Shrinking congregation a worry for historic Muncie church

Steeple file photo (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Steeple file photo (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) – A historic Muncie church that has battled declining membership is facing tough choices about its future.

The 142-year-old Main Street United Methodist Church used to draw hundreds for its annual Easter service. But the church claims just 35 members and averages 15 to 20 people for its services now, The Star Press reported.

The numbers aren’t expected to improve. The average age of the congregation is 82, and the youngest families in the church are in their 60s.

The Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church, which owns Main Street United, has advised church leaders to merge with another church or modernize by putting in a projection screen and musical instruments for worship, said Robert Hunt, who is in his 15th year as pastor.

But the tiny congregation prefers traditional worship in the building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wesley Strauch, 82, a member of the church since 1951, said the decline in membership picked up pace in the 1980s. The church averaged 84 people at its Sunday services in 1982, but that number had fallen to 54 by 1994.

“We didn’t see it coming because we had children running here and there,” Strauch said, “and all of the sudden we didn’t.”

Today, the nursery and youth classroom on the main floor collect dust. Main Street United has tried to attract younger residents by pairing with Ministries of Delaware County to host Kids For Christ Bible Club on Tuesdays at its Fellowship Hall. The Kids Club activities attract up to 30 children, but none return on Sundays.

That is an ominous sign for a congregation that’s trying to ensure the church lives on long after they’re gone.

“We need somebody to take on the heritage of the church and move it on,” Hunt said.

Churches across the country have been closing with increasing frequency. The U.S. Census Bureau reports more than 4,000 churches shut down each year, while only about 1,000 open.

The Main Street United members say they have no intention of becoming another statistic.

“Most of us will hold out because we don’t want to go to the big churches,” Strauch says. “There’s some people that want us to close it down, but we’re going to keep it open.”

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