For 100 years, Lutherans in this farming community on the Minnesota prairie have come to one church to share life’s milestones.

They have been baptized, confirmed and married at La Salle Lutheran. Their grandparents, parents and siblings lie in the church cemetery next door.

But the old friends who gathered here early one recent Sunday never imagined that they would one day be marking the death of their own church.

About the series This is the first in an occasional series about Christianity at a crossroads — a time of unprecedented decline in church membership and a changing future for the faith. Part 2: Fewer ministers and shrinking budgets mean heavier burdens. Part 3: The fastest growing religion is “none”.Part 4: Churches sow seeds for future revival.

When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.

“Sunday used to be set aside for church: that’s what families did,” said Donna Schultz, 74, a church member since grade school at La Salle, in southwest Minnesota. “Now our children have moved away. The grandkids have volleyball, dance on weekends. People are busy with other things.

“I’m really going to miss this,” she added quietly, gesturing to her friends in the lobby. “We’re like family.”

The rising toll is evident in rural, urban and suburban churches across the state.

St. Paul’s On the Hill Episcopal Church on prestigious Summit Avenue was recently sold to a developer after more than a century of religious service. Bethany Lutheran Church in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis held its “holy closure” ceremony last fall. St. Michael Catholic Church in West St. Paul celebrated its last mass 18 months ago.

Mainline Protestant churches have been hit the hardest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Minnesota has lost almost 200,000 members since 2000 and about 150 churches. A third of the remaining 1,050 churches have fewer than 50 members. The United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota, has shuttered 65 churches since 2000.

Catholic membership statewide has held steady, but the number of churches fell from 720 in 2000 to 639 last year, according to official Catholic directories. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which closed 21 churches in 2010 and merged several dozen others, is again looking at ways to consolidate church staffing and programs.

The closings and mergers are leaving a void in communities where churches frequently house child care, senior programs, food shelves, tutoring and other services.

And it seems likely to get worse. Most Americans still report that they are Christian, but the worshipers in the pews on Sunday increasingly have gray or white hair. The median age is older than 50 for nearly all mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Pew Research Center, a national polling and research group in Washington, D.C. For Catholics, it’s age 49.

“It’s just a matter of time before many congregations won’t exist,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has examined religious life for three decades. “In the next 20 years, you’ll have half as many open congregations as now. It could be more devastating for certain denominations.”

Church attendance has been declining for decades nationally, but the pace appears to be accelerating. Since 1990, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and United Church of Christ have lost nearly half their national members. The ELCA has lost a third. The Catholic church still shows membership growth, but has 2,000 fewer parishes today, according to Catholic studies.

A record one in five Americans now report no religious affiliation, according to Pew.

But membership doesn’t always translate into people abandoning Sunday morning coffee to attend worship. Catholic and Lutheran surveys indicate about one in four church members actually show up each week.

Not every denomination or church is fragile. Some smaller evangelical denominations in Minnesota, such as Assemblies of God, and some megachurches report continued growth. But as a whole, even membership in the evangelical churches has plateaued, according to the Hartford Institute and other studies.

“There’s not a lot of good news in all these numbers,” said Kenneth Inskeep, the national ELCA’s longtime statistician. “The model we have used — a church, a pastor and a commitment by people to support the enterprise — is getting harder and harder to maintain.”

‘The last time’

La Salle Lutheran Church is much like the hundreds of small churches whose steeples rise above Minnesota’s rural landscape. Most were planted more than a century ago, near dozens of small farms with large families and boatloads of the faithful arriving from Europe.

Those were the grandparents of the people at the church today. About 25 members remain, including Bonnie Viland, 86. She recalls when the church was so full of families that folding chairs had to be set up in the aisle on holidays.

“Everybody who moved into town went to the church — except the family that was Roman Catholic,” she said.

Church was a bedrock of daily life. Its absence leaves a large gap — spiritual, social, emotional — that for many seems almost impossible to fill.

Viland, for example, taught Sunday school, brought desserts to countless church events and funerals, “held every office in the women’s organization,” served as church treasurer and church president. On a recent Sunday, she brought the chocolate chip cookies to social hour.

After worship, every single person in the pews headed to the downstairs social hall for coffee and conversation. Schultz watched the folks sitting around the table wistfully.

“I was confirmed here, married here. I thought I’d be buried here,” Schultz said sadly. “I still don’t know where I’m going.”

The decision to close the church was “very, very hard,” said church council president Lance Michaelson. But the council decided that rather than spend its remaining dollars keeping up the church, they would use the money to keep up its cemetery, where so many loved ones are laid to rest — and where many members plan to be, too.

“I think we could have stayed open longer,” said Michaelson, “but we’d be eating up the equity.”

Besides, just keeping the church going was a challenge.

“Most of the people on the church council have been there about 15 years,” Michaelson said. “You run out of people to do things.”

The Rev. Sarah Taylor is grieving too.

“Everything we’re doing, we’re doing for the last time,” said Taylor, La Salle’s pastor. “It was our last Christmas. Our last Easter. The last time we’ll sing that song … It breaks my heart.”

That heartbreak is familiar to Paul Daniels, the archivist for the ELCA. When a Lutheran church is considering closing, he’s one of the first people called. He travels a three-state region, helping churches sort through decades’ worth of photographs, documents and other treasures to safeguard those most critical to preserving the church’s memory.

His office at Luther Seminary in St. Paul is a repository of what’s left after the doors are locked one last time.

Daniels already has a file on La Salle’s neighboring church, Linden Lutheran, which closed in 2010 after 151 years. It lives among the cabinets, books, busts and portraits saved from churches dating back a century.

“Here’s a photograph of people laying the cornerstone of the church,” Daniels said, picking up a small black and white photo of Linden Lutheran Church.

The file for the church in Hanska, Minn., also includes a caterer’s estimate for hot dish, newspapers clips about the church, its anniversary bulletins, and the official document dissolving the congregation.

La Salle’s history will end up here as well, available to researchers who regularly visit the archives for insight into Minnesota’s social history, Daniels said.

Churches for sale

La Salle’s closing did not come as a complete surprise to its worshipers. It and three other churches in the region began sharing pastors and other resources about a decade ago. La Salle will be the second of the four to close.

The Rev. Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the ELCA’s southwest Minnesota synod, said several churches close here each year.

Churches in every rural area are merging and sharing services in an effort to keep their doors open, bishops said. The ELCA now offers advisers who specialize in counseling closing and fragile churches, and finance experts to help churches survive with ever-shrinking budgets.

“It’s not uncommon for me to hear, ‘We had a funeral last week and the congregation had to revise its budget,’ ” said ELCA Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe of northwest Minnesota.

Catholics, meanwhile, are less likely to shut down a church than to merge or consolidate staffing and programing. Marilou Eldred, co-chairwoman of a strategic planning group for the Twin Cities archdiocese, said the group is now looking at about 20 parishes.

“We can’t take for granted that all parishes will be here forever,” said Eldred. The group is meeting with church leaders, exploring mass attendance, proximity to other churches, demographics, and the condition of the church building, she said.

“Do they all need the Saturday night mass? Do they all need a 9 a.m. Sunday service? Do they all need faith formation [classes]?” Eldred said.

The archdiocese group, for example, recently met with the leadership of three churches in Richfield — St. Peter’s, St. Richard’s and Assumption — to explore ways to share costs and ministry.

Such arrangements are often the first step to eventual mergers, said Mary Gautier, a senior researcher at CARA. “Bishops are reluctant to close parishes and will avoid it at all costs,” she said.

Along with declining attendance, many Twin Cities churches facing closings and mergers have something else in common — old boilers or furnaces, leaky roofs, deferred maintenance. Those were among the factors driving the closure of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a landmark church that couldn’t stem the tide of financial loss.

The Summit Avenue church, built in 1912, was designed by Emmanuel Masqueray, who was also the architect for the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary. But the congregation, which had been losing members for years, lost even more after a priest was involved in a sex abuse scandal, and subsequent leadership didn’t attract new members or even keep the old, church members said. By 2015, attendance had shrunk to about 25 senior citizens on Sundays, who couldn’t afford the repairs needed in a 100-year-old historic treasure.

It was heart-wrenching process for longtime members such as Jo Lottsfeldt. A retired social worker, she planned to spend her final years in the halls where her children married, where her husband had served as a part-time minister, and where his ashes lay behind the altar — and where hers would, too.

On a recent afternoon, Lottsfeldt revisited the empty church for the first time since it closed three years ago. The pews had been removed. The statues that had looked down from above were in storage, and the newly polished hardwood floors glistened, leaving the smell of varnish in the air.

Lottsfeldt walked to one of the stained glass windows and looked up. It was donated by her great-grandfather.

“I have so much history here,” she said.

The church is being converted into a performing arts center. The developer, John Rupp of St. Paul, also recently purchased a former Catholic retreat center. The shift reflects the growing number of religious buildings in Minnesota that are now real estate listings.

“I’ve had a couple congregations call me to ask for ideas on how to use their buildings,” said Rupp, who also has toured Anglican churches in England in need of new tenants.

In fact, the church closings in the United States reflect what’s been happening in western Europe for several decades, researchers say.

Even so, Minnesota religious leaders insist church life is not becoming a relic. It will just look different. Christian churches will need to be more creative, financially leaner, and more in tune with their communities if they are to survive the 21st century, they said.

Back in La Salle, church members are hoping for a positive ending. They are pleased that a nearby church without a building has made an offer on their property. They are taking inventory of its modest assets, and have contacted the Watonwan County Historical Society to see what items it may want.

They are also planning a 100th anniversary event in July. Schultz recently pulled down the banner in the church hallway that said “Happy 75th Anniversary” that she made 25 years ago. She’s back at her sewing machine, changing the 75 to 100, and will present it at the bittersweet celebration a month before the church locks its doors.

Even if a church closes, it doesn’t mean failure, said the Rev. Taylor.

“When La Salle closes, it leaves a legacy of kind, good people who have passed that on to their children and grandchildren,” she said. “No matter where people go, they will always bring a piece of La Salle church with them.”

Leila Navidi
Video (03:25) La Salle Lutheran Church, open since 1918 in the tiny town of La Salle, Minn., is closing its doors for good in August.