Seventy-four years of faith and fellowship at Roundy Memorial Baptist Church in Whitefish Bay dwindled to nothing on Nov. 27, 2011.
For years the elderly congregants passed away, moved into nursing homes and became too frail to support either the volunteer functions of a church community or the pragmatic responsibilities of maintaining the building. Down to just 22 members, it finally became clear the church could not continue so the remaining worshipers conducted one last service in the building the Roundy family constructed in 1937.
They reminisced and sang their favorite songs with piano and violin accompaniment.
"It was just a beautiful service," said Jo Ellen Witt, the church’s last pastor. "I think the mood was people knew it had to happen and it was just a wonderful way to end it."
But one congregation’s ending made way for a new beginning. A few months after Roundy Memorial dissolved, University Bible Fellowship purchased the building at 1250 E. Hampton Road after outgrowing its space on Milwaukee’s East Side and holds services there. The organization’s membership is young and growing — much like Roundy’s was once upon a time.
'A church is not a building'
Peaking at 452 members in 1966, Roundy Memorial's church membership declined by about 80 in 1976; 10 years later, it had slumped to about 150 — just one-third of its peak.
By the time they had their last service, some of the members had carried out the same self-sustaining maintenance tasks for decades and were not able to participate in some of the activities they once enjoyed, said Beulah Erickson, a church member of nearly 50 years.
"Fellowship was always a part of Roundy's. If someone got sick, we would bring in food, or if someone died, we would do a baked spread afterward," she said. "We couldn't do that at the end because we didn't have enough people."
As church members died or entered nursing facilities, Witt said there weren't enough able-bodied congregants to maintain the building and its ministries.
Witt said it was heartbreaking when the time came to close the church, but the church was on a downward trend that seemed irreversible. Once church membership declines and the existing members pass away, it can be difficult to breathe new life into an old congregation, Witt said.
"My thought is that when a congregation begins to dwindle, it is difficult to turn things around because no matter how much visitors appreciate the worship experience, they still see a dying church," she said.
Although the congregation is no longer, Witt said some of the church members have attended other churches as a group. They have also had three pot luck meals, and Witt visits the shut-ins and the sick. Additionally, Roundy's neighbor, , has offered their building to Roundy members for weddings and funerals.
Despite their lack of a building, Erickson said remaining members have maintained a support network.
"A church is not a building," she said. "It can be hard to do things without a building, though."
Aging congregations at risk
Roundy Memorial is not the only church in the area disappearing.
Every year, 1 percent of the nation's churches will die off, as older congregations see a change in the religious landscape. The rise of "mega-churches," younger generations' interest in programs and support groups, as well as a shift away from organized religion in general, have made it difficult for these churches to survive.
Kevin Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, said churches are more likely to fail due to low membership during their first five years, after 30 years when the first generation dies or in 60 or 70 years when the second generation dies.
Dougherty said the breaking point for many churches is when membership drops to about 30.
"With 20 or 30 people, it becomes harder to sustain a congregation: to pay bills, staff programs and to do the necessary work to keep the congregation alive," he said. "If you have to put a new roof on the church and you only have 20 members, that kind of expense can be devastating in the life of a congregation.”
Witt, of Roundy Memorial, said it can be difficult for older congregations to reach out to young people and expand their membership. She also said prospective members might have been turned off by the church's size, favoring the anonymity of larger churches in the area.
"In a large congregation, it is easy to take advantage of what you are interested in and still be anonymous," she said. "In a small congregation, all able-bodied people need to help, often leading to burnout."
Marquette University history professor Steven Avella, who studies Milwaukee's Catholic churches, said changes in neighborhood can also lead to the downsizing of a church. In some areas of the city, the loss of factory jobs has transformed traditionally Catholic neighborhoods to African-American neighborhoods that are typically not Catholic.
The number of Catholic churches on the northwest side of the city alone has dropped from 14 to nine over the past two decades, as smaller congregations consolidate for survival. Catholic schools have also been unable to survive in those neighborhoods due to high tuition.
"The congregations are disappearing," he said. "It’s a traumatic and sometimes heart-wrenching experience to close a parish because this is where people celebrated the birth of their child, their wedding, their funeral — major life events. To see it close is similar to seeing a business in the neighborhood shut down."
But not all churches have died with old age. Dougherty said some of the nation's most long-standing churches have been able to buck the trend by making an effort to recruit new people while retaining their existing membership.
"To make it past 60 or 70 years, to be a place that is alive for your grandchildren, will require some intentional efforts to be able to attract or retain people that haven’t been a part of the congregation in the past," he said. "That element of retaining and attracting new people across generations is vital to a church's lifespan."
New life in historic building
Where Roundy saw dwindling membership, the old building has seen new life in the last five months in University Bible Fellowship, an evangelical student organization that focuses on exposing college students to the Bible.
University Bible Fellowship was formed in 1961 out of a partnership between the Korean Presbyterian Church and the American Presbyterian Church for Campus Mission.
Worldwide, the Korean-based organization has sent 1,500 lay missionaries to more than 90 countries. It was first established in Milwaukee in 1983, near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at 2976 N. Farwell Ave.
Paul Dang, a math teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools and one of four lay pastors at the church, lived in Whitefish Bay with his family for years but now lives in Milwaukee. He said the group bought the Whitefish Bay building because their space on the East Side was too small.
When University Bible Fellowship purchased the Whitefish Bay building, Korean Presbyterian Church had to relocate from the lower level of Roundy's and find a new home at .
University Bible Fellowship's congregation of about 50 members is mostly made up of young people in their 20s and 30s. Dang said University Bible Fellowship teaches college students to read, understand and apply the teachings of the Bible.
"We become people of God, to love people and love one another," Dang said.
Dang said University Bible Church plans to grow its membership at the Whitefish Bay location and make new connections in the local community by inviting residents to a church event in the future.
"We want to be a blessing to the Whitefish Bay community," Dang said.