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.