Decline at St. Paul’s - Pastor at Dayton’s oldest church cites decreased population, general Bible 'illiteracy'

Towering high above Wayne Street is the eight-sided steeple of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Built in 1869, this 137-year-old building, the oldest standing church in Dayton, has survived seven fires, the 1913 flood, and undergone a succession of renovations and rededications. The brick structure, with its marble-arched windows, has been reinforced by a cement imitation of distressed stone; and the watermarks left on the walls by the flood are concealed by wallpaper. But these days, St. Paul’s congregation faces a threat more lasting than that of floods or fires.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw a major demographic shift in Dayton. The race riots of the 60s, the perception of crime and substandard public schools, the loss of manufacturing jobs — all have driven the wealthier and middleclass residents to the outlying suburbs, taking with them much of St. Paul’s congregation. From a baptized membership in 1970 of over 1,700, the year of Dayton’s peak population, membership at St. Paul’s entered into a steady decline.

Today, Pastor Robert E. Miller, or “Pastor Bob” to his congregation, ministers to a room of empty pews. He puts his congregation at somewhere around 235 baptized. His dwindling congregation mirrors the situation in Dayton, a city riddled with vacant housing units (nearly 10,000, as of the 2000 U.S. Census). A city that once housed 260,000 now has a population of 166,000.

On this particular Sunday, there are roughly 75 congregants seated within the spare confines of the church, not many more than the original 60 German-speaking Lutherans who broke off from St. John’s congregation to form St. Paul’s congregation in 1852. The absence of any showy ornamentation reflects the church’s working-class origins, as does the dress of the congregants, many of whom are attired casually, as if for dinner at a friend’s home. Among them is Deaconess Erma Murray, a descendant of one of the founding members, her grandmother.

Murray has spent her entire life at St. Paul’s. Here she was baptized, confirmed, and married. She, her mother and her children have all been baptized in the same baptismal font. Now in her seventies, she is part of an aging congregation, and the history of St. Paul’s is her history as well. Of the church, she says, “This has been my life.” Her mother lived up the street from the church in the time of the flood.

“Mother talked about walking down Wayne Avenue and seeing the flood, seeing the water and how high it was,” she says. “Each day, they would come and stand at the top of the Wayne Avenue hill, and as the water receded each day, they would get closer to the church.”

The flood devastated the church, stranding the then-presiding Pastor Hecht in the belltower and caving in the floor. Once the water had receded, the corpses of horses were found inside. St. Paul’s was eventually renovated, and over the decades the congregation grew.

“We used to have a full church,” Murray says. “I think we were the largest church in the city of Dayton, and I don’t know what our membership is now. We used to have two services. Many people have moved to the suburbs. A lot of people who have moved are going to church in their neighborhoods. I don’t believe that people are as dedicated to church life as they used to be.”

Miller returns to the steps leading to the chancel where the children sit. “What does this need to make it work?” he asks the children, pointing to a spray-bottle with a tiny fan that he brought back from a recent trip to Orlando, Florida. “This needs something to make it work, doesn’t it?”

“Batteries?” one boy says.

“Water?” a girl says.

“Just like the batteries and water in this device, God’s love is in you, and you must do something with it,” Miller says. “Because you have God’s love, you work.”

This simple demonstration serves as a brief precursor to the sermon that follows, a more nuanced examination of the story of Nicodemus, but it speaks to a firm belief of Miller’s that love of God and regular church attendance are not enough.

He believes that the church has a responsibility to educate and struggle with issues facing the church, issues such as The De Vinci Code phenomenon, which Miller addressed in an article in the church newsletter, and the state amendments banning gay marriage. Miller also plans to address the pope’s controversial remarks about Islam.

“The church tends to ignore [issues like these],” he says. “And members who have a responsibility to at least be educated in what they believe in tend not to study the Bible as much as they should. The worshipping public in general has, to a large degree, become Biblically illiterate. Today’s modern worshiper has trouble deciding whether the purpose of church is to be entertained or to give thanks to God, the ‘what’s in it for me’ concept.”

More importantly, Miller believes the church bears a responsibility to the community. Every year, Miller says, the church devotes 20 percent of its modest budget to community outreach. In addition to its parochial school, which caters to children and families of all faiths, St. Paul’s opens its doors on Mondays and Wednesdays to the homeless and the working poor. In concert with other churches, St. Paul’s provides meals, clothing, and hygiene products.

“We’ve been doing that for 27 years,” he says. “Depending on the time of month, we’ll serve anywhere from 100 to 200 meals. The first of the month, most of [the indigent] do get some sort of income, get their check, and may not be here, but by the end of the month, when they don’t have any money left, they’ll be here. It’s a ministry all its own. The Lord is present in that.”

Miller admits he is pessimistic about the future of St. Paul’s. Its fate, he believes, depends largely on whether the city leadership will be able to turn Dayton around. To date, revitalization efforts have given downtown a new baseball stadium, the RiverScape Project, and the Schuster Performing Arts Center, but they have not added members to St. Paul’s’ congregation. There are 26 Lutheran churches in Dayton, and many of them face the same problem.

“Ten years from now, there will not be three Lutheran churches downtown within five blocks of one another,” Miller says. “One or two of our churches are going to die. Whether there’s enough of a remnant left to have any Lutheran presence or not … as stubborn as we are … if you can’t change, you will die, just like the Gospel says. I don’t really see anything that can reverse it. I really don’t.”