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.