Red Wing’s Churches . . . What’s Their Future?

“Why does Red Wing have so many churches?”

I’m often asked that question by visitors. “What do you mean?” I ask in reply, even though I’m pretty sure I know exactly what they mean. They are always referring to the many churches in Red Wing’s central corridor, along or near the one-way sections of East and West avenues.

For its size, Red Wing might be unique with seven functioning historic churches in that downtown area. They are Christ Episcopal, St. Paul’s Lutheran, First Lutheran, First Presbyterian, St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist. St. Joseph’s Catholic and United Lutheran are just a block away, one on each side of the corridor.

There have been other churches in this area. In my lifetime there was First Covenant and Seventh Day Adventist, each of which have built new churches at locations more on the outskirts of town. The original buildings still look like churches even though they have been repurposed. The Catholic Church was built one block south of the original one, which is now a parking lot. There are other downtown churches but they are using repurposed buildings.

I don’t know if Red Wing has more churches in total than other cities its size. It’s just interesting that so many of them are located right in its center. Christ Episcopal sometimes refers to itself as “the church on the green” which is an old term for a central, grassy village gathering area. Indeed, it is the only one located inside the corridor.

The seven churches are Christian and represent more than a third of Red Wing’s active churches. Four of Red Wing’s six Lutheran churches are located here. There is a lot of history how so many churches were built so close together. Some of them started as wooden structures in other locations in town. Then with growth and mergers they built stone and brick structures where they could be more prominent.

It’s actually a tribute to Red Wing’s culture that it had enough diverse and financially successful citizens to build them all. Some congregations were based on ethnicity. Certainly some of the Lutheran churches were. Examples include United Lutheran with its Norwegian heritage and First Lutheran, Swedish.

The real question visitors are thinking, if not openly asking, is how can all these churches survive? It’s no secret that church attendance and membership has been decreasing nationally for decades. For some Christian churches now, the only time they might fill up is at Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals. And the typical 19th century church building requires a lot of expensive maintenance. These churches were designed to be more ornate than efficient and easy to maintain, certainly by today’s standards.

These large buildings need to be heated in winter and cooled in summer. If it’s not comfortable, people will not attend. While stained glass windows can be inspiring, they are not energy efficient, even with plexiglass coverings. You can’t just shut off a church’s heat when no one is there. Pipe organs, for example, should be kept at a controlled temperature.

A good share of a church’s annual budget goes toward these expenses. A congregation that neglects their church building will regret it. And a shrinking membership puts more financial pressure on those that remain. It’s difficult to grow a congregation when potential new members can easily see that they might soon be asked to contribute to a capital improvement campaign.

Don’t get me wrong. The churches are beautiful and well-maintained. Their members believe a service in a large welcoming nave or even a small chapel gives them a moment away from the pressures of the world just outside its walls. The churches also serve the world outside their walls such as providing outreach to the homeless and less fortunate.

They have survived fires, wind and water damage. Previous generations have made sure these churches have been maintained and updated over the years. They did not want their church to fail under their watch. As with most churches, they have survived internal turmoil and new directives from their national churches.

But today, forking over hard-earned money to maintain a relic is not what potential new members are interested in. This is evidenced by the many new churches that provide a better attraction to young people. Their focus is more on the experience than the building itself. The church building might have been a grocery store at one time but if it now has a great sound system, large display screens and a multi-piece band, it will be an attraction. Folding chairs are just fine.

So what to do?

Young families today are busy. Often now, both spouses work and there are too many other diversions to allow time for church. Church isn’t the social center that it once was. And some are questioning religion, at least in the way it’s been practiced for the past 150 years. My kids are grown and gone but do not attend church. When my daughter was confirmed, she was congratulated by someone her age who said in sincerity, “Now you’ll never have to go to church again.”

There’s been anguish and hushed discussions over the future of churches for a long time. Some think denominations need to merge. Meanwhile, some are splitting over political differences. If a couple of churches do merge, which church building becomes the primary one? And what do you do with the excess buildings and staff? There’s not a lot of demand for old church buildings. It takes some imagination and a lot of money to repurpose them, especially if local laws restrict options.

So we are left with churches being supported by smaller and older congregations. “Eating our seed corn” is a lament I often hear regarding the need for a church to rely on an endowment fund’s principle because its earned interest is not enough. Likewise, churches shouldn’t base their future on what members might leave to the church when they die.

An interim minister at one of the Lutheran churches once asked me why there are so many Lutheran churches close together in Red Wing. I had no answer. He then said, “The first one that builds in Burnside wins.”

That was a long time ago. Would that even work today?

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