On any given Sunday, the South Bay Christian Church draws barely enough worshipers to fill three pews in its Redondo Beach sanctuary.

It has just 35 people on its membership rolls -- a far cry from the 500 who counted themselves part of the North Broadway Avenue congregation in the 1950s.

Church officials say dwindling membership has given them no choice; after 103 years, South Bay Christian Church will close its doors on July 28.

"We came to a point where we were looking at our budget and we didn't have the money to continue," said church board President Phyllis Hughes, 71 of Torrance. "But we also don't have the young people stepping into leadership positions to help run the place."

John Dean, from Carson, has been coming to the church for the Sunday morning breakfast for a couple of years. South Bay Christian Church will close after
John Dean, from Carson, has been coming to the church for the Sunday morning breakfast for a couple of years. South Bay Christian Church will close after 103 years of service. The church that feeds the homeless every Sunday will have its last service on July 28. (Photo by Mark Savage)

The church building just west of Pacific Coast Highway still will be occupied by the South Bay Korean Church, a congregation that rents from South Bay Christian Church and uses the campus' original sanctuary.

But the future of the church is clouded. South Bay Christian, which is part of the Disciples of Christ, could reconstitute itself later this year, but if and when it does the worship service likely won't look familiar to the current parishioners. It may be something hip that attracts younger churchgoers.

"You have formal church here, and a lot of young people don't care for formal church," said Hughes, who has attended for 20 years.

South Bay Christian Church has an aging problem. Most of its members are well past their 60s, and it's rare to see a young person in the pews.

"You have a bunch of old folks here. You don't see any new folks, or any young people," said 72-year-old Don Nelson of Redondo Beach, a 30-year member.

While many churches tend to turn over lay leadership at an annual clip, welcoming new blood to run committees and make coffee for the welcome table after the service, that's not the case at South Bay Christian.

"It comes down to us running this place with people who are 70, 80 or 90 and they don't have the energy," said the Rev. Anne Cohen, pastor of South Bay Christian.

Young families used to populate the pews into the 1990s, Hughes said.

But many moved from the area during the statewide recession in the early '90s, when the South Bay first started losing tens of thousands of aerospace jobs. As parishioners relocated, the church felt the exodus of these young families almost immediately.

"The kids don't come because they don't have anyone their age to be with, and there's no Sunday school to come to," said Mary Jackson, 79, of Rolling Hills Estates, who has attended the church since 1953.

Katherine Orlin has been a volunteer with the church for about 11 years. Arnold Sachs has been a volunteer for five years and assists the church with the
Katherine Orlin has been a volunteer with the church for about 11 years. Arnold Sachs has been a volunteer for five years and assists the church with the weekly Sunday morning breakfast in a variety of ways. "I used to come for breakfast," he said. "I just decided since they were showing up at 6:00 am to get this stuff ready, the least I could do is help them clean-up." (Photo by Mark Savage)

"The church just lost it's steam." Hughes said.

South Bay Christian Church's slow decline mirrors a trend noted by church leaders across the country.

According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2010, some 40 percent of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, down more than 20 percent from the 1950s. However, religious scholars contend that the number of Americans actually attending church on a weekly basis is perhaps more than 10 percentage points lower than Gallup's 2010 figure because people tend to over-report their church attendance.

Family sizes have shrunk since the 1950s as well, accounting for much of the decline, but culture has also played an integral role in the shrinking church attendance, said Janine Schenone, director of congregational development at All Saints Church Pasadena.

"Religion is less central to people's lives than it used to be. It began to trend down, so for people it became less common for them to have experienced weekly Sunday attendance," said Schenone, whose main task is attracting and retaining members at the Pasadena church.

Faith leaders can no longer just assume people will attend a worship service anymore.

Katherine Orlin, left, makes the pancake batter while Phyllis Hughes, right, washes the dishes. Both ladies have volunteered at the church for several
Katherine Orlin, left, makes the pancake batter while Phyllis Hughes, right, washes the dishes. Both ladies have volunteered at the church for several years. (Photo by Mark Savage)

"It's easy to underestimate the dramatic cultural shift that has gone on in our area," said Rev. Molly Vetter, pastor at the nearby First United Methodist Church of Redondo Beach. "Some of us lose sight of how church has become something that is not an automatic for people. Going to church on Sunday morning is not part of our vocabulary anymore. You go to brunch on Sunday or you drink coffee and read the newspaper on Sunday morning."

And while demographic and economic shifts may explain why South Bay Christian Church is shutting its doors, those factors don't make the impending closure any easier for the people who make up the congregation.

"This is very difficult for people here," Hughes said. "This is hard."

South Bay Christian members also come together before Sunday services to feed the homeless -- a tradition that is expected to continue under the South Bay Korean Church's leadership. Volunteers work the grill making eggs, pancakes and sausage, and anyone who can make it to the Redondo Beach parish gets fed.

"The sad irony about South Bay Christian Church is that they are doing things that young people want to do in the world, like sharing pancakes and building community by sitting next to all types of people in church," Vetter said.

At least for one parishioner, South Bay Christian is more than a place to get a meal and hear the Gospel.

"I came for Easter Service a year and half ago and it changed my life," said Kristin Benjamin, 57, of Redondo Beach.

Benjamin lives out of her car, a beat-up hearse. She struggled with drug addiction for years. But South Bay Christian Church offered her support and a place where she said she feels loved.

The impending closure has left her emotionally drained. "I have been crying for a week," Benjamin said.

Some members may migrate to First United Methodist Church of Redondo Beach, which has extended an invitation to South Bay Christian Church's remaining members.

As for Cohen, she will likely land at another Disciples of Christ Church. But the pastor will never forget the little congregation she has served.

"These are the people of my heart," she said.

brian.charles@sgvn.com

@JBrianCharles on Twitter