Cobb was a somewhat rural community, Marietta and other municipalities had a small-town air, and Atlanta was on the cusp of rapid expansion that was to color the entire region.
Church life was a part of the culture. The Jewish community was relatively small but vibrant and influential.
My study resulting in the column primarily involves Southern Baptist churches, but what they are experiencing is typical of all denominations, actually a bit better.
There is a recent study of churches inside the Atlanta beltway. When we came in 1965, there were 166 Southern Baptist churches in that area. Today, there are only 38 of those original churches still open and 25 of those average less than 100 in attendance.
Within the beltway there are now 117 Southern Baptist churches, but they are not as strong as the original 166. Most are small, struggling bodies. Many are storefront churches with only a few in attendance and provide very limited weekday ministries.
The following should be a wake-up call for churches. The percent of adults in America claiming no religious affiliation in 2007 was 15 percent. By 2012, it had grown to 20 percent, an astounding 33 million people. There is little cultural encouragement for those who formerly were marginal attendees and they no longer go to church.
In 1965 active church members invested an average of four hours a week in their church. Today, one hour. Studies show once-active members who regularly attended worship now attend around 75 percent of the time.
Denominational leaders estimate that within 25 years half of the present SBC churches will no longer exist. In 2013 over 8,000 churches closed in America. This decline has occurred in spite of remnants of formerly vibrant churches trying tenaciously to hang on with less than a dozen members.
The entertainment media mocks persons of faith and a minister is never depicted in a favorable light. Sports and recreation groups conduct team competition that require attendance for practice and games on Sunday. Our government continues to put restraints on the religious community and has virtually excluded God from the market place.
I had the honor of being pastor of the last church in America in a major TV market whose worship services were broadcast live at 11 a.m. Sunday on a network station. There are none now.
Paralleling this, the moral fiber of the region and nation has seen a seismic shift.
Listen in the market place and see if you hear conversations regarding faith and virtue. Simultaneously, evaluate what level of character and virtue is overheard.
Even within this cultural environment, there are some admirable exceptions to the rule. There are some growing and ministering “lighthouses” in the darkness.
Some insist on emphasizing style rather than substance. Rare is the church that does both. They are the hope for keeping America from becoming a spiritually impoverished and doctrinally deprived nation.
There is a lot to be lost with the decline of the citadels of moral and religious values. Consider what you as a party of one can do about this.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta.