Vibrant church life

Dying Churches, Vibrant Churches

on December 27, 2015

There was a sad, revealing story in The Washington Post  about a century old Presbyterian church near where I grew up selling its property. The church under the current pastor has lost half its membership, and online statistics reveal average attendance is fewer than 30. I’ve passed the handsome stone sanctuary hundreds of times over the decades, and it probably seats several hundred inside.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation is selling its property for $8.5 million (under value) to a non-profit entity that will, with county funding, develop the lot into a high rise apartment building offering 173 affordable housing units. Possibly the small congregation will rent worship space in that new structure when completed in a few years, if the congregation still survives.

Arlington County, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC is fast growing and super expensive. These affordable housing units are much needed. But how sad this dwindling congregation is abandoning its prominent location because it could not as a Christian church appeal to the surrounding community.

This congregation’s website offers a timeline about its one hundred year history. Among the few items it briefly lists are its 1990s dissent from its denomination’s then official policy affirming celibacy in singleness and monogamy in male-female marriage. Of course, since then, the PCUSA has abandoned this policy, which led to schism and accelerated nationwide membership loss.

Arlington is a very liberal and diverse community, so you might think a liberal congregation would have broad appeal.  But evidently not. Similar to national trends, few of the Mainline congregations in Arlington are staying above water.

This decline I witnessed myself starting in the 1970s. As a small boy early in that decade my United Methodist Sunday school class had perhaps a dozen or more my age. By the end of the decade, as a teenager, there was virtually nobody my age, which no doubt was true for other nearby Mainline congregations. In the late 1980s when in my 20s I was part of an Arlington wide United Methodist group aiming to generate ministry for twenty somethings. At that point, there were no local congregations in our denomination successfully reaching that demographic. The only examples of nearby successful young adult ministry then known to me were both conservative Presbyterian congregations.

Forty years ago, when I was a boy, Arlington was losing population and closing schools. The WWII generation who first suburbanized Arlington had finished their child rearing. Young families were drawn to the outer suburbs. In recent years Arlington has again boomed in population, is building schools, and has become fashionable. Millennials have flocked to Arlington, but so too have young families, and many immigrants. The old Mainline churches, some of them dating originally to the rural past, and which built big buildings after WWII during suburbanization, are mostly empty. Some have closed.

Not far from this soon to be demolished stone Presbyterian church is a large formerly United Methodist sanctuary that once was the virtual cathedral church of United Methodism in Arlington. It’s now occupied by an apparently thriving new Calvinist congregation that cites the Westminster Confession, along with venerable ecumenical church creeds, on its website. The above photo from its website shows their church retreat, about two hours away last Summer. Presumably much of the congregation was not there, but it still looks like a robust and young crowd. Also nearby in that Arlington neighborhood is a thriving Southern Baptist church plant with a young pastor. Still another seemingly strong evangelical congregation meets a few blocks away in rented school space.

Apparently the Presbyterian congregation could not appeal to any of the hundreds of people attending new church plants in its neighborhood. Confirming this trend, I learned on Christmas Eve while attending the United Methodist church where I grew up that it also plans to demolish its 100 year old structure in favor of affordable housing. Its average worship is larger, perhaps 70-90 people, so its chances of survival as a congregation seem much better, and I hope the transition works. The building, on a very valuable lot across from a subway station, needs lots of repair, which no doubt is beyond their reach. My grandmother originally picked the church because of its beautiful stained glass.

Meanwhile, not far up the street, a new Anglican congregation has built a beautiful new sanctuary which it already threatens to outgrow. A quick internet search, and my acquaintance with many young Arlington Christians, reveals many, many vibrant new evangelical churches with young congregations in Arlington, most of them in rented space, beyond what I could have imagined just a few years ago.

There is no doubt a cycle to how the Lord raises up new congregations even as others complete their season. I’m grateful for the spiritual riches I gained at the Methodist church of my boyhood. In future years there will be many thousands who reflect back on the similar spiritual riches they gained at what are now new church plants in dynamic, fast evolving Arlington.

  1. Comment by Gregg on December 28, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Even churches have to heed the rules of the market place. Dwindling numbers of “customers,” “competition,” and high overhead force many a congregation to close up shop. The government, on the other hand, just keeps pouring more resources and manpower into its failing enterprises.

  2. Comment by Patrick98 on December 28, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Oh Gregg, how very sad it is that so many people believe the church exists to “provide for my and my family’s needs”. Nowhere in the Bible is the church described as a business. It is a covenant community, described as “The body of Christ”, “the people of God”, a “new creation”, “the household of God” and “a fellowship in the Holy Spirit”. But nowhere that I can find in the Bible is it ever described as a commercial enterprise.

    Why does the church exist? To worship God, to nurture the children of God, to extend mercy to the hurting in the world, and to reach out and proclaim the good news of salvation found in Jesus Christ and none else.

  3. Comment by Gregg on December 28, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    I agree with you. But that doesn’t obviate the human realities of supporting organizations that one believes in. Sadly, the church being discussed in this article were unwilling to recognize that the message they were preaching was not resonating with the community – and probably with good reason.

  4. Comment by Kay Glines on December 28, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    There is no conflict between your vision of the church and what Gregg posted. The faith community is composed of people who have recognized their sin nature and their need for God. As Gregg pointed out, too many churches are doing a very poor job of reaching people. I don’t see any problem in viewing the church as a “business” – it’s in the business of preaching the gospel, bringing in new believers and nurturing their faith. It used to be one of the basic principles of any business – “find a need and fill it.” In the Christian worldview, churches know what people’s deepest need is and how to fill it.

  5. Comment by derbradster on December 30, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    It also has to do with the idea of “market niche” and “branding” or “positioning” If you can’t provide a unique experience—unique meaningful Biblical teaching and genuine fellowship—why SHOULD folks attend your church?

  6. Comment by Arbuthnaught on January 2, 2016 at 3:47 am

    Patrick98. I would agree with you that the church is not a commercial enterprise. However, it is possible to become too cozy and inward looking inside a particular congregation or denomination. If one borrows “analogies” from business, I think it helps us to ask the tough questions of our churches and programs that we would rather not ask ourselves or our congregations. I think good stewardship of the Lord’s resources requires us to ask tough questions about budgets, programs and resources, and yes……. whether we a delivering a message that is faithful to the historic Christian faith. Messages faithful to the historic Christian faith are quite resonant with both personal needs and what the “market” both needs and wants. I suspect from Gregg’s use of quotations around the market based terms he might agree that they are analogies only. He can of course correct me if I am wrong. Churches that do not ask tough questions of themselves end up like Arlington Presbyterian, one of the unnamed churches above. Arlington Presbyterian in great inward looking coziness just faded away, not asking the hard questions of themselves.

  7. Comment by virginiagentleman on January 2, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Bingo ! The denomination’s leadership that has continued to lecture business CEO’s on how to conduct their work has not grasped one central principle of the marketplace: you lose nearly 55% of your “market share in 50 years because no one is purchasing your ‘product.’ Having now fully demonstrated their inability to lead this denomination anywhere except extinction, they continue to blindly lecture CEO’s on how to run a profitable business.
    Such unbridled hubris in leadership is matched only by what few ‘local managers’ who remain that continue in their blindness.

  8. Comment by Tony Seel on December 28, 2015 at 6:57 am

    It’s not sad when a liberal church closes – that’s one less church preaching a false gospel. Thanks be to God that He is raising up new, vibrant churches that preach the life-altering true gospel.

  9. Comment by ken on December 28, 2015 at 9:53 am

    It’s not exactly rocket science: A successful church has to offer something that the secular world doesn’t provide. People don’t have to go to church to get a lecture on recycling, gun control, open borders, and “marriage equality.” The mainlines just parrot the secular culture, throwing in a few random verses from the Gospels to buttress their claim that Jesus wants you to be just like a secular progressive who doesn’t even believe in God. Young people raised in those churches may fully support that agenda, but they’d rather spend Sunday morning at Bally’s than in the pews.

  10. Comment by AlHam on December 29, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Arlington Presbyterian Church is down to 65 members. OF COURSE that was why they decided on this course. I can respect their desire to try to do something nice for the wider community with their white elephant of a property. That’s laudable. But spare me the patent nonsense from their pastor that this had nothing to do with their failure as a congregation to grow, to find new souls for God, to reach out not just with clothing and food for the hungry, but with a Gospel message that would have made them a vital part of Arlington, not just another social service organization.

    Liberal Christians constantly fail to see this. They believe that simply being seen as “nice” will bring people to God’s House. Casting aside all those “difficult” beliefs will smooth the seeker’s path to the pew and the membership rolls. Ain’t so. Never was.

    APC is thus a perfect reflection of the fecklessness of its parent denomination, PC(USA). They, too, desire a streamlined, sanded, worship based on non-judgmental friendliness.

    It’s called the Nicene Creed, not the Niceness creed.

  11. Comment by BarryObama2014 on December 30, 2015 at 3:07 am

    Liberals don’t go to church, if your church embraces liberal values it embraces it’s own extinction

  12. Comment by derbradster on December 30, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    This likely is true in many areas of the nation. Paradoxically the historically black church in the deep south has always affirmed marriage and opposed abortion and yet those same members flock to the polls for a party celebrating both same sex marriage and abortion.

  13. Comment by derbradster on December 30, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    The progression and demise of churches unquestionably has a lot to do with the quality of Bible teaching preaching and fealty to Scripture. But I think churches are vulnerable to aging communities with low replacement birthrates and also at the mercy of traffic patterns. The church can influence and shape the culture or the culture can influence/shape the church. It’s a semi permeable membrane dividing the two. Stuff diffuses from areas where it is concentrated to areas less so as my old biology prof taught us long ago. If the contents inside are identical to the contents outside demise is inevitable no matter what gimmickry is employed to halt or reverse it.

  14. Comment by cochise1 on December 31, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Our local Presbyterian Church split 2 years ago and went their separate ways mainly because of the PCUSA’s Marxist and progressive agenda. Very sad and a lot of hard feelings. The northern church was always much more secular and liberal and I left in 1983 when the south and north factions re-united. I still believe the northern PCUS churches were hurting for money and needed the influx of the more vibrant southern churches.

  15. Comment by Bob on April 16, 2017 at 11:38 am

    It’s pretty obvious that the neither the author nor the commentators read the source article. They sold the church to be redeveloped because they were called to do so. That’s okay, you false witness bearers will get exactly what you call for.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.