Grammer Presbyterian to close its doors on Sunday

GRAMMER — It’s no secret that COVID-19 has hit small rural churches across America particularly hard over the past few years.

Several were already having attendance and financial difficulties before the pandemic struck in early 2020.

A study released by Lifeway Research of 34 Protestant denominations and groups across the U.S. revealed that 4,500 churches closed in 2019 — the year before the coronavirus spread globally.

In Bartholomew County, one of the latest houses of worship to announce an upcoming closing is the 114-year-old Grammer Presbyterian Church, 5333 S. County Road 1000E.

When the Rev. Amy Artis began preaching at the Rockcreek Township church in June, 2019, the services were attracting eight to 10 congregation members each week, she said.

“With that few, it is hard to sustain a church,” Artis said. “The congregation has talked about closing it for years, but it wasn’t an easy decision.”

Choices became clearer after one of the church’s most prominent members, Martha Ann Jaquess, died on Nov. 25, 2000, Artis said. Another prominent leader had to give up his responsibilities after he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, she added.

“We did the best we could,” Artis said. “But I think that not being able to meet together, to be involved in a mission together, and to not be in fellowship together has really hurt a lot of churches.”

One effort to hold the church together involved staging parking lot services, with the services broadcast through an FM radio station, the pastor said.

But after the church reopened to conventional services earlier this year, Artis said the congregation had dwindled down to about three. She added the vote to close the church was taken in September.

So the Grammer Presbyterian Church — organized by the town’s women and the former Donaldson Presbyterian Church on Jan. 11, 1907 — will conduct its final service on Sunday at 10:45 a.m.

“You wonder and ask yourself what you could have done differently,” said church elder Doug Denny. “In our monetary donations, you give what you can and you try to be faithful in that. But you are still limited by the financial obligations you have in your home life.”

In regard to why so many small churches are closing, Artis said there isn’t just one reason. For example, she recalled when there were both local schools and churches in small towns, which gave rural residents a sense of community.

“When the local schools closed or consolidated, that became the downfall of small rural communities,” Artis said. “No longer was there a basis for a loyalty to the community.”

Another problem was that more families became willing to drive several miles to a church that they felt best suited their needs, instead of staying with the church near home that depended on their local support, Artis said.

Lifestyles have also changed, the minister said. For example, there’s shorter-attention spans brought on many causes that include on-demand programs, satellite channels, 24-hour sports channels and podcasts. As a result, many people expect to be entertained when they come to church, Artis said.

“I think a lot of people are looking for a lot of bells and whistles,” Denny said. “They want the ‘Church Spectacular’.”

From the minister’s perspective, church services are intended to make congregation members think about how biblical teachings apply to them here and now, so they can become a living witness for Christ and God in their communities.

Denny said that when he began attending Grammer Presbyterian regularly about 35 years ago, he heard a message every Sunday that touched his life in some way.

“I really can’t explain it, but it was always about something that had either just occurred in my life, or was about to occur,” he said.

Artis also expressed regret that politics has become intertwined with religion, which has often been described as a source of division among many people.

But one of the most significant reasons for declining congregations is the failure of churches to meet real-life needs in their communities. At the Scipio United Presbyterian Church where Artis also delivers sermons, she has seen the small congregation help an individual family with little income at Christmas and Easter, assist seniors at Jennings County High Schools during the pandemic, provide for elderly shut-ins, collect Christmas gifts for children and raise an average of $1,000 a month to finance projects in their community.

“While we’re not growing in numbers (at Scipio Presbyterian), we are growing in understanding of what it means to be a church,” she said.

Although nobody likes to see a house of worship close, churches have life cycles like everything else, Artis said. And sometime, those life cycles result in churches reinventing themselves.

The same study that counted 4,500 church closings also found 3,000 new congregations were created the same year.

“But that word ‘change’ is not one humans like to hear,” the pastor said. “I’ve told many churches: You can either be an instigator of the change, a responder of the change or an ignorer of the change. But change is going to happen.”