OKLAHOMA CITY — Like many of their fellow believers, Amber Taylor and Shannon Davis are troubled by declining membership among Churches of Christ in the U.S.
But there are other statistics that the members of the Del City Church of Christ, in a rapidly changing suburb of Oklahoma City, find equally grim.
Fifty percent of their state’s prison inmates don’t have basic literacy skills.
On any given day, 1 out of 10 high school dropouts will be incarcerated.
If that child is a black male, it’s 1 in 4.
“Too many young men and women are being fed into the school-to-prison pipeline and end up wearing orange,” they said, in unison, at the National Urban Ministry Conference, an annual gathering of Christians representing ministries and nonprofits that serve the nation’s growing and increasingly diverse cities.
But orange need not be “the new black,” they said, referencing the racy Netflix series. Dressed in orange prison jumpsuits themselves, they talked about Whiz Kids Oklahoma. Their church sponsors a local branch of the after-school program, which helps at-risk kids improve reading skills and provides them with food and mentoring.
The Del City congregation reflects the national trend for Churches of Christ, which have experienced a drop in membership of 7.8 percent (about 100,443 souls) since 1990. That’s according to the newly released edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States,” a directory produced by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian.
In the 1970s and 80s, Del City was “a very typical, suburban church” of 700-plus souls, Davis said. Then, as the community gentrified and nearby Oklahoma City underwent urban renewal, poverty and gang violence rose as housing prices declined.
Now, the Del City church has about 400 members — 70 percent of whom don’t live in Del City, Davis said.
To survive, “we’ve got to start looking at what our community really looks like and addressing the needs of those people,” she said, “so that they see us as what we’ve always been — a church that’s community minded.”
In the auditorium, keynoter Harold Shank urged believers to “be bold in the city,” finding ways to serve in urban settings. A few feet away, Christians were doing just that — taking blood pressure and blood sugar readings for those in need.
The church, which meets in a former funeral home, hosts the Lighthouse Medical Clinic, providing free care on Thursday nights — concurrent with midweek Bible study.
Upstairs, nearly 100 children learned about God in Bible classes. They marched into the auditorium to sing with the adult church members and conference-goers before loading onto buses to go home.
Shank is president of Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., a 430-student university associated with Churches of Christ. He’s also a longtime advocate for ministries that alleviate poverty and serve children.
Time and again, he’s seen Christians attempt to help the poor improve their lives, to get jobs. After years, they seem to have little to show for their efforts, and they say, despondently, “I don’t know what else to do.”
The Bible tells of people who felt the same way, he said. Then they realized that nothing is impossible for God.
“He takes this slow, two-legged creature … to have dominion over all the earth,” Shank said. “He calls to a farmer, ‘Build a boat, save the world.’ He calls to an ex-con, ‘Go save the people out of slavery.’
“Instead of saying ‘I can’t,’ say ‘He can.’ Instead of looking in, look up.’”
Laura Bearden, a member of the Capitol Hill church, described Shank’s message as “awesome.” Plenty of times, she’s been in a place where “I didn’t know what else to do.” Her faith in Jesus pulled her through.
She started attending the church six years ago, after Christians served her at the clinic. “It’s a family,” she said. “Everybody loves everybody.”
Harold Shank speaks during the Thursday night service of the Capitol Hill Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD) URBAN MINISTRY GOES SUBURBAN
At the conference, participants gathered around tables in a downtown convention center and heard presentations on topics including prison ministry, foster care, children’s homes and reaching Hispanics with the Gospel — all in nine- to 11-minute bites.
David North, the conference’s organizer, modeled the format after the popular TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks, short presentations, circulated online, designed to be “ideas worth spreading.” After blocks of five to eight talks, presenters sat at the tables to answer questions.
It was a nice alternative to the “divide and conquer” format of similar events, where presenters speak simultaneously in separate rooms, said Jim Harbin, coordinator of the National Urban Ministry Association, which oversees the event.
Increasingly, young professionals are making urban landscapes their home — and they’re looking for churches that address the fundamental needs of their communities.
At the same time, “suburban areas can look very much like former inner-city neighborhoods,” Harbin said. Those concerned about declining church attendance must understand the ever-changing demographics of their neighborhoods, serving the small pockets of poverty and pain in their backyards.
That’s happening in Mustang, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, and home of the Lakehoma Church of Christ, said Kent Hinds, one of the church’s deacons.
“There are people out there for us to reach and touch,” he said. “I think we’re getting better at it. I think we want to get better at it. I think these kinds of (events) help us learn how to get better at it.”
In Del City, the Whiz Kids program is energizing the young believers who volunteer, Amber Taylor said. It’s influencing new generations of children who, prayerfully, will never wear orange jumpsuits — and will know the love of Christ.
Younger Christians “don’t want to sit,” she said. “They want to go do.
“Hopefully, we’ll start seeing an incline in church attendance because, finally, we’re … doing something. Instead of sitting and filling our cups, we’re filling other people’s cups.”