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

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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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Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in 26 states, according to a study last year by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Other gains were reported by unaffiliated evangelical or fundamentalist Christian groups.

The biggest losses have largely been in traditional, mainline churches and the biggest gains have been in relatively modern denominations.

"The old-line churches are in decline, often in crisis, and they will continue to lose members unless they are willing to adapt dramatically," Allen said. "The record on the new churches and non-church forms of spirituality is mixed. Some may be more fads, but others have more staying power."

Pope said some smaller religions can attract people by offering a sense of community. "There is the believing, but also a sense of belonging that is important to people," he said.

Mormons, in particular, are well-organized recruiters. Most church members, when they turn 18, become missionaries for two years, during which they spend most of their time proselytizing door to door.

Marcus Hutchins, a regional spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said individuals' reasons for wanting to join the church vary.

"There is a sense that life in the church is happier and more fulfilling than outside the church," he said. "In short, it works."

One of the newest churches in the Portland area, the Next Level Church on Forest Avenue, has grown to nearly 300 members since it came to Portland in late 2010, said Daniel King, executive pastor of the church, which formed in New Hampshire in 2007.

The non-denominational evangelical church has tried to appeal to people who are not regular church-goers, King said. It uses modern music and social media to appeal to members, but King said the biggest part is providing practical spiritual advice.

"There is no secret or magic. We teach the Bible like everyone else," he said.

Rising numbers in some churches are driven by migration. The numbers of Jews and Muslims in Maine have increased over the years because more people who are Jewish or Muslim have moved to Maine.

The data compiled by the Association of Religion Data Archives has shortcomings -- some denominations are under-counted because church memberships are loosely tracked, for instance -- but it is a comprehensive look at trends over decades.

The report includes, for the first time, a category for non-denominational Protestants. In Maine, 25,689 residents identified themselves as non-denominational, the third-largest category of religious affiliation.

The overall numbers confirm what other surveys have suggested: Maine is the least religious state and is becoming less religious.

Part of the reason is the age of its population. As more regular church-going residents die, fewer are replacing them in the pews.


As denominations lose members, they face decisions of whether to close specific churches. The age and condition of a church often informs that decision, as does the church's proximity to other churches in the denomination. That was the case with First United Methodist in South Portland.

Ward, the historian, said her church has been crumbling for years. About 15 years ago, the steeple had to be removed because of rotting beams. It was never reinstalled.

With membership down, the amount of money collected has dwindled. Ward said she remembers more than 150 parishioners packing the pews when she was a child. Now, 20 people is a good showing on a Sunday.

South Portland has three other Methodist churches, Ward said, so members will have options after First United closes. The pastor, the Rev. Johanne Dame, is also a part-time pastor at another church.

Historical artifacts from the First United Methodist Church, including a bell made in the foundry of Paul Revere, will be donated to the South Portland Historical Society.

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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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