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York city churches: Serving vs. survival

Written by Caitlin Kerfin/York Daily Record | Jan 5, 2016 9:40 AM
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Congregations members wish each other peace during worship at Union Lutheran Church on West Market Street in York. Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record

As worship attendance across the country declines, some city churches especially feel the shift, but with added pressure.

(York) -- The Reverend Joel Folkemer knows that York city's churches worry about their own survival, but he doesn't want that to come at the cost of their most critical mission: serving people.

His church -- Union Evangelical Lutheran Church -- is one of thousands across the country preaching in a historical building to a small congregation. City congregations have been dwindling since about the time of the race riots in the 1960s, when some city dwellers left for the suburbs, he said. Union's sanctuary can hold about 500 people but it usually sees about 70 on an average Sunday.

Folkemer is on a mission to change that trend, and he has hope.

His optimism defies the national trends: The number of people who attend one or more worship services a week has declined from 39 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The number of people who seldom or never attend worship has increased from 25 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2013.

When Folkemer arrived at Union Lutheran around August 2014, the congregation was averaging about 55 people a week attending services. He expects to end 2015 averaging 71.

The fight for growth and survival has to do, in part, with the dense concentration of churches in the city. About seven Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations alone worship within the city limits, Folkemer said. Union was among the first, chartered by the state on March 22, 1859. The church was named "Union" because it united members of other existing congregations into a new neighborhood church, according to its history.

Folkemer, who has completed one year of a three-year mission to redevelop and revitalize Union Lutheran, sees more people from the neighborhood coming in who want to be a part of the work the congregation does, he said.

"It's about building relationships," Folkemer said.

The church now participates in a community breakfast every second Saturday, has a community food pantry called The Well, and shares its building with other organizations like the YMCA and Narcotics Anonymous. These events help to bring the community into the building on days other than Sunday.

"We're in a very diverse neighborhood. If we're going to reflect our neighborhood, that's what we're going to look like," Folkemer said. And with Union's increase from 55 to 71 in 2015, church diversity is also improving, he said.

Neighbors can be better served if churches can partner up, too, he said.

"Our building is also an asset," Folkemer said.

The church is working on renovations to better accommodate hosting community events aside from services on Sunday. They have the space to do it, he said.

Terrence Downs is encouraging the multiple uses for York churches throughout the city, and Folkemer has been incorporating those efforts at Union Lutheran.

Downs is a community member passionate about the revitalization of York and its churches. He has made it his mission to bring back a council of churches to help maintain the churches' historic buildings and to improve communication among congregations. He hopes to have a council made up of people from different churches in the city pieced together to start meeting in February.

"[Churches] contribute to the heritage and culture of downtown York," Downs said.

Folkemer, despite his efforts, hasn't lost sight of his church's first mission. Growing the church spiritually comes first, with attendance numbers secondary, he said.

The congregation has created a new purpose statement that includes a reminder of Union's guiding principles: stewardship, relationships, worship, scripture, prayer and Jesus is lord.


This article comes to us through a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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