- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The Rev. Brad Urbach has been the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Pierre just about a third of the time South Dakota has been a state.

So it’s expected he has some perspective on Pierre and faith.

Now 71, Urbach is about ready to retire for the second time in a year from the lead role in the congregation he first led in 1974.

Urbach says the constants of the Christian faith remain even when so many things look so different over 40 years. He and other pastors in town say one of the biggest changes is that people don’t attend church like they used to.

“One of the changes I see is we have a pretty faithful base here. But it used to be when you talked about being a faithful attender, it means you were here every Sunday,” Urbach said. “Now there are people who are considered very faithful attenders but they may be here only two Sundays a month. I don’t want this to be the norm.”

Faith Lutheran’s baptized membership has gone from 300 to about 1,550 in Urbach’s 40 years, a full quintupling. That shows Urbach’s ministry has attracted people and outstripped the general population increase. In the same 40 years, Pierre’s population has increased 30 percent, to 14,000 and South Dakota’s has increased 25 percent, to 853,175.

It also counters the general trend of religious numbers in South Dakota which has shown a significant shift of 10 percent of the total population no longer counted as “religious adherents” over 20 years.

According to ARDA, the Association of Religion Data Archives, in 2010, there were 476,832 adherents of dozens of religious groups in the state, representing 58.6 percent of South Dakota’s population of 814,180.

Back in 1990, there were 474,010 religious adherents of all sorts in the state, representing 68.1 percent of the total population of 696,004.

The decrease in the population’s share of religious people likely comes from the state’s population centers, not so much from its rural areas in the central part of the state, religious leaders told the Capital Journal (https://bit.ly/1Vpzc7L ).

Faith Lutheran, a member of the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is one of the biggest congregations in Pierre, perhaps showing the most growth over the past 40 years.

Since the early 1970s, Urbach has kept teaching the same faith, the same gospel, he says, while society and culture have gone through roiling changes.

Divorce, once rare and scandalous in church life, is not unusual. Couples often live together before marriage today, something Lutheran churches didn’t see much - openly - 40 years ago.

Those changes haven’t changed Urbach’s beliefs or teachings on those areas but it has made his approach change, he says.

His sermons are a little shorter than the 20 minutes he used 40 years ago and he hasn’t used a written manuscript in the pulpit since then, only outlines, giving him “more spontaneity,” Urbach said.

“But our people still expect good preaching and they expect moral direction, so I would like to think that’s still very important in our congregation and to our people.”

What he tells young pastors or seminarians: “First, stay faithful to the Word of God, that is so elementary … But second, I would say to young pastors to make sure they are active in their community. To see their community as an extension of their congregation, and being active, being present in the community and be a blessing to the whole community, not just your church.”

Urbach has followed his own advice, being a leader in parks and recreation and in the Kiwanis and other civic forums, and has been recognized by civic groups for his leadership.

In a not dissimilar way, the Rev. Peggy Stempson, discipleship pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pierre, looks around for ways to help not just her congregation but the community.

She joins with pastors of other churches to do, say, a “Blue Christmas” service for those out of sorts during the holidays. Or a prayer vigil for anyone when it seemed, just before Thanksgiving, like the bad news around the world and even in this community, seemed to get to be too much.

“I believe there is a lot of power in prayer,” she said.

Stempson has worked with the Rev. Sarah Goldammer of Lutheran Memorial Church in ecumenical services and other activities, including the local ministerial group.

In what might be a signal of some change, this year the pastors decided not to hold a community Thanksgiving service. Attendance had been down in recent years at the community service and most congregations and most families have fuller agendas than ever, Goldammer and other pastors say.

Lutheran Memorial, near the Capitol, had about 1,948 baptized members in December 2014, showing a healthy growth over the past decades, including 26 net gain in 2014.

That’s worth noting, since it’s a member of the largest U.S. Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has lost 29 percent of its membership nationally since it formed in 1988 from three smaller bodies.

A major reason for the loss has been controversy over the ELCA’s increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships for members and clergy, say church leaders and others.

The busy lives of people now compared to 30 years ago affects the Catholic church, too, where weekly attendance at Mass is a serious obligation, said the Rev. Steve Biegler. He’s vicar general for the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City, serving as Bishop Robert Gruss’s chief lieutenant for 88 parishes, including St. John in Fort Pierre. He’s also a parish priest in Piedmont.

“People’s lives are so busy. Whether it’s sports or late Saturday nights,” Biegler said. “Young people want to be in sports. People actually need to be stronger in their faith now than they were in the past in order to really make that decision (to attend church.)”

Biegler also has seen a change in where people look for authority in their lives.

“People have decided they will decide for themselves what is morally right and morally wrong,” he said.

It means spiritual leaders have to meet people where they are and help them understand church teaching and how they can live it, Biegler said.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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