter Day Saints sees less than 50 converts a year, though they’ve had membership and attendance remain relatively steady.

“I don’t see a lot of baptisms, but there’s a small (number) of baptisms with new converts that happen every year,” he said. “There’s not a huge amount of that happening. There’s a small (number) maybe, you know, 25-30 a year in our state.”

During the pandemic, his church initiated a “home-centered, church-supported curriculum” similar to Sunday School. The online and take-home approach was crucial, especially for families. Online services and support helped numerous religious institutions to continue to connect to those in their faith.

These services can help people stay connected, something Mayrl said is one of the most important things that religious institutions provide.

“(Religious institutions) are often places where people will develop the kind of soft skills that they need to succeed in civic life,” he said. “They’re places where people meet other people, they build connections within the community, they learn about volunteer opportunities.”

Located in Auburn, Temple Shalom Synagogue Center has adapted to hosting daily Minyan services via Zoom in an effort to maintain religious participation. The rabbi shared an online prayer book to the 12 people partaking in the services. Lesli Weiner, 69, has spent 40 years at the temple. She said that before the pandemic, they had not seen growth, but remarked that embracing technology has helped them connect to other Jews in the state.

“There’s not a lot of influx of new Jews in the area,” she said. “But because of Zoom since the pandemic, our attendance has been better because we’ve been able to include people from far and wide in Maine.”

The lack of young people feeling called to religious affiliation has shrunk, Estelle Rubinstein, 86, said on Zoom.

“What I have noticed is that this particular area where we live does not have an influx of very young people,” she said. “Most of the time when I speak to my grandchildren in other parts of Maine and other states, they tell me that they feel spiritual and they don’t need an edifice or a building to come to. They feel it in their heart.”

It is clear from data that young people feel less and less connected to religious institutions that played such a vital role for their parents and grandparents. According to Mayrl, what is not clear is the impact the decline in religious observance will cause on American society.

“A decline in the number of people who go to those churches will have some negative effects, certainly on American civic life,” he said. “It’s just such a major incubator for that kind of civic life, or has been historically, that for that to kind of weaken and fall away, it’s not clear what will replace it.”

 

Ellie Wolfe is a reporting intern for The Maine Monitor. Reach her via email with comments and other story ideas: ellie@themainemonitor.org.

Ellie Wolfe

Ellie Wolfe

Ellie Wolfe is a rising senior at Bates College, where she studies history and Spanish. She currently serves as the Editor in Chief of the Bates Student and last summer was a reporting intern at the Lewiston Sun Journal. Originally from Northampton, Massachusetts, Ellie has experience covering both news and sports stories.


RECENT ARTICLES