Voorheesville evangelical church legally shuttered

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The Mountainview Evangelical Free Church in Voorheesville held its last service in September. 

VOORHEESVILLE — A church never really closes. Sure, the building can be boarded up and abandoned.

“[But] it’s a misnomer to say you’re closing a church, although it may appear that way from the outside. The church isn’t a building, the church is the people, and that’s not something that is going to close,” said Brian Wilson, lead pastor of Mountainview Evangelical Free Church in Voorheesville.

Mountainview Church held its last service in September; it will be legally dissolved within a week. 

Churches don’t really close, Wilson said; God just moves people to different expressions of a church. “And so, what we were finding is that people were no longer congregating in Mountainview Church; that didn’t seem to be where God was leading people,” he said. 

Mountainview’s closing can be seen as fairly typical, said Sam Huggard, in that most churches tend to have a life cycle and Mountainview had just come to the end of its cycle. Huggard is the superintendent of the New England District of the Evangelical Free Church of America, which also includes northeastern New York.

Church closings, Huggard said, are attributable to a number of different factors: Demographics, people moving in and out of an area; sometimes it has to do with the ministry plan at the local church if it’s no longer meeting the needs of the community; and sometimes the church has gone through a number of transitions, which was the case in Voorheesville. 

Before Brian Wilson was hired in September 2018, Mountainview had been without a lead pastor for two years. And during that two-year period, Huggard said, there had been a decline in both  membership and “energy.” 

The presence of a permanent pastor at Mountainview wasn’t enough to attract new members. In 2010, Mountainview had about 50 congregants; at the end, there were about 30 members of the church, a 40-percent decline in membership in just under a decade.

Big picture

Mountainview’s decline illustrates a sped-up version of a broader trend in the country: Just half of Americans report belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque — “an all-time low,” according to Gallup; in 1999, that number was 70 percent. 

At the same time, Christianity, the dominant religion in the United States, is losing its hold. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, says that eight of the 10 “most post-Christian cities in America” are located in the Northeast, two are in New York State, and Albany-Schenectady-Troy is considered one city — it’s also the sixth most post-Christian city in America.

Among the metrics used to define a city as post-Christian were residents who had not read a Bible in the last week; had not attended a Christian church in the last six months; had never made a commitment to Jesus; had not prayed to God in the last week; disagree that faith is important in their lives; and don’t believe in God.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report that said, “Sixty-five percent of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion,” which is a 12-percent drop from 2009. 

And it appears that number will continue to crater. 

Only half of Millennials describe themselves as Christian. In contrast, 84 percent of Americans born between 1928 and 1945, known as the Silent Generation, describe themselves as Christian, while 76 percent of Baby Boomers do. 

In the past, Huggard said, a lot of churches could operate under the mindset that many people in the community had kind of a latent Christianity to their value system — even if they weren’t part of a church. And in those instances, churches could just open up and attract congregants through word-of-mouth or mailings.

According to Gallup, between 1938 and 1998, church membership in America never dropped below 68 percent.

Today’s culture is much more diverse, Huggard said; the expectation of a latent Christianity value system isn’t there anymore. And so, it has become important to engage with people not just in the church building but also out in the community, he said.

Value systems have changed and the culture is more diverse but the church, whether because of intransigence or inability, has been slow to adapt to an all-but-certain societal shift. Also, the Catholic Church using its moral authority to silence hundreds of then-children raped by priests, probably turned more than a few people off to the faith; Mountainview is a Protestant Church.

Hard to find truth

Wilson, Mountainview’s pastor, believes the church has taken some things that are meant to be “dynamic” and made them “static.” He explains that there are things in the church that never change, those things are static: the gospel, the theology, and who God is. 

“And we hold to those” static parts of the church, Wilson said. However, those static foundations are meant to be applied to the questions being asked in today’s culture: How should the church be engaging in some of the country’s structural problems, for example, such as those related to race and poverty? And what does God have to do with all these things?

Then there’s the bigger question that’s being asked: What does God have to do with my day-to-day life experience?

And where the dynamic has become static, Wilson said, “I think sometimes what we’ve seen is that the church has taken some of the answers that have been effective for maybe our parents’ generation or even our grandparents’ generation. And they’re trying to reach a culture today with those same answers, but the culture isn’t asking the same questions.” 

Getting that message across today is, first, very difficult, but it’s also a message that has worked, in one shape or another, for thousands of years. 

The amount of information that is available to people today is overwhelming, Wilson said, adding, “I think that they are bombarded with propositional truth — bombarded with it.”

Information overload, he said, is pervasive everywhere: in religion, politics, science. “It’s gotten to the point where people don’t know what is and isn’t truth,” Wilson said.

So many voices propose truth that people are overwhelmed and become unable or incapable of sorting through the information to determine what is actual truth, Wilson said; it’s gotten to the point where people just speak what they perceive as being the truth.

What will transcend propositional truth is for people to have their own visceral experience of the living God, Wilson said; it’s here where the church can engage more by serving the community with the gospel and the message: You are loved and cared for.

A grace story

“This isn’t a sin story,” Wilson said; the overriding message of the gospel is a grace story. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Wilson said, quoting a seminary professor.

Engagement can’t be only a top-down interaction, Wilson said, where people are told by the church how they should and shouldn’t live their lives.

It starts with listening. 

But there are so many barriers that people throw up; “they are so guarded,” he said, that it takes a lot for them to figure out that someone actually cares before they are willing to have a real conversation

When someone knows they are loved — “And we throw that word around a lot, it’s a cheap word,” he said — not just are told they are loved, but are shown empathy and compassion, when the church starts to do that, engage the culture in that way, what you will see is people experiencing God.

People, Wilson believes, “are hardwired to respond to that.”

Huggard offered a historical example that happened to illustrate Wilson’s point. 

For the first two- to three-hundred years of Christianity, which took place during the early stages of the Roman Empire, the faith’s followers were very much on the periphery of society, to the point of persecution, he said. 

Huggard recalled one account of a series of plagues that swept through Rome prior to Constantine’s reign. One of the emperors was noted as saying that all the Romans were fleeing the city yet the Christians were sticking around to tend to the sick and dying.

When Emperor Constantine became Christian — although, Huggard said, there’s some debate about whether or not he converted but he made it the official religion of the Roman Empire — the faith grew rapidly, he said, largely because there was an organic, grassroots concern for the poor, a real, deep belief in the teachings of Jesus and a desire to live those teachings.

He attributes the rapid growth, in part, to Christianity’s purity — people weren’t using religion as a way to gain political power.

The job of the church is to be the bearer of the gospel’s message: “The church is how He chooses to engage the world,” Wilson said, and that means not only saving people’s souls but “saving us from this broken humanity.”

There are things right now in the world that are incredibly destructive that the gospel “has impact on and efficacy for,” Wilson said.

“I think of the race issues that are tearing the country apart right now,” he said; then there’s the disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in the country. The gospel “has impact on” many endemic and systemic problems in the culture and, ideally, these are issues that the church would be engaged with in a very public way.

But, Wilson said, “We don’t always engage that way that we might ought to.”

Nor is it possible for a pastor to just take head-on the country’s structural issues related to race and poverty; a pastor is a leader, Wilson said, and he can lead by example, but, in the end, for change to occur, “ it takes a whole church.”

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