National City Christian Church

February 13, 2018

Warning Signs at Disciples’ National Church

Here at IRD we regularly bemoan the decline of historic Mainline Protestant congregations in downtown Washington, D.C., exchanging their once-large congregations for underutilized sanctuaries now draped with rainbow flags and left-wing political advocacy slogans. National City Christian Church, a historic congregation attended by Presidents Garfield and Johnson, is one such church.

Poised beautifully above Thomas Circle, National City was designed by the same architect who planned the Jefferson Memorial. As the national church of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, the neoclassical building was constructed to be prominent, even monumental.

Today, the church building sits under-utilized, the diminished congregation shrunk to a weekly attendance of 125 persons in 2011, according to the Washington Post. Revitalization of the greater Fourteenth Street neighborhood, thriving with an influx of new residents, hasn’t been significantly reflected in the church congregation. Meanwhile, several vibrant Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations – all of which rent space – have launched to serve the nearby neighborhoods in recent years.

The rapidly aging Disciples denomination, which has experienced a membership crash of its own, no longer makes membership and attendance figures for individual congregations freely available. But the congregation’s recently released annual report is telling.

The congregation posted a deficit in 2017 and is struggling numerically:

“The year of 2017 saw our worship services with a much lower attendance,” writes Senior Pastor Stephen Gentle. “Often with a change of legislative and executive personnel in the government, our congregation has benefited from these changes, as new people move into the area. But for reasons that are beyond me, we have seen very few new persons come to visit in 2017, and more disconcerting, a number of church members have left the area for a variety of reasons. This vacuum has left us with an opportunity for growth as we make plans in 2018. Our congregation must take seriously about how we are reaching out to the community around us and inviting persons to join in worshiping, growing in faith, and caring for our community. Which leads to another significant concern of mine: leadership exhaustion and spiritual fatigue on the part of our members and leaders.”

The congregation’s membership report lists five deaths and four new members in 2017, with only two baptisms all year, both in the small Hispanic congregation. The Christian Women’s Fellowship is “shrinking in number”. The church will participate in a congregational renewal program in 2018 to “ponder the question of ‘why’ our church exists.”

The church’s Campbell Building has been emptied out and is being sold:

“Perhaps the most dramatic action that we’ve taken at National City in 2017 was to work with the National City Christian Church Foundation as it undertakes the sale of the Campbell Building,” reports Church Moderator Jane Campbell. “This building was only partially used, had major maintenance issues, and would have cost millions to bring into usable condition – and then we would have had to find tenants as the activities of National City itself no longer fill the building. After considerable deliberation and much prayer, the Foundation decided to sell the building.”

National City joins a host of other liberal downtown congregations which have sold or redeveloped their former education wings in recent years, the space no longer needed to serve families. New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Parish and Calvary Baptist Church have all entered into agreements with property developers.

The church is desperately attempting to chase the neighborhood demographic:

In the past year, church members “welcomed our community’s canines and their companions for a special Dog Blessing service out on the steps of National City in May.” Lent brought “Sacred Space Yoga” while a monthly LGBTQ ecumenical bible study featured “happy hours at the Uproar Lounge”.

A commitment to fading old-style ecumenism endures:

Gentle reports he was recently honored with “a glorious week” at the Chautauqua Institute where he served as chaplain for the week and presented a Disciple House lecture on his congregation’s foundation.

“Our week culminated in a joyous wedding as we were able to participate in the celebration of holy matrimony between the Reverend Dr. Joan Brown Campbell and the Reverend Dr. Albert Pennybaker,” Gentle shared.

Readers of this blog will recall Campbell and Pennybaker. Both were senior National Council of Churches officials in the 1990s whose policies amplified the NCC’s implosion. Campbell infamously urged that Christians reject the “exclusivity” of their own faith and once suggested in a newspaper interview that Christians should not aspire to win other people to Christianity.

How sad that her advice has been heeded to such a disastrous result at National City Christian Church.


22 Responses to Warning Signs at Disciples’ National Church

  1. Wow. This is sad, but very important. Thanks for sharing this sort of material with us Jeff.

  2. Roger says:

    Christians should not aspire to win other people to Christianity. What kind of Church would that be, if they are not trying to win the lost? It becomes a Social Club full of sound and fury signifying nothing. How sad we have dying Churches with no one to Preach the Gospel of Grace.

  3. Jim Wright says:

    When a church turns away from the righteousness of Christ and fails to share the Good News then the end is near. May the Holy Spirit pour over DC churches and all churches snd raise high the banner of Christ and His righteousness. Bro Jim

  4. Pam says:

    Where God’s truth is compromised and the gospel is missing we have an apostate church. Why are we surprised; Scripture tells us this result. Gal. 1:6-7, 2 Corin. 6:14-15, James 4:4

  5. My former church, Foundry United Methodist, is thriving – because they’ve embraced and held congregants accountable to the radical justice Christ calls us to do. And we are in the same neighborhood. Article takes a kind of hateful leap blaming ‘rainbow flags’ and social justice ‘mottos.’ Some of the scriptural insinuations thrown around above are pretty obnoxious and insulting, too. Knowing my neighborhood was full of deeply religious people who were committed to serving God, serving others, and changing the world. So, Gal. 5:13-14. Radical hospitality. Love your neighbor.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Brett, thank you for your comments about Foundry UMC, which indeed serves the same neighborhood and is relevant to this discussion. We are in agreement that Foundry is in better shape than National City Christian Church. However, “thriving” probably isn’t the word I would use. A quick glimpse at the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Journal shows that Foundry is in a state of decline, although it is more gradual than National City. At the conclusion of 2009, Foundry counted 607 weekly attendees, but at the end of 2015, it had dropped to 500 (-18%). Similarly, Foundry in 2009 counted 1,457 members, but at the end of 2015, it had dropped to 1,017 members (-30%). These numbers can be reviewed here: http://www.bwcumc.org/resources/journal/

      Note that the 2017 conference journal reports 2015 stats, the 2011 journal reports 2009 stats. I hope that these numbers provided by the annual conference are helpful to you in understanding numerical trends and congregational vitality.

  6. BCS says:

    Pam is right: “Where God’s truth is compromised and the gospel is missing we have an apostate church.” All types of people should be welcome, however, sin should not be celebrated. My church, the United Methodist, is not following their Discipline. We have a women Bishop “married” to another women, a Minister that performs gay “marriages”, etc. It’s celebrating sin as far as I’m concerned, and the hypocrisy is apparent to others. I figure the next thing will be to invite alcoholics in for a beer party, or, invite pedofiles to be Sunday School teachers. Wouldn’t be any worse.

    • Dear BSC – I’m a Bisexual Methodist. And I used my full name in my comment.

    • Lizzie Warren says:

      BCS you are 100% correct in your assessment. The united Methodist denomination is headed for a massive loss of membership when it formally embraces homosexuality after the sham of it’s “way forward” committee presents its report.

  7. John W. Worsham says:

    Amen! Believers should be leaving this church and others like it to find churches and congregations where they can be spiritually fed.

  8. Joan Sibbald says:

    I was shocked to read recently that the National Cathedral voted unanimously to change the pew Bibles and Hymnnals to gender neutral in order to welcome transgender people. Now I know why, to increase membership!

    2/18/2018 Breitbart News: MODERN CULTURE IS NOT JUST REVEALING TRANSGENDERS: ‘It Is Creating Them’

    Data from the Williams Institute states that the highest percentage of transgender-identified adults live in Washington,
    D.C. Every year since 2013 they hold a parade called “High Heel Drag.” Please Google.

    I wonder how many work at the Dept. of Education?

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Joan, some news outlets have been relaying inaccurate or incomplete information about this story. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington voted to instruct the denomination’s General Convention to “avoid” gendered pronouns for God if they begin revisions of the prayer book this summer. The diocesan convention took place at the National Cathedral, but this was an act of the diocese, not the cathedral itself. The pew bibles and hymnals are not affected by this resolution, the Book of Common Prayer is. You can read my report here: https://juicyecumenism.com/2018/02/09/episcopal-gender-neutral-resolution/ I hope that this is helpful to you in understanding what is going on in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

  9. don bryant says:

    I am not bemoaning the decline of the mainlines. It is time for them to go. The unsuspecting who walk into their doors to find God are led astray. Let them expire and save many a soul from deceit and false hopes.

  10. Lester Hemphill says:

    It is prideful to say that your brand of Christianity is the only true Christianity. That is intolerance. The Jesus that associated with tax collectors and harlots would be disowned by many of today’s Christians.

    • Lester, some of us deeply regret our sin–the sin that is taken away only by the Jesus of the Bible. We have been brought from death to life. It’s not pride that causes us to want others to find the real life in Jesus instead of an imitation. By the way, I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and came to the Lord and began serving him as a member of that denomination. I’m no longer in that denomination, but I bear them no ill will. It grieves me to see them sinking deeper into apostasy.

  11. Denisa Dellinger says:

    This is sad and a sign of the times. Under no circumstances should the church offend people by standing up for righteousness of the Bible. White wash God’s word by taking sin out and the need for a savior. And whatever you do, do not offend Muslims or gays or anyone for that matter. Do not have soup kitchens, clothes closets, job help, education, reach out into the community and tell people about the love of Christ and please do not get rid of the frozen chosen. Get rid of the pastor or get him help. People are dying without the love if Jesus.

  12. What is even sadder about this decline is that the ministers don’t see what the problem is–lack of good biblical preaching and evangelism. When older members pass away and others move away, evangelism becomes all the more important! The mainline churches apparently aren’t going to get it until they have no one left. Case in point: the First Baptist Church of Oneonta NY (ABC) just closed. Loss of members and a failure to replace them via the preaching of the Word.

  13. Pastor Linda says:

    Sometimes there is a lack of truthful reflection! National City’s building in such poor state of repair is a metaphorical sign of a lack of spiritual upkeep of the congregation. The Proverbs teach there must be deep thought done before building anything and to thoughtfully count the cost. The building was built to impress the people not to serve the people we are called to serve – sick, widows and orphans. With these truths in mind. How shall we now live?

  14. Penny says:

    Excellent commentary, Jeffrey Walton – thank you!

  15. Richard Benitez says:

    Are you saying the Disciples of Christ church changed their name to Christian Church? What is Christian Church? Are you saying the Disciples of Christ squandered their longstanding identity by changing their name? Confused.

    • The denomination’s history goes back to the 1800’s when some churches called “Christian Churches” and some called “Disciples of Christ” and some called “Churches of Christ” were all together as one movement. Eventually, over a period of decades from about 1890 to 1960, the movement split into three parts. One part is generally known as Churches of Christ. They have little or no national structure. Most of their congregations are fairly conservative in theology. Most do not use instrumental music in worship. The second part has churches usually called “(Something) Christian Church.” They are affiliated with the North American Christian Convention. They are usually fairly conservative in theology (though they rarely emphasize theology). They use instrumental music in worship. The third group is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The local congregations will usually be called “(Something) Christian Church,” maybe with “Disciples of Christ” under the name. They are generally much more liberal in theology, though individual congregations or pastors may vary.
      All three groups tend to baptize by immersion, to have the Lord’s Supper weekly, and to dislike detailed statements of faith.

  16. Bishop Henry Dulcio says:

    I am the President of World pastors Association
    live in West Palm Beach Fl.
    There is a meeting in Miami held on June 25th this month
    My association Invite to be there.

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