This week the Virginian-Pilot documented a milestone few noticed: Park Place United Methodist Church, once the largest Virginia church in the denomination, quietly shut its doors. Closure of the majestic Norfolk, Virginia sanctuary, which can seat more than 1,000 worshipers, raises questions about the survival of Mainline Protestant churches hit hard by changing neighborhood demographics.
Can a Mainline Protestant church that once catered to middle-class whites survive when its neighborhood attracts new residents outside of its traditional constituency?
The Pilot article indicates that Park Place diminished from its World War II-era heights long ago, with much of the congregation departing for the suburbs in the 1960s. A cursory glance at neighboring congregations reveals Park Place isn’t alone in its predicament: Knox Presbyterian, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has only 35 members and 24 attendees on a typical Sunday, while the nearby First United Presbyterian Church is down to 55 worshipers and 110 members (actually a recent increase). Adjacent to the neighborhood, but not in it, Episcopal Church of the Epiphany also appears to have declined with attendance in the 70s.
There are healthy churches in Norfolk: Baptist churches are sprinkled across the city, and nondenominational Evangelical churches are nearby. A vibrant Anglican church plant meets only three blocks from the shuttering United Methodist church.
But for Park Place, it reads as though the seed-corn of any future congregation was eaten long ago: an ethnic white country club can’t survive if it doesn’t change to serve its new neighbors, and a niche vision results in a niche congregation.
The Pilot story interviews a longtime member at Park Place:
She remembers packed pews. Ladies with white gloves. Men with straw hats. Weddings. Baptisms. Overflowing classes and collection plates.
“Our peak was probably around the close of World War II,” [Sue] Davis said. “One service – I think it was our biggest – had 2,500 people. We even had our own gym.”
Membership has dwindled over the years at the Park Place United Methodist Church but at one time the congregation was very large. Pastor Stephen Wall-Smith holds an old photo taken in June 1922 of the men’s Bible-study class posing in front of the church on West 34th St. in Norfolk.
Like most of yesterday’s members, Davis lived in Park Place back then. “It used to be such a lovely neighborhood,” she said.
The slide started more than 50 years ago when looming school desegregation sent families running for the suburbs.
We have a pretty good idea at this point why Park Place died. Why wasn’t it reborn?
Wayne Snead, a superintendent for the Methodist Church district that oversees Park Place, said the building will remain open as a mission center while an advisory team “tries to come up with a plan for how to re-launch the congregation.”
One or two old-timers intend to stay on – the seeds of the next flock. Leading them will be the first African American at the church’s helm, according to Wall-Smith.
Arthur Devine Jr., who has assisted from the pulpit in the past, is taking over. He’ll be focused on building a more inclusive congregation.
“I think this church has paid for not having that in the past,” he said.
Church diversity studies have already shown that Mainline Protestant churches are not just majority white, they are really – really – white. Even denominations that once had a token minority presence, such as the Episcopal Church, are somehow becoming less diverse in the 21st century, even as they make a conscious effort to appoint minority leaders. The United Methodist Church is 94 percent white, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some Evangelical churches such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) found recent success in diversifying their congregations, and groups like the Assemblies of God and the Seventh-Day Adventists achieved substantial diversity in recent decades. Can Mainline Protestants do the same?