Colorado churches chart out future amid pandemic and declines
The cavernous lobby was buzzing as parents rushed to drop their children at the youth ministry and other people, clutching cups of coffee, headed into the auditorium. Inside, the lights went down. The crowd of roughly 1,500 rose to their feet to greet the swell of rock music that washed over them from the stage.
It felt almost like a normal Sunday morning at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette — almost. But several months after the megachurch resumed in-person services, more than half of the 4,000 seats at its once-burgeoning flagship campus sat empty last weekend. These days, most regular attendees across the church’s five Denver-area campuses are still participating by watching its online live streams from home, scrambling the usual communal dynamic.
Their reluctance to return is understandable while the pandemic’s embers still smolder and vaccination campaigns continue. But it poses new challenges for church leaders who are trying both to appeal to two distinct audiences — and to chart out the long-successful Flatirons’ suddenly uncertain future.
For churches large and small, the pandemic pivots required in the last year added fresh pressures on top of a longer-term problem: For decades, organized religion’s influence over Americans’ lives has been fading. Though the United States remains more religious than many other countries, a declining share of adults belong to churches and other houses of worship, resulting in shuttered churches in many parts of America — and soul-searching by some religious leaders who hope to attract people back.
Flatirons had bucked that trend, growing from 1,000 Sunday attendees in Boulder County in 2001 to nearly 17,000 across its network of campuses before the pandemic. But now its leaders are asking a new variation on a question that long had faced declining congregations.
“Honestly, with a church our size … there’s still this group of people that we’re wondering if they’re going to come back,” said the Rev. Jesse DeYoung, Flatirons’ executive lead pastor.
Last year brought a troublesome milestone for religion at large: Just 47% of U.S. adults said they were members of churches, synagogues or mosques in poll results released by Gallup in late March — the first time that figure has dropped below 50% since Gallup began asking the question in 1937.
Church membership peaked in the late-1940s at 76%, and a more persistent slide began around 2000. Though Gallup didn’t provide a state-by-state breakdown, it says survey respondents in the country’s western region reported the lowest rate of church membership in recent years, just 38%. That was down 19 percentage points over the last two decades.
The declines have varied, but in the national data Gallup says they’ve cut across every major demographic category, including age, race, political affiliation and income. Older generations, conservatives, married adults and college graduates saw smaller declines, however. Among Christians, Catholics were more likely than Protestants to leave their churches.
Churches face increasing competition from secular interests, experts say, and more difficulty resonating in people’s 21st-century lives — especially as political gulfs have widened between what’s preached from many pulpits and popular views on social issues such as same-sex marriage.
Colorado’s rapid growth has obscured the impact for many churches, in particular along the Front Range. Even so, pastors say membership declines are evident in fewer members from younger generations and other shifts.
The pandemic’s new uncertainty reached congregations like Flatirons that had escaped the longer-term trends. Predictions differ over whether the pandemic will reinvigorate churches as they seize on new opportunities to connect with people — or if it simply will accelerate the overall decline in church-going.
The Rev. Joseph Wolyniak, a 39-year-old Episcopalian priest, worries about decades of dropping membership the Episcopal Church has shared with several mainline Protestant denominations. He is associate rector at Christ Church Denver on South University Boulevard, a role he took in late 2019.
“I’m a younger priest, ordained less than five years,” he said. When the church’s older rector recalls his 30 years in ministry, Wolyniak said, “I think: ‘Man, by the time I reach 30 years of ministry, it’ll be completely different.”
In the Colorado diocese, church figures show the number of baptized Episcopals fell nearly 13% between 2009 and 2019, to just under 24,000. Meanwhile, average Sunday attendance fell by 19%. Wolyniak’s own church saw a 40% membership slide from 2008 through 2015, when it began stabilizing under new leadership.
New connections — and warning signs
Wolyniak says the new ways Christ Church Denver — and many others — found to connect with their members online throughout the week during the pandemic has given him some renewed hope. It still limits in-person attendance to 70 per service, so many participate in Sunday services online. Some of them travel to the church parking lot afterward for a drive-up communion offering.
But it’s also been clear, he said, that the pandemic “has been an accelerator of decline for many of our churches,” particularly smaller congregations that struggled to adapt. Some Denver-area churches of many denominations shut down for weeks or months last year.
Still, many houses of worship across Colorado rose to the pandemic’s challenge. Catholic churches and some small congregations scrambled to organize online services — a hard pivot in organizations used to extensively deliberating changes. Smaller churches organized phone check-ins each week, contacting every member, while improvising streamed services that often drew unexpected viewers from afar. And many pastors got creative with online services, sometimes prerecording sermons on location — at a vineyard or beside a waterfall — to underline the message that day.
At the Denver synagogue Rodef Shalom, the rabbi and other religious leaders stationed themselves in separate rooms with live audio connections so they could harmonize together during online Shabbat services.
Rabbi Rachel Kobrin said the synagogue grew during the pandemic. But she shared the concern of Flatirons’ DeYoung about the awkward transition back to in-person services while many are still viewing online.
“The challenge for us is that it’s much easier to create a service for an at-home audience — a service that’s meant to be streamed,” Kobrin said. “Now what we’re doing is streaming a live service. There’s a big difference. It’s great for the people who are there, but harder to make it feel poignant for the people at home.”
DeYoung says that if the attendance split continues — in-person attendance has reached just 45% of pre-pandemic levels, he estimates — Flatirons may reconsider how it engages the large swath of online viewers, perhaps with a separate service tailored for them. The church actually began online streaming in 2018, but leaders never envisioned they’d rely so heavily on it.
The Rev. John A. Moreland, senior pastor of Denver Christian Bible Church, a mostly African-American Baptist congregation, said the pandemic has only reinforced that churches need to work harder to make the experience meaningful, beyond Sunday morning. His church, which he and his wife founded eight years ago, has focused on fostering small groups around Bible study, he says, and has stable membership.
Those groups have continued to meet using video conferencing software instead of at members’ homes, and Sunday services are still online-only. The church plans to begin meeting again next month if health guidelines allow for it.
If the pandemic doesn’t help bring people back to church, Moreland said, “we’re probably not paying attention. For example, media presence” — live-streaming or the use of Zoom — “is here to stay. You can’t not have that anymore. Flexibility and, I hate to say it, convenience, is here to stay. That’s probably the biggest thing. I think what we value and how we express those values is something we have to pay more attention to.
“We have to be relevant. We have to be more meaningful.”
So far, the pandemic has not delivered “huge economic reversals” to churches, as giving by their most devoted members has held the line, said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. Several local pastors reported that congregants, including at Flatirons, also pitched in heavily over the last year to church funds that provided aid to community members and programs in need.
But Hudnut-Beumler is watching out for several pandemic-related dynamics, including whether church-going routines revert to normal in coming months.
“I have a hunch that there will be a return to going to church by people who’ve missed it,” he said. “And people who’ve found that Sunday morning walks with their spouse or family are really meaningful and attractive may not come back in those kinds of numbers. What I don’t know is the balance between those two.”
Colorado’s fractured landscape
Colorado long has been home to a fractured religious landscape.
For decades, Colorado Springs held court as the center of the nation’s Christian right, attracting dozens of conservative organizations whose political influence peaked during the culture wars of the mid-2000s. At the same time, Colorado has had among the greatest shares of “nones” — people who tell pollsters they have no religious identity; that designation is increasingly common among younger generations than older ones.
In 2017, 30% of Colorado respondents to Gallup polls identified that way — the seventh-most among states, behind several in New England, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Alaska. The national average was 21%, though other researchers have estimated the figure is higher.
The fallout from the rise of the “nones” is what concerns Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who’s also an American Baptist pastor. He recently wrote a book about the topic and spoke about the potential impact on a podcast hosted by the website FiveThirtyEight.
“Secularization has hit everything and everybody and every racial group — every age, every region, every political party,” Burge told the hosts. “I think we don’t fully understand what it means for the future. … How many churches are going to close? How many charities are going to close, right? What are we going do for these social services that churches are doing right now, in 20 years when they don’t exist anymore?”
He added: “We are on the precipice of significant cultural and religious change, and we’re only beginning to understand what that really means.”
But Deborah Whitehead, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, looks at the recent milestone hit in the Gallup poll and sees distinctions between religion and church membership.
“I would say what we’re seeing in the last 20 years is a shift in attitudes about religion, rather than a decline in religion,” she said, suggesting that people now feel less of a social obligation to be part of a formal religious community.
Nearly 90% of Americans still profess a belief in God or a higher power in polling, she noted. At the same time, interfaith marriage and religious diversity have increased, freeing people to express their spirituality in different ways — whether or not that involves a place of worship.
“That’s a pretty strong measure of religiosity that seems to be consistent,” Whitehead said. “It’s just that how people are expressing that, and how they’re choosing to live that out in their daily lives, has changed.”
As they adapt, several local church leaders said the headcounts they draw may be a measure of their relevance — but it’s not the only one.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” said the Rev. Becky Jones, a former journalist who presides over St. James Episcopal Church in Wheat Ridge, which counted Sunday attendees by the dozens before the pandemic but had stabilized after years of decline. “I know that the future church is going to look a lot different from the church of the past. … The church will be on the margins. And you know what? That’s not a bad place for the church to be,” making it freer to speak a “prophetic voice.”
In Denver’s Central Park neighborhood (formerly Stapleton), the Rev. Chris Phillips launched Journey Point Church a year before the pandemic. The church has survived and now rents a former restaurant as it eases back into in-person services.
“I think the church culture in America has gotten away from the roots of what Christianity was founded on,” Phillips said, noting those oriented toward service are more likely to thrive. “The days of saying ‘I was raised this way,’ or ‘I was around it’ — all those things are gone, and I think they need to be gone. I think this is a healthy purge.
“We’ve been finding out through Covid what we’ve been doing with disciples: Have we been making disciples, or have we just been allowing people to attend church on Sundays?”
Serving a growing population
Colorado’s growth has blunted the impact of membership declines for the Catholic Church. Archdiocese of Denver spokesman Mark Haas says it’s seen flat overall attendance in recent years, with notable declines in some older parishes offset by suburban growth. The archdiocese is even starting two new parishes, in Thornton and Green Valley Ranch, at a time dioceses in eastern states are consolidating parishes.
“One of my missions, I joke, is to bring this parish into the 20th century,” said the Rev. Joseph LaJoie, a younger priest who celebrates English- and Spanish-language Masses at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Denver’s Five Points. It’s the city’s oldest active church, but its congregation is much smaller than in decades past. Sacred Heart is trying to adapt to the latest neighborhood transition on Larimer Street, as younger professionals move in.
“Part of what gives me hope is that some kind of vanilla old suburbanite like me has found delight, meaning, joy, and the answers to all those questions — even some of those questions we don’t think about asking — has found it in Jesus and in the church,” said LaJoie, 38.
Flatirons Church is among those that have thrived in recent decades by developing a modern, nondenominational model that mixes evangelical Christianity with rock music and contemporary sermons. It’s drawn lapsed Catholics and Protestants, as well as people with little religious background.
Its four satellite campuses have live music but simulcast the live sermon from the Lafayette flagship’s “teaching pastors” each week on a big screen. Flatirons moved into the massive Lafayette complex nearly a decade ago, renovating adjacent Walmart and Albertson’s stores on South Boulder Road.
“The people that speak are very real. They don’t try to sugar-coat things,” said Heather Caryofilles, 48, a Broomfield mom and pharmacist who has attended since 2007. “They share things from their own lives that they struggle with — and they don’t try to put on the ‘pastor face.’ ”
She said she didn’t feel comfortable returning in person until January, around the time she was getting vaccinated. She wore a mask during the May 2 late-morning service, but not everyone around her did. Groups were spaced out in the auditorium’s two seating levels.
That day’s service was anything but traditional. It opened with the band tearing into a four-song set, the first three about spiritual and religious themes. The fourth was a rollicking cover of “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood – a song that would resonate with the 40-minute sermon delivered soon after by the Rev. Ben Foote.
Like a good modern pastor, he blended observational comedy with a sober review of passages from scripture as he talked about couples drifting apart. Often, he said, big consequences can be traced back to seemingly inconsequential decisions made by one partner. During the closing prayer, he included a special mention of struggling married couples who’d heard the sermon, since “today probably hit them really hard.”
Caryofilles says she struggles with the church’s large size. But it felt good to be back in recent months, and she long has found close connections in a small women’s group organized through the church.
Though the group met over Zoom calls during the last year, she said, “it’s really helped — there’s only so much you can do with online church.”
Membership in houses of worship
In Gallup’s polls in 2020, 47% of American adults said they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. To count membership within subgroups of people, Gallup grouped together more than 6,000 interviews conducted between 2018 and 2020 to have larger samples for each group. The percentage-point change from two decades earlier — polls taken in 1998-2000 — are shown in parenthesis.
- Traditionalists (born before 1946): 66% (-11)
- Baby boomers (born 1946-1964): 58% (-9)
- Generation X (born 1965-1980): 50% (-12)
- Millennials (born 1981-1996): 36% (n/a*)
*Too few millennial adults were interviewed 20 years ago.
- East: 44% (-25)
- Midwest: 54% (-18)
- South: 58% (-16)
- West: 38% (-19)
By political party:
- Republican: 65% (-12)
- Independent: 41% (-18)
- Democrat: 46% (-25)
- Protestant: 64% (-9)
- Catholic: 58% (-18)
By marriage status:
- Married: 58% (-13)
- Not married: 42% (-22)
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