TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Sunday service at Mission Del Sol Presbyterian Church in Tempe looks a lot different than it used to. Pastor David Hodgson says the leaders of their faith predicted years ago that their members would someday disappear.
“We’ve been losing 35,000 members a year for the last couple of decades. By 2020, they’ll be no more Presbyterians left,” Hodgson said. “Society used to appreciate the faith, values-- the moral values-- and the spiritual virtues that we could give to society.”
Now in the year 2020, the church is still going but the vast majority of the members are now older, and the pews are more than half empty, as the congregation continues to shrink.
“Religion is an endangered species. We will not go quietly into the night,” said Tom Minor, a sixth-generation Presbyterian. He’s the last in his line after his children chose a different path. “The bloodline has been lost.
A recent Gallup poll surveyed the dramatic decline of church membership in the last 20 years. In 1999, 70% of people surveyed said they belong to a church—compared to 50% in 2019. Across different age groups, 68% of traditionalists born in 1945 or before say they belong to a church—that drops to 57% for baby boomers, 54% for Generation X and 42% for millennials.
"Their mindset is just different. It’s just a different lifestyle. It’s more free-thinking,” said Minor, who fears if the church doesn’t act quickly, then the congregation will be gone. “We’re right at the brink of extinction. We’re an endangered species.”
The church has turned to an expert. On a recent field trip to the Phoenix Zoo, members of the church learned how the Conservation Center works to bring endangered animal populations back—in the hopes that the same principles can apply to their congregation.
“We love it when we inspire people and they want to come and learn about the work we do to help save species,” said Tara Harris, director of Conservation and Science at the Phoenix Zoo.
In the 1950s, the Phoenix Zoo saw major success when they saved the Arabian Oryx from extinction.
“Many of the native Arizona species that we work on are facing habitat loss and degradation, disease and invasive species that are out-competing them or even eating them in the wild,” Harris said. These animals at risk include garter snakes (endangered from invasive species), Chiricahua leopard frogs (threatened by a fungus) and cactus ferruginous pygmy owls (losing their habitat).
The zoo is one of the only six facilities in the country to bring back the black-footed ferret, which is highly susceptible to diseased and once thought to be extinct. Today, there are 27 black-footed ferrets in Phoenix and a few hundred in the wild.
Conservationists are also working with one of the most vulnerable animals in Arizona. The Mount Graham red squirrel is believed to breed only one day a year for four hours. “It’s only found at the top of Mount Graham, and there’s really nowhere else for them to go. Wildfires have been a big threat to them-- nearly wiped out most of their habitat,” Harris said.
“The one thing I learned today from the zoo was that they don’t know what to do, exactly, when they start these research programs on extinction. You know, they’re trying things to see what’ll work,” said Minor, who believes the genetic vulnerability of endangered animals translates directly to the members of the church, where young people are nearly non-existent. “How can we survive if we’re not responsive to other generations.”
Hodgson said they also identified with the loss of habitat. “We’ve looked at our own environment-- the church environment, from within, seems toxic to a generation of millennials. It’s no longer open and welcoming like it used to be.”
When congregants go away, so do their contributions—making it difficult to keep the lights on and the doors open. That’s why they have no other choice but to change.
"We need to stretch and be more welcoming to those who look differently than we do, those who have different sacred traditions, those who are in a different place in their spiritual journey,” Hodgson said.
“We just want to keep our church going,” said congregant Isabel Brady.
But to get something to change, you need to do something different—that’s why the church has put their faith in the Phoenix Zoo and in an old Bible story about Noah’s Ark. The church is hoping to turn the tide of a disappearing denomination.
“God says, ‘I’ll bring the animals back first. Then, I’ll being the species back.’ And that’s where we are. We’re bringing the species back,” Minor said. “I hope you come see us.”