RACINE COUNTY — Churches once were as prolific as bars, one in almost every neighborhood, as the faithful flocked for weekly services.
But Racine-area Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors say a societal shift is occurring, and fewer congregants gather in the pews every weekend to hear God’s word.
As a result, a string of churches in Racine and Caledonia are merging, are considering melding, or already have consolidated.
“There’s no denying in all denominations there is a decline (in attendance),” said Mary Janz, pastoral consultant and transition team adviser for Emaus ELCA. “The institutional church is changing drastically. It’s a huge shift. In our minds, we have to figure out what our mission is.”
Emmaus Lutheran Church was founded about 165 years ago by Norwegians, said Janz, who was pastor there from 1991 until Feb. 1. Then seven years ago, a Latino congregation — Parroquia Emaus — formed in their building at 1925 Summit Ave., she said.
Emmaus Lutheran and Parroquia Emaus
But as times changed, the two congregations voted on Jan. 24 to merge. They will elect a bilingual church council on June 5, Janz said.
They propose to call a bilingual lead pastor, to join part-time interim Pastor Steve Wohlfeil and intern Pastor Gabriel Marcano, who is a Venezuelan native.
“Our church is the only church where probably kringle and tamales are served at the same time,” Janz said chuckling.
More churches are merging, or considering consolidating, though.
Some of these churches had been participating in Faithworks, a special partnership created in 2012 and originally consisting of five Racine-area ELCA churches. The churches were: Emmaus; St. Andrew Lutheran Church; Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 2219 Washington Ave., Racine; Atonement Lutheran Church, 2915 Wright Ave., Racine; and Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, 2417 Drexel Ave., Racine. Lutheran Church of the Redeemer withdrew from that partnership in 2013.
“We did sort of a trial partnership with St. Andrew over on 4 Mile Road for over a year,” Janz said. “When it came time to decide were we going to come together and be in one location, we at Emmaus said we can’t abandon our location, and we’re so near the schools and the kids we serve (in after-school programs).
And congregants at St. Andrew, 1015 4 Mile Road, Caledonia, were “not ready to abandon their building,” Janz explained.
A message was left for St. Andrew Pastor Michael Mueller, but he wasn’t available for comment.
Gethsemane Lutheran and Emmanuel Lutheran
Gethsemane Lutheran Church and Emmanuel Lutheran Church members voted to consolidate during a joint meeting on June 7 at Emmanuel, according to Kip Gustavson, church council president for Emmanuel/Gethsemane Lutheran Church. They hosted a service of “leave-taking” on April 24 at Gethsemane.
In an email, Gustavson wrote that church leaders expect to close on the Gethsemane building, at 3319 Washington Ave., sometime in mid to late May, then worship at Emmanuel, 725 High St., until that building sells and a new location selected.
Members of both congregations voted to sell the buildings and continue with consolidation efforts during separate but simultaneous meetings on Jan. 17, Gustavson said.
Nominations for a new name have been submitted and congregants will vote in May, he said. The names “Emmanuel” and “Gethsemane” were excluded.
“As with many churches, we’ve experienced a steady decline in membership over the last few decades,” Gustavson explained. “Reasons for this decline include a failure to adapt to changing tastes in worship and the inability of our traditional spaces to accommodate modern worship styles.”
“Mainly though, it’s just a reflection of the overall attitudes of society regarding any type of organized worship,” he wrote. “There simply aren’t enough able bodies to do the work of the church in maintenance or mission and those that remain are wearing out fast.”
The attendance drop also has “pressed us financially” as there are fewer dollars in the collection plates while costs continue to increase, he said.
“We hope that by pooling our resources through consolidation, we can extend the life of our church long enough to figure out how to get leaner, bigger, younger and more effective in the service of God,” Gustavson wrote.
Atonement and Our Savior’s
Atonement Lutheran Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church voted to consolidate on Jan. 31 after the two congregations began worshipping together in 2014, said Warren Williams, pastor of the combined church now named Living Faith Lutheran Church. The congregation voted on the new name on Feb. 14 after a selection process that spanned several months, Williams said.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody felt included,” he said.
The congregation meets at the former Atonement site, 2915 Wright Ave., and a satellite site in the Sturtevant Sportsplex, which Williams said the church has maintained for about 5½ years. He said he isn’t certain what will happen when The REAL School moves into the Sportsplex site.
Worship attendance peaked in the 1970s at about 80 percent, Williams said. Now, about 20 percent of the population attends church.
The church now is leaner, he explained, but “more mission-focused.”
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 3011 Erie St., Racine, and Zion Lutheran Church, 3805 Kinzie Ave., Racine, partnered in 2013 to share the same pastor, John Bischoff, according to Zion Lutheran Church. A message was left for Bischoff, but he wasn’t available for comment.