Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches

South Carolina churches are shedding thousands of members a year, even as the state’s population grows by tens of thousands.

In the place we call the Bible Belt, where generations have hung their hats on their church-going nature and faithful traditions, an increasing trend of shrinking church attendance — and increasing church closings — signals a fundamental culture shift in South Carolina.

At least 97 Protestant churches across South Carolina have closed since 2011, according to data from the Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist and Southern Baptist denominations. An untold number of other closings, certainly, are not captured by these statistics.

Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, anything, in their near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.

At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents, and so on) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.

What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?

At Whaley Street United Methodist Church near downtown Columbia, the small crowd of remaining members are quick and cheerful to say they’re a “small but friendly” church. A couple dozen people sat spaced out among the wooden pews on a Sunday morning earlier this summer, when Pastor Joe Cal Watson delivered an efficient sermon titled, “What is church?”

“I miss the days when church and Sunday were so important … the world stopped so we could focus on our faith,” Watson said from the pulpit. Sunday mornings still matter, he told the flock, but how the church treats people and helps people in need are more important.

Whaley Street’s congregation is a fraction of the size it once was when the surrounding Olympia and Granby mill villages were thriving.

The church, simply, doesn’t know how to grow these days, though not for lack of hoping to.

“We’re open. We’re friendly. But we do have an old-time service,” said Mary Anna Spangler, a member of 30 years. “But the big problem is how do you get (people) in the door and then keep them?”