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Ozark Churches See 'Holy Week' As Opportunity to Reach Out

This week is known as “Holy Week” because of the significant days on the Christian religious calendar, like Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Nationally many church congregations have seen leveling-off of attendance over several decades. Yet here in the Ozarks, various congregations see the Easter holiday as an opportunity to engage the community.

“You may want to plan ahead when you are driving somewhere in Springfield, Missouri on Easter Sunday. Because, I think, you might not just have a straight shot down the road.”

That’s Dr. John Schmalzbauer, assistant professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. He sat down and talked with KSMU’s Theresa Bettmann about the ways area churches are working to grow.

Springfield and its many surrounding communities fall right in the heart of the so called “Bible Belt,” which has traditionally been known for its strong Baptist and Evangelical traditions. Dr. John Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Endowed Chair in Protestant studies at MSU. He says across the nation since World War II, many liberal main Protestant denominations have seen a decline in attendance. Schmalzbauer said that churches need to look at a variety of growth factors.

“Engaging popular culture, which is a new thing, but it’s also really what evangelical Protestantism has always been very good at in this country. Adapting to things. And so, even during the 1920’s…Who makes the best use of radio? It’s evangelicals who take to the airwaves and are really good at it,” Schmalzbauer said.

Schmalzbauer said that Christian County is home to the fourth largest Assemblies of God congregation in the country: James River Assembly. He says churches like this one are just one example of how to adapt a religious message with secular pop-culture.

Population trends and demographic shifts also affect attendance. For example, for a younger demographic some churches are moving toward popular or rock music in services, basing sermons on popular movies, or offering amenities like fitness centers, coffee bars and exciting audio/visual presentations.

“Well, you know, it’s also the time that census figures are coming out. And Christian County is the fastest growing county in the state. I think that helps churches experience growth too. If they weren’t growing, you know, they must be doing something to keep people away almost,” said Schmalzbauer.

Schmalzbauer says that even with all of the efforts to engage people, many are not associated with a religious affiliation, or have limited participation. He adds that for many people they may have become disenchanted, or gotten too busy with their daily lives.

“In any community, even in the ‘Bible Belt,’ in an area where you have a lot of people who have grown up with the kind of emphasis of born-again evangelical Christianity, you still have a lot of people that may be no so ‘churched.’ They may grow up in those traditions, might be able to understand the language of preaching in those traditions, but for whatever reason have kind of drifted away from participation in religious organizations,” Schmalzbauer said.

Schmalzbauer says for any Christian denomination, the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter are the two biggest days of attendance during the year. In fact, the Urban Dictionary even has a term for people who only attend church on those days: “Creasters.” But savvy religious organizations are working to build on that to help these individuals become a part of their permanent congregation.

For KSMU News, I’m Theresa Bettmann.