TWIN FALLS — Back in the 1960s, Twin Falls’ downtown churches were packed on Sunday mornings.
People crammed into the pews, as nothing else in town was open. If you wished to be a well-respected community member, you went to church.
It was a place where people gathered for worship, social time and entertainment. Youth groups were an outlet for teenagers, before the era of social media and video games.
Today, as you drive along Shoshone Street and the surrounding area, you’ll still see five massive church buildings with ornate architecture and stained glass windows. Several of the buildings were erected nearly 100 years ago.
But these days, far fewer people are attending historic downtown Twin Falls churches — with the exception of the growing St. Edward’s Catholic Church. Without wanting to compromise their core beliefs, historic churches are working to redefine how they’re serving the community. They’re opening up their massive buildings to outside groups, and trying new initiatives as their memberships dwindle and their congregations age.
“Times have changed,” said Rev. Mike Hollomon with Twin Falls First United Methodist Church. “We’re figuring out new ways to do ministry in a new age.”
First United Methodist, on Shoshone Street East, went through a major change four years ago. It’s now part of the United Methodist Magic Valley Ministries, a cooperative of six churches launched in summer 2013.
It’s a creative way to share in paying pastors’ salaries, and to respond to the number of members and available Methodist pastors shrinking, Hollomon said. Two pastors alternate preaching locations on Sundays, and ideally, they say that number will increase to three.
Back in the day, Methodists were circuit riders who traveled from community to community, Hollomon said. “We’re just tapping into that spirit again.”
A 2016 Gallup poll showed 37 percent of Americans surveyed identified as Protestant, down significantly from 66 percent in 1950.
But the recent trends are even starker. The number of adults nationwide who identify as Christian dropped 7.8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The number of religiously unaffiliated adults — like agnostics or atheists — increased more than 6 percentage points to 22.8 percent. Non-Christian faiths saw a 1.2 percentage point increase, up to 5.9 percent.
The drop in the Christian share of the population, according to the center’s website, has been driven mainly by the declines in among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Mainline Protestants include non-Evangelical congregations affiliated with denominations such as Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist. Three of the five historic downtown churches are mainline denominations.
Those three churches — First Presbyterian Church of Twin Falls, Twin Falls United Methodist Church, and First Baptist – are a microcosm of dwindling congregations and shifting priorities across the United States.
An uncertain future
At First Christian Church, on Shoshone Street North, there were about 650 members in the 1960s and ‘70s. It had two in-house church services and for several decades, another at the Motor-Vu Drive-In. People crammed into the two-story sanctuary, which seats 350.
Now, it has just 65 members, and about half of them will be in the pews on a typical Sunday.
“We’re shrinking, as many older churches are,” said Richard Russell, a church elder and board president.
In one room at the church, a handful of black and white photos of the church’s early days line a bookshelf. One shows a group of 112 men in a Bible study group.
The congregation is “dying off,” Russell said. Within the last year, the church lost about a dozen members — some of whom were in their late 90s.
But those who are left, he said, are “pretty dedicated.”
First Presbyterian Church, on Fifth Avenue North, has 180 members, predominantly elderly.
On a typical Sunday in the last 20 years, anywhere from 80 to 120 people have attended Sunday worship services. But for the last couple of years, it’s been on the lower end of that range.
There were 500 to 800 members in the 1950s, Rev. Phil Price estimates. A lot would have to change, he said, for them to reach similar numbers again. For instance, he said the pipe organ would need to cease, and the sermons would need to be longer and more entertaining.
Marty Mead, a longtime member of First Presbyterian, started attending with her husband in 1957. At the time, about 350 people attended Sunday morning worship.
When the church opened more than 100 years ago, there were significantly fewer churches in town. Now, options are abound.
“You can find something that meets a niche,” Price said, adding that “Protestants adopt positions on things that not everyone is happy with.”
With more options available, potential church-goers are more likely to find a church that specifically aligns with their personal beliefs, rather than settling by default on a mainline denomination.
First Christian Church, now unaffiliated with any denomination, was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ until the 1950s, when the congregation voted to break ties.
As Russell gave a tour of the church building to the Times-News earlier this month, he laughed in response to a question about how many youth attend the church.
“There are not a lot of youth,” he said, later adding it’s worrisome. “We’re mostly old. I hate to say it.”
For a year or two, the church has tried to build up participation in the Boy Scout troop it sponsors, feeling it was an opportunity to encourage more people to attend on Sundays. But so far, it hasn’t seen results.
At First Baptist Church, on Shoshone Street East, there are about 150 regular attendees. Like many of the downtown Twin Falls churches, its population is on the elderly side.
But compared to other downtown churches, “this one probably has more of a younger component than the others,” said interim pastor Gary Cooper.
The church has a preschool program, with more than 40 children enrolled — its maximum capacity. Some of the employees and families are also members of the church.
“Some of the families become curious and plug in,” Cooper said.
At Twin Falls First United Methodist, the decline in membership numbers was noticeable all the way back in the 1970s, according to church secretary Etha Carruthers.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, about 1,500 people regularly attended the two Sunday morning services.
Now, the church is down to one service each Sunday, and only 85 of its 160 members attend at least one service a month.
The United Methodist Church is the largest denomination of mainline Protestants in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. But of those identifying as Protestant, about 25 percent were Methodist in 2014 — down from 28 percent in 2007.
Jean Dowd — a member of the Twin Falls Methodist Church for about 10 years — said the church offers the beauty of an old, traditional church, but is also working toward modernizing and being more involved in the community.
The congregation includes people who are eager to embrace change, Dowd said, but it has lost more elderly members than it has added new members.
“As far as having new blood, presently we don’t,” she said. “I think that’s the case with a lot of churches. You can’t just replace people. It’s got to be the type of place people want to come.”
‘There’s always something broke’
For Twin Falls’ downtown historic churches, operating space has never been a problem. Many have massive church complexes with interconnected buildings, featuring worship space, classrooms, social halls and gymnasiums. But with fewer members than in decades past, maintaining those spaces is a challenge.
First Presbyterian Church maintains a 33,000-square-foot building. About 20 years ago, members decided to remodel the existing historic building rather than pursue a new one.
“I am so glad we did that,” Mead said. “We’ve improved everything about that now.”
The Twin Falls Methodist Church, like First Presbyterian, has about 30,000 square feet to maintain. In the 1980s, the church started an endowment fund to help pay for maintenance needs. Church trustees also volunteer to oversee maintenance.
But old buildings come with challenges. The internet signal has a tough time getting through the thick walls. The week before Christmas, the elevator door wasn’t working.
“There’s always something broke,” Carruthers said.
Church leaders say it’s hugely important to maintain the building for the church, but also for the entire community.
“In a way,” Hollomon said, “we’re a caretaker of public art for Twin Falls.”
‘Leading change means upheaval’
This year, the congregation at First Christian Church will deliberate the church’s future.
It’s an all-volunteer church, except a small salary and housing for the pastor, Marvin Hatfield. He arrived from Oregon five years ago to lead the congregation.
Hatfield, Russell said, feels his calling is small churches that can’t afford a big salary for their pastor.
Options include giving the church to one of the refugee congregations, Russell said. The church opens its space to two already, but he’s unsure if they’d have enough funds to keep up building maintenance.
Another option is giving the building to a church planting group, which aims to start new churches from the ground up, but “the congregation is not crazy about that idea,” according to Russell.
Russell’s idea is to establish a foundation responsible for maintaining the building and deciding how it would be used, and noted that he would like it to be used as a Christian organization in the future.
Up the street at First Baptist Church, Cooper has been interim pastor for a year and a half. The church has a search committee that will soon interview permanent pastoral candidates.
Cooper worked in the business world until he decided to go to seminary in his early 50s.
“My job,” he said, “is to lead churches through transition.”
First Baptist Church is the fifth congregation he has helped. When churches hire a new pastor, it can take anywhere from four months — if they’re lucky — to nearly four years, Cooper said.
The church has already seen big changes under Cooper. Its one Sunday worship service has become more contemporary, both in terms of preaching style and music. There’s an inter-generational worship team, with teenagers, adults and the elderly.
Another major change is coming in mid-February: The church will add an alternative service, which will be even more contemporary.
“Leading change means upheaval,” Cooper said.
At the Methodist Church, one big change is using Facebook Live to stream its Sunday service in real time — an initiative that started this fall.
One consistent watcher of the streams Dowd’s daughter, who has had several recent bouts with pneumonia.
“That’s something that (Rev. Hollomon) has brought into the church and that has been very well received from those who are ill or recovering from surgery and stuff,” Jean said.
But changing the service itself can be a more difficult task.
At First Christian Church, Russell described the Sunday worship service as “very traditional,” including singing old hymns.
“The congregation has been unwilling to make changes to the way we do worship,” he said.
One anomaly to the trend of declining membership among downtown churches is St. Edward’s Catholic Church on Seventh Avenue East.
On average, about 2,000 people attend five weekend masses — two in Spanish and three in English — at the largest parish in the region.
“We’re growing,” Rev. Mike St. Marie said. “We have a lot of young families — a lot of Anglo and Hispanic.”
The church’s sanctuary holds slightly fewer than 500 people. Four of the masses each weekend are full, St. Marie said.
For the past four years, St. Marie has been St. Edward’s only priest.
Being the only priest is a challenge, he said, but added having an eager church staff makes it easier.
“God willing,” St. Marie said, “next summer we will have another priest.”
Price, who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, has been the Presbyterian church’s pastor since 2006.
After graduating from Union Theological Seminary in New York, he served at churches in Kentucky and Colorado before coming to Twin Falls.
He looked at options across the country, but was attracted to the growing community of Twin Falls. Plus, the church congregation was attractive to Price.
“It was a nice mix of older and younger families,” he said.
The congregation wanted to create a mid-week ministry — something Price and his wife had always wanted to do — and the First Presbyterian campus had plenty of available space.
Now, about 20 preschool through high schoolers participate in the church’s Wednesday night youth program, called LOGOS, which includes Bible study and recreation time.
“The younger ones are learning songs to sing to the congregation,” Price said, while the older children learn to be liturgists for Sunday services.
During “table time” with adult leaders, “the whole purpose is relationships,” he said, both with God and others.
Price credits the church’s size for much of its communal atmosphere.
“These kids have a whole congregation of adults who care, know them by name and know what’s going on in their life,” he said.
‘We’re just Methodists’
For some members of Twin Falls’ downtown churches, just like in churches around the world, the roots of their specific denomination run deep.
Russell’s wife was born and raised in Twin Falls, and grew up attending First Christian Church. They were married there in 1967.
For the Dowds, they were both Methodists when they met as a young couple. “That was one thing we had in common when we met, was our faith base,” Jean Dowd said.
They were married 47 years ago in the Buhl United Methodist Church, where Terry grew up attending. Their son was also married in the church. Jean Dowd was baptized in the Jerome United Methodist Church.
They continued to attend the Buhl church sporadically while they were living in Eden, but the visits grew less frequent.
“It was easy to get out of the practice of going to church, to be honest with you,” Dowd said.
They visited other local churches with friends, but found themselves drawn back to the Methodist Church.
“We’re just Methodists,” Dowd said. “We believe in the doctrine. We believe in the Methodist systems of accepting people — all people — and that just fell in line with what we personally believe spiritually, that God loves all of his children on his Earth.”
She likes that anyone — regardless of whether they’re a church member — can participate in communion. She also enjoys seeing community members come in off the street to sit in the sanctuary and reflect.
“I love that our church is so open and accepting,” she said.
‘Built to use for God’s purposes’
As memberships dwindle, downtown churches frequently open their doors to community groups and refugee churches in need of a meeting space.
At the Methodist Church, a Burundi church uses the space four times a week for worship and activities. Rehearsals for JuMP Co., a children’s theater group, are held in the building. Other groups — including homeschoolers, two Girl Scout troops and the church’s Boy Scouts troop — also meet in the space.
For Rev. Price and First Presbyterian, there are an unlimited number of extracurricular opportunities for the church building to house.
“I think we see ourselves as a midwife for new opportunities in the community,” Price said of First Presbyterian Church. “(The church) was built to use for God’s purposes in this community.”
Some groups use the space for free, while others pay only a nominal rental fee to cover the utility costs and general wear and tear.
The city of Twin Falls’ recreational volleyball teams have used the church gymnasium for more than 40 years. A “Cooking Matters” program meets at the church to teach community members how to cook nutritionally and on a budget. A foster care respite program and Al-Anon, an alcohol recovery program, also meet at the church.
This fall, the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center held English language classes in the church’s classrooms. Church and community members volunteered.
First Christian Church has also found a new way to reach out to the community, by hosting refugee churches in its building.
“We kind of felt like God has kept us here for something, and now we think it’s for the refugee churches,” Russell said.
In 2015, two refugee Christian congregations — Nepalese and Micronesian — began holding church services and activities at First Christian Church. Both are growing, Russell said, and have dedicated spaces within the church facility. Another refugee church uses First Christian’s baptistery.
A vocal group, Magichords, uses one of the classrooms for their Tuesday night rehearsals. Narcotics Anonymous hosts its yearly dinner at the church for no rental fee.
‘We’re trying to be a place that’s alive and growing’
Big changes could be on the horizon for the downtown churches of Twin Falls, as leaders look to reverse, or at least slow the trend of diminishing congregations.
More than seven years ago, St. Edward’s Catholic Church bought land between Harrison and Fillmore streets behind Fred Meyer. It sold three acres to the city for a new water tower, but still has 15 acres left.
The plan is to eventually build a new church, school and parish hall, about 2.5 times larger than its existing hall, on the site, There is no timeline for the project, but construction will likely move forward within five years, St. Marie said.
The church has a good chunk of money saved in its building fund, but would still require more fundraising. Once a new church and school complex is built, that leaves a big question mark for what to do with the historic church building.
Ideally, St. Marie said he’d like to see it sold to another church denomination so it could remain a sacred space. Another option could be something like a brew pub he said, or tearing it down altogether.
At First United Methodist Church, there’s a big push to get beyond the church’s walls and become a “changing, vibrant community.” Hollomon volunteers as a hospital chaplain and helped organize an interfaith rally in December at Twin Falls City Park.
For First Presbyterian Church, a challenge for 2018 is to reach new members and young families, Price said.
At First Presbyterian, Price is involved with several community groups, including Habitat for Humanity of the Magic Valley of the Magic Valley and the Magic Valley Inter-religious Dialogue. He and the church are aiming to reach new members and young families in 2018.
It’s essential to be involved in the community, he said, but added the congregation doesn’t often show up as a group. Also, he added, it’s a fine line to walk between aiming for more people in the pews on Sunday and genuinely serving a higher mission.
All churches go through a life cycle, said Cooper of First Baptist Church. It’s nothing unique to any of the churches in downtown Twin Falls, nor is it unique to any of the churches in America. When they’re struggling, he said, they have a choice whether to make strategic decisions to renew themselves.
“When a congregation faces these moments — especially, as they get older — there are certain things they can do to embrace a rebirth,” he said. “If they don’t, they will die. It’s as simple as that.”