Nov. 2 2017 11:20 AM

Co-location of Plymouth, Pilgrim churches sign of times for Lansing’s older faith community


When you step into Lansing’s Plymouth Congregational Church, at 2001 E. Grand River Ave., you notice a series of cozy rooms, the lighting throughout the building dim. Boxes are stacked in the corners. The congregation is in the process of moving. A small closet in the back of the building reveals the original architectural rendering of the current building from the ‘70s.

“The original building burned in 1970,” the Rev. Bob Higle, Plymouth’s pastor, said. “It’s since been rebuilt into the building that we have today.” Designing both the old and new architectural plans for the building, famous Michigan architect Alden B. Dow from Bay City helped to create the church building. A building the congregation cannot no longer afford.

With the influx of millennials and hipsters into the Lansing area, many businesses have emerged and flourished. It’s becoming ever clearer, however, that churches have not.

After this weekend, Plymouth will move in with Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, 125 S. Pennsylvania Ave. They will share space and similar missions, but they are not merging. Plymouth is just one example of a failing church in Lansing. Congregations have shrunk, but the costs for maintaining these massive buildings have not.

Higle said attendance is 40 to 60 people, “all the way up to 120.” And, he added, Pilgrim’s attendance is comparable. While the number of new members has actually increased since Higle’s start with the church, the congregation has lost many to death.

However, even with fair attendance, the church can’t keep up with the funds. “It takes almost $200,000 a year to keep this place afloat,” Higle said. This figure covers everything it takes to run a church: utilities, labor and maintenance costs. Basically, the $200,000 is what it took for Higle to keep the church open each year. “So, think about what $200,000 a year can do for the community. Most people don’t make that in a year … There’s a piece of me that says I will miss the hugeness of the building, but I will not miss all of the time and energy that is needed to keep this functioning. That’s time and energy that can be focused on the community.”

Higle is staying hopeful about the shift.

“The thing I’m most emotionally attached to is the people here, not the building.”

The building won’t stay empty for long.

The congregation unanimously elected to sell it to the Lutheran High School in Holt, so that it can be used as another school.

As Plymouth prepares for the move, Higle said that this is not a merging between the two churches but “co-location.”

“We are going to have two faith families within one location,” Higle said. “The pastor of Pilgrim and I have been working together for the last two years.”

Further pushing this move is the problem of religious audience.

“Our struggles in the institutional church are mainly that we are generationally disconnected,” he said. “Our tradition has a large population of older members. Co-locating gives us the opportunity where if one group can’t get their goals accomplished, we can pool our resources and make those goals happen. It’s the idea of having the desire to meet needs but not having the resources, and by bringing these two congregations together, we will be able to better serve the community of Lansing.”

NEW DIGS This Thursday, Plymouth moves its furniture into Pilgrim, and on Monday, Plymouth will start working out of the new offices. Nov. 12 will be their first worship service in the new building. The Rev. Peter Robinson, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational, feels positive that the merging of the two entities is a good thing.

“For the past two years, Pilgrim and Plymouth have both been separately exploring what the next phase in their ministries will be,” Robinson says. “Pilgrim was following a program and a process called Re-Vision. This process was meant for us to discern or figure out what God wanted us to do. Part of what we figured out was to invite Plymouth congregation to share our building space so that they may continue their ministry and to empower both our congregations to do greater things.”

The congregation at Pilgrim have been cleaning out a lot of its possessions, too, both sorting the space and throwing out unneeded things, in preparation for the new congregation coming in. Pilgrim’s service will be at 9:30 a.m., Plymouth’s at noon.

Like Higle, Robinson is looking forward to the co-location.

“We hope to have many opportunities of mutual fellowship, worship and working together on programs and ministries,” he said.

The sharing of church space between congregations is not wholly uncommon. Currently, there are five congregations sharing the First Reformed Church in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. In Kentwood, Michigan, the Holy Cross Episcopal Church and the Ascension Lutheran Church share what is now fittingly called the Two Churches building. In suburban Washington, D.C., a Presybyerian congregation shares space with a synagogue. In such cases, all congregations pitch in to help with the costs of upkeep for the church and seem to flourish as a result.

Robinson does not consider Pilgrim’s Church to be a “big church,” although he said it has a tremendous influence on the Lansing community. The church began as an offshoot of the original Plymouth Church in the late 1800s when Irma Jones, the daughter of Plymouth’s pastor at the time, started leading Sunday school for children across the railroad tracks in the downtown area. Pilgrim was officially founded in 1893 and has survived many a hardship: being rebuilt after multiple fires, changing ministries, various expansions and congregational shifts. Bearing this history in mind, Robinson has just as much anticipation for the future.

“We are looking forward to celebrating our 125 years of service in 2018, and we look forward to the next 125 years.”

APPEALING TO THE YOUTH

Robinson has noticed the same generational issues that Higle observes.

“Like most mainline churches, Pilgrim has been experiencing a decline in membership and an aging of membership,” Robinson says. “As you know, the older people get, the more they decline in abilities. So we have been challenged — as many churches are — to do things which we were able to do before and to find those things that we can do to make our community and the Lansing area better.”

David Stowe, professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University, said that mainline churches in Lansing are failing especially in comparison to many of the mega-churches around the area.

“They’re more entertaining,” Stowe said. “They’re more in tune toward popular culture that the people they’re hoping to attract to the church are knowledgeable about and drawn to. So, it feels like being in a theater. The sound, the music quality, all the production values are pretty good.”

This kind of experience is more tailored to the baby boomers and even Generation Xers with young families who want their kids to grow up involved in a faith. However, Stowe sees the decay of Lansing churches starting much earlier than the past decade.

“Lansing was the victim of urban renewal like a lot of cities back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when they built the old highways, like 496, that carved right through the middle of the cities,” Stowe said. “Those people began to empty out, and so they were no longer geographically connected to those churches.”

And this holds true. Many of the churches in the downtown Lansing area are now surrounded by businesses and municipal buildings. Ideally, the new location and the freedom to use funds more liberally will allow Plymouth Congregational to attract more members from a larger geography.

DEATH KNELLS

That lack of reach can be a death sentence for churches.

Just two years ago, the Open Door Ministry of Lansing at Central United Methodist on Capitol Avenue also had to close its doors for lack of members and funds. The Open Door Ministry frequently worked to help the Lansing homeless and low-income families and had been open for 40 years. And this spring, the 102-year-old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church experienced severe weather damage, crumbling the south facade badly. Since May, the church has tried to raise what estimates are claiming to be over $1 million in construction costs, even using a thus far unsuccessful GoFundMe to help alleviate the financial needs of the construction.

Stowe predicted that most mainline churches will continue to struggle in the Lansing area as the community draws more hipsters and millennials. As a result, he believes we will see more churches that are LGBT-friendly or interdenominational start to emerge.

The Public Religion Research Institute, in Washington, D.C., released a report last month on the state of religion in America. Their findings correlate with a lot of Stowe, Robinson and Higle’s beliefs.

“White evangelical Protestants are in decline — along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics,” the report reads. “Non-Christian religious groups are growing … America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian.”

And the report confirms that Michigan is one of the “more diverse” states in terms of religion.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Churches might have to rely on something other than religion to remain relevant. Even with the decay inside and out of many of these churches, many stand as marvels both architecturally and culturally. Stowe said that several Lansing churches lend their spaces for political involvement and community get-togethers.

“Those old churches,” he said, “are architectural gems.”

Even the smallest of these ancient beauties often house concerts, music, events, chamber groups and volunteer organizations to better serve the Lansing area.

This is not lost on many of these churches. Most are trying to modernize and market themselves to that younger audience.

Pilgrim Congregational has a place to lock bikes, the LGBT flag on its sign and progressive events, such as a pet blessing in 2014 and the upcoming Lexington Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Lansing Central United Methodist Church has even started offering coffee time and posting videos of its service to the church website and YouTube. The Riverside Church in REO Town and its sister church of the same name in Holt have started an online forum for people to post prayer requests and a digital archive of sermons, videos and blog posts about faith.

While the churches themselves seem to be literally crumbling in Lansing, there is a clear effort in the community not just to maintain these religious groups but also to provide safe spaces for faith-based individuals from all walks of life. These pastors seek to better the community as a whole by being both inclusive and accessible. The churches themselves have become an aesthetic and integral structure of the Lansing landscape, and, through both the functions of religious space and local event venue, they have maintained rich histories with the community.

ONLY TIME WILL TELL

In the coming weeks and months, pastors Higle and Robinson will likely find new ways to connect to the community with their two congregations, and how they work together will shape their future. The partnering churches have a real chance at combatting the religious decline of the Lansing area and providing a safe space for these faith-minded community members. But only time can tell if the decline will continue.

Despite the hardships and disasters that Pilgrim and Plymouth have faced, both of their pastors have only optimism for what it is to come for their partnership and their work in the Lansing community.

Pastor Higle proudly speaks of his own personal goals and the aims of his congregation.

“We tend to focus more on a model that says, ‘We’re here to refill you, and we want to provide tools to keep you refilled so you can bring the light of God to the community around you.’” When Robinson looks to the future and the upcoming 125th anniversary of the church’s founding, his view is just as bright.

“I see this sharing of space as a way for both our congregations to get renewed and revitalized in our work for God,” Robinson says. “We will be sharing ideas and encouraging each other to be the best that we can be in loving God and loving our neighbors. I see both our congregations finding a renewed faith and commitment with many years of service ahead.”