July 31, 2013

Closing of South Portland church underscores Maine trend

The closing of First United Methodist Church on Brown's Hill is the latest sign of declining membership in many denominations in the nation's least religious state.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The church is more than 200 years old and looks it. Its white paint is peeling and cracking. The steeple has been removed because of rot.

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Sharon Ward, historian at First United Methodist Church in South Portland, says when she was a child, Sunday service used to attract as many as 150 parishioners; these days, 20 congregants is a good showing for worship.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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The First United Methodist Church in South Portland, which lost its steeple years ago because of wood rot, now stands to lose its congregation as well. Due to declining membership and increased maintenance costs, the church will close for good at the end of next month, with a final worship service set for Aug. 25.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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The building has been maintained over the years with help from donations, but those gifts have slowed. There just aren't enough people in the pews anymore when the collection plate is passed.

The First United Methodist Church on Brown's Hill will host its final Sunday worship service Aug. 25 and close permanently, a victim of falling membership and increased maintenance costs.

Its demise is the latest sign of declining membership in many religious denominations nationwide and in Maine, the least religious state.

"It's a sign of the times, I guess," said Sharon Ward, the historian for First United Methodist Church, who grew up as a member and was baptized in the church. "People are not coming into our building, which means we need to do a better job going out to where they are."

In 2010, the national Association of Religion Data Archives identified a total of 367,043 Maine residents who aligned with a religion, about 27.6 percent of the population. That was down nearly 9 percentage points from 2000, when 463,541 Mainers claimed a religion. Nationwide, the decrease was 2 percentage points over that time.

By comparison, Utah, at 79.1 percent, had the highest percentage of residents who claimed a religion, most of them Mormons. And in Southern states that make up what has been referred to as the Bible Belt, church membership rates were above 50 percent, according to the association's report, which was released in May 2012.

Doug Allen, a philosophy professor at the University of Maine, said he noticed the state's relative secularism when he moved here in 1974, and believes it will continue.

"Mainers often find identity and meaning in relation to nature and in communities outside traditional religions and institutions," Allen said. "I think that there is also a Maine-New England tradition of individual free thinking, resistance to imposed authoritarian power, and respect for separation of private religious faith and the state and secular life."

The Roman Catholic Church had the biggest decrease in membership in Maine from 2000 to 2010, losing more than 90,000 adherents (33 percent), but it still has the most members.

Several mainline Protestant denominations also dropped sharply. Among those with the largest number of adherents in Maine, the United Church of Christ (Congregational) lost 6,375 members (22 percent), American Baptists lost 5,749 (22 percent), the Episcopal Church lost 3,232 (21 percent) and United Methodists lost 3,360 (11 percent).

Nationwide, the Catholic Church lost about 5 percent of its members from 2000-10. The Episcopal Church's membership dropped by 15.7 percent in the same period, and decreases in most mainline Protestant groups were similar.

A study last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that, for the first time, the United States no longer has a Protestant majority, mostly because of a sharp increase in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation.

The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. was 48 percent, the study showed. About 20 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent five years earlier.

"This is a process that's gone on for about 200 years," said Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College. "The philosopher Max Weber said to live in a modern world is to be disenchanted."


A handful of denominations are actually gaining members in Maine, in some cases because of active evangelism.

Mormons have gained 3,565 members since 2000, an increase of 50 percent, and Seventh-Day Adventists have gained 956 members, 36 percent.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Hymnals line the backs of pews at First United Methodist Church.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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A board lists the hymns for the Sunday service.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Empty pews have become a more common sight at First United Methodist Church. An assessment of religious affiliation has found sharp declines in memberships among Catholic and several mainline Protestant denominations.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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