Skip to site content

Will Churches Follow the Fate of Newspapers?

The oldest newspaper in the great Northwest (and Seattle’s oldest business) rolled off the presses for the last time on March 16 – meaning the March 17 paper will be a collector’s item for the future – the last print copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Hearst Corporation announced it would stop publishing the 146-year-old newspaper. On March 18, over 100,000 subscribers walked out to their front lawns and discovered no paper in their yards. For newspaper junkies like me, the withdrawal would be tragic. I read both print and online versions of the news on most mornings and feel out of kilter if I don’t do it.

 

The Seattle paper, like other publishers who have done the same thing, will not go completely out of business, as it will continue as an online source for news at www.seattlepi.com. Not too long ago, the Kansas City Kansan did the same thing by ceasing its print version to go completely online. That’s happening more and more with the smaller news companies but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the largest paper in the country to do so thus far. The bigger papers are all anticipating the need to make this same decision sooner rather than later as it’s becoming more difficult for papers to sustain their profitability with so many people getting their news from an unbelievably wide range of other sources.

 

The Post-Intelligencer lost $14 million last year and efforts to find a buyer for the paper failed. The transition from print to online is tough as you might imagine. News reporters, editors and other staff have been in limbo for the last few months as the Hearst Corp. sought a buyer. Now, they’re facing layoffs with no other papers in the area to hire them.

 

Declining subscriptions are the culprit as more and more Americans go online for their news. Baptist papers are in a similar quandary. Bill Webb, editor of Missouri’s Word & Way, said in an email to EthicsDaily.com “Printed periodicals like newspapers are still preferred by a lot of people who weren’t necessarily born with a digital mouse in hand. Another generation can’t imagine why anyone would pay to receive a newspaper when the Internet offers almost immediate access to information for free.” Journalist Brian Kaylor calls this “the digital divide.”

 

No question we’re in a transitional time for issues other than newspapers trying to survive in a soon-to-be outdated form of delivering the news. The church is also trying its best to make it through this time with the vibrancy we hope would mark the work of God in our time. In a recent Wall Street Journal, it was reported what others have been noting that the number of Americans claiming no religion is on the rise, while religious attendance among persons 21 to 45 years old is at its lowest level in decades (citing data from Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow). The numbers of young adults who are noticeably staying away from the church marks the trend.

 

This is a topic that’s hard to wrap our minds around and to even talk honestly about. Why is it we graduate high school seniors every spring and send them off to college or the armed forces or to trade schools and seldom ever see them again? They usually aren’t active in another church and would continue to call this “my church,” but they aren’t actively participating in a church where they live. Worship is not a part of their typical week.

 

The question is obvious: Will the traditional church die a slow death like the newspapers? What would an online church based on a model of Facebook look like? Would we call it a virtual church? Would you join a virtual community for the practice and nurture of your faith?

 

We need to rediscover that Christian community exists almost exclusively in the form of significant relationships with real people with whom we share the journey. We do that by venturing a risk with one another, meaning we value our relationships with one another as a form of need. We recognize we share the faith with one another every time we gather with our Bible study groups or whenever we gather together to worship or engage in missional living inspired by a passionate sense of calling. It seems these are rare gifts in the world of virtual relationships today. Those gifts are the gifts of a personal God who loves us deeply.

 

Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.