ATLANTA – The decline in attendance at the Rev. Mark Addington’s church was gradual but undeniable.
As the congregation slowly shrank, it became clear that, like many churches, First United Methodist Church in Moultrie was not immune to the country’s growing disinterest in religion.
Even in Georgia - where the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, first preached in North America more than two centuries ago - pews are emptying.
The shift away from religion came into focus in a survey released this month by the Pew Research Center. The group found the number of adults who identify as Christian has fallen to 70.6 percent - a decline of 8 percentage points over the last seven years.
The biggest hits were to Catholics and mainline Protestants such as Methodists,Episcopalians and Baptists. Evangelical Protestants saw only a slight dip.
Meanwhile, those who claim no religious affiliation rose to 22.8 percent of the population – an increase of 6 percentage points. The survey of 35,000 adults pointed to the less religiously inclined Millennials as a major force behind the trend.
Apathy has spurred consternation among churchgoers, causing them to rethink their purpose and reflect on what might be driving people away.
“This has a potential of being a rebirth for the church,” said Tim Bagwell with the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. “This is nothing new. There are always these cycles where people move in and out, and churches have to redefine who they are.”
As director of congregational development, Bagwell's job is to help churches discuss these introspective issues.
He encounters some churches whose members eagerly adapt and find new ways to connect with sometimes a changing demographic. He sees others who fear the future and would rather preserve what remains of the past.
“There is a tremendous amount of vitality out there where churches engage with their community,” Bagwell said.
The Moultrie church, which dates to the 1870s, tries to stay relevant by pushing the focus outside its walls. This month church members will provide free meals to schoolchildren in a community where more the one-third of the residents live below the poverty line.
“I think John Wesley would say the churches are too caught up in themselves,” Addington said. “His whole thing was being in the world, being in orphanages, establishing hospitals and visiting prisons. That’s what he did.
“Churches are becoming too inward-focused,” he added.
Addington’s church underwent a more formal “visioning process.” A key lesson was that it should do more to address poverty, hunger and joblessness in its community.
But change also has a twang. The church morphed the idea of a contemporary service into a “trad-emporary” one that features a high-energy bluegrass band picking traditional hymns. Sometimes Addington even ditches his tie.
Results are already noticeable, Addington said. Whereas attendance dropped to 180 at one point, 230 people filed into church this past Sunday.
Methodists remain the largest mainline denomination in the state. More than 5 percent of Georgians identify with the church, according to the Pew study.
But they are far outmatched by evangelical Protestants, whose adherents represent 38 percent of the state's population. Seventeen percent of Georgians are members of historically black Protestant denominations.
Now something of a minority, the state's United Methodist churches are finding other ways to appeal to a changing culture. Some churches meet at coffee shops, accommodate electronic tithing or offer gluten-free options for communion bread.
Sometimes a church’s survival requires more drastic maneuvers.
With attendance steadily declining at a Methodist church in up-and-coming East Atlanta, a new congregation moved into an historic church to connect with the young adults who were flocking to the neighborhood.
Two similar mergers, these just outside of Atlanta, have happened in the last year.
The challenge for rural Georgia, though, can be just having enough Millennials to target, Bagwell said.
Rural communities, especially those in southwest Georgia, are losing young peoplebecause of a lack of jobs. That has long-term effects in many parts of a community - including its religious institutions.
The recession likely contributed to lower church attendance as well, said Phil Schroeder, Bagwell’s counterpart in north Georgia. As purse strings tightened, more people kept their distance from the offering plate.
As a result, worship was pushed aside and people fell out of the habit of attending church, Schroeder said.
Of the four regions surveyed, the South had the lowest percentage of people who claimed no religious affiliation.
Even so, about 19 percent of Southern adults said they were not religious – an increase of 6 percentage points from a similar Pew study seven years ago.
In the West, by contrast, the unaffiliated are far more abundant, representing 28 percent of the population and outnumbering all other religious groups.
The growing number of religious "nones" is a phenomenon that's forcing many churches - not just mainline Methodists - to reconsider what they do and how to attract new members.
“There’s a realness and relevancy issue,” said the Rev. Julian Griner, pastor of the nondenominational Lifespring Community Church, also in Moultrie.
“People are walking away from churches that are doing the same thing the same way for a hundred years because they’re not finding it relevant for how they live and where they’re at in their life every day.”
Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Georgia newspapers. Reach her at email@example.com.