On a Sunday morning in Millersburg, a congregation prepares to say their last goodbyes to their church.
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church is a long, red brick building that’s more than 90 years old. Stained glass windows line the walls, and rows of wooden pews point towards a stage at the end of the room. For Lauretta Schrock, there’s a lot of history in this church. Her family has attended St. Peter’s Lutheran Church for decades, as far back as Schrock’s great grandparents.
The congregation she belongs to predates the building they’re in. They’ve been around since the 1850s.
From the pulpit, volunteer pastor James Clifton leads the congregation in song.
“Lord have mercy,” 20 congregants sing in unison. At least six of those voices belong to the congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Lauretta Schrock said their numbers have been dwindling over the last five years from around 20 members.
The other voices during Sunday’s service belong to St. John’s Lutheran Church, another church which St. Peter’s shares pastors with.
Both churches do not have full-time pastors, only volunteers such as Pastor Gene Hollingsworth and Pastor James Clifton. Hollingsworth alternates between both churches every Sunday, and Clifton fills in whenever Hollingsworth is unavailable. They’ve been giving services at St. Peter’s and St. John’s ever since its former pastor retired in July 2013.
That’s when Lauretta Schrock and her congregation decided it was time to close their doors.
She said the congregation wouldn’t be able to keep up with the upgrades and repairs to the church. It’s not that they didn’t have the money, Schrock said. They were just getting on in their years. The oldest member of the church is in her late 90s and the youngest member is in her 60s. With the exception of their former pastor, all the members of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church are women.
“When you’re down to where it’s just all women, you just can’t function,” Lauretta Schrock said. “You know, you have to worry about the maintenance, the upcare and the yard.”
Lauretta Schrock thinks the reason behind the congregation’s declining numbers is a younger generation of worshippers are more attracted to contemporary churches.
Pastor James Clifton echoes her statement. He thinks the youth are drawn to the dress code and the music of contemporary churches. Less hymns, and more Christian rock.
“I think a lot has to do with the relaxed standards in the church,” Clifton said. “...there’s a certain way, as a Christian, that you live your life, and I think a lot of people think that God loves them anyway so they can do anything they want.”
“I think there’s a deep, spiritual search among a lot of people today, and I don’t think they are finding it. So I think if they can have some emotional needs met, that’s where contemporary churches appeal to them,” Clifton said.
What’s lost is the quietness and solemnity, Clifton said. There’s no time to reflect.
The congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church will have their last service Sunday, June 29. They’ll then hand the keys over to Sonshine Day Care Ministries Inc.
Lauretta Schrock said she’s going to transfer her membership to St. John’s Lutheran Church, even though they’re not a very large congregation either.
“We know that that’s down the road for them too, but they’ve not come to that decision yet,” Schrock said. But she thinks the congregation owes them a debt for visiting St. Peter’s Lutheran Church every alternate Sunday.
Schrock takes a second to reflect on her years at St. Peter’s.
“Had a lot of good times in this church. A lot of friends. It’s sad,” Schrock said. “But overall, it was a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”