Shrinking congregations sell buildings
The Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas and the…
ABILENE, Texas — ‘The church is in jeopardy, but the kingdom is not in question.”
My friend Randy Harris, author and professor emeritus at Abilene Christian University, told me that several months ago as we talked about how the church we love is shrinking, merging, closing, struggling, changing.
He was paraphrasing theologian James Bryan Smith, who often says, “The kingdom is not in trouble, and neither are you.” But I liked Harris’ version better, because I’ve spent most of a year talking to people at churches in jeopardy.
Harris’ words stayed with me as I crisscrossed the country visiting congregations that were experiencing those transitions. Churches that had closed or merged or fought and failed to reinvent themselves. And churches that succeeded in finding a new way.
“The kingdom is not in question.”
That seems to be the thrust of Jesus’ parables in the Sermon on the Mount.
The kingdom is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom is like yeast.
The kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field.
Members of Churches of Christ sometimes view church history as something that happened in the first century and resumed with the Restoration Movement. But the church persisted in the 1,700 years in between, consistent with God’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
So where have all the churches gone?
Readers have asked what has happened to congregations in the series. Perhaps they thought those stories foreshadowed their own.
A couple of the congregations — the Ragsdale Church of Christ in Tennessee and the Peabody Street Church of Christ in Edna, Texas — no longer exist. The Peabody property was taken over by another local congregation that in turn sold it to one of its elders, who plans to lease it.
The Ragsdale congregation in Manchester, Tenn., conducted its last service in March. That building will be torn down and returned to farmland. For now it still stands, vacant. Kenny Smartt and his mother, whose father gave the acreage for the building more than 70 years ago, now attend the nearby East Main Church of Christ. He said the last handful of former Ragsdale members scattered to different locations.
“We run into each other ever so often,” Smartt said.
Some congregations are still struggling. Others believe they’ve found new direction.
The Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas sold its building and bought a smaller one just half a mile away. While it’s being renovated they meet each Sunday in the fellowship hall of their old, massive facility, renting it for $1 a month from the new owners. Attendance is down a bit, according to elder Barry Packer. Some of that, he said, may be attributed to the congregation’s decision to fully include women in worship and leadership. Maybe not.
Regardless, after debts were paid, the new building purchased and funds allotted for its renovation, a $4 million endowment was created. Packer said endowment earnings will be used to expand the congregation’s caring and sharing ministries beyond the regular budget.
He hopes other congregations facing similar transitions won’t see them as negatives: “We have been able to see them as ways in which God has reinvented a very hopeful future for us. We’re leaning strongly into what God is doing in the midst of this.”
Mergers have helped some congregations survive and even thrive.
In Nashville, the Otter Creek Church of Christ now meets in two locations. The shrinking West End Church of Christ formally became part of Otter Creek about two years ago, but the merger prompted legal issues resulting from deed restrictions on a portion of the West End property dating back to the 1940s. Preaching minister Josh Graves said those matters are now close to resolution.
“We are now one church with two campuses,” Graves said. “This means we have one vision, one eldership, one ministry staff, etc.” Otter Creek is in suburban Brentwood, south of Nashville. West End is near Vanderbilt University, about 10 miles away.
Related: Not-so-simple stewardship
The two campuses draw about 1,250 worshipers to three Sunday services and host a combined 13 recovery groups during the week. Both have thriving preschool programs with about 250 students representing eight languages.
Graves encourages congregations facing similar transitions to be bold and gracious.
“Don’t let the voices of fear make decisions for the future of your church,” Graves said in an email. “Jesus lived with incredible courage, but many of our churches live in fear and timidity. The United States is now a post-Christian (secular-ish) culture. New times call for new ways of living the old and beautiful Jesus Story.”
Minister Greg Jasper said attendance has averaged about 80 since the unification in March. “We are slowly seeing the numbers tick upward as time moves on,” Jasper said, “and I am optimistic the trend will continue.”
He encouraged struggling congregations to consider unification.
Related: Better as one: Churches merge
Jasper said it helps to not officially close churches but instead bring them together to pool resources, gifts and talents, which can ultimately build the kingdom of God.
“It just takes hard work and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone,” the minister said.
The Skillman Church of Christ in Dallas considered becoming a satellite of The Hills congregation in suburban Fort Worth but couldn’t move beyond its comfort zone. A merger that required a two-thirds majority failed by two votes on June 12.
Skillman’s attendance has dropped about 20 percent since then, according to elder David Williams, but about 10 percent of those present on Sundays are visitors looking for a church home.
Of the 80 or so who remain, some are searching for the more contemporary worship opportunities that would have accompanied a merger, Williams wrote in an email, and others are looking for a congregation with children.
“Some are disappointed and hurt by the way members treated each other,” he said. “And some are continuing to grieve for the past.”
Don Hebbard, author of “Healing Hurting Churches,” has been retained to work through what Williams calls “an intentional healing transition.”
Hebbard, a marriage and family therapy professor at the online Amberton University, has a private consulting practice and also partners with ACU’s Siburt Institute and the Hope Network, organizations that help struggling churches. His special niche, he said, is churches “that are in really bad shape.” When he signs on, it’s for the long haul, often two years or more.
In addition to talking with leadership and members, Hebbard preaches at Skillman. He describes his sermons as storytelling, healing-oriented messages.
Hebbard said the wounds churches suffer — things like exhaustion, incompetence, narcissism and sexuality crises including predators or affairs — are not limited to any one type of congregation. The wounds span all church types, any denomination, any style, any niche on the progressive to conservative spectrum.
“It’s just people,” he said. “It’s human beings.”
Of all the churches I visited, the La Mesa Church of Christ in San Diego has undergone the most dramatic transition. On Aug. 28 it celebrated its 83rd anniversary in the small community center where members have worshiped since selling their large building over a year ago. The next week they met for the first time as Kindred Church in the small office and community center they’ve purchased and renovated in the heart of La Mesa’s downtown business district.
Selling the old building enabled a partnership with Heritage 21 and other foundations to support church planting and rejuvenation in San Diego County for years to come, said Graham Clifford, minister at La Mesa.
“Even without the pandemic’s help, we were facing a slow death,” Clifford said. “We were in debt beyond our means. Our aging building needed constant major repairs. And worst of all, we weren’t connecting with the community.
“But God spoke clearly to us … and we decided it was better to go down fighting for the cause of Christ in our community,” he added. “This new vision brought us hope.”
“God spoke clearly to us … and we decided it was better to go down fighting for the cause of Christ in our community.”
Christians today indulge in hyperbole if they insist declining attendance is evidence of persecution by the world. American Christians have no valid claim to persecution compared to the first century martyrs or the 21st century imprisonment and torture of Christians in Sudan and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Christians in today’s culture often feel like strangers in a strange land.
The prophet Jeremiah was writing to children of Israel exiled in Babylon when he sent a word from the Lord that’s apt for today’s wanderers:
“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”
To engage that hope, today’s churches must embrace some jarring, cold water realities.
1. The pandemic didn’t cause this. Not a single church featured in this series could say its decline began in 2020. Indeed, most had been declining for decades. The pandemic didn’t help. But blaming COVID-19 for the decline of local congregations is scapegoating a virus.
2. Similar churches are different, but they have common problems. Frequent but simplistic explanations — “The church became too progressive” or “The church became too conservative”— are just wrong.
“Do we really imagine the Jerusalem church bore much resemblance to the one in Corinth? Yet, they were the body of Christ, differences and all. He’s that big.”
Progressive and conservative labels vary so widely from place to place they border on meaningless anyway. I’ve encountered instrumental worship in churches with very conservative ideologies. And I’ve talked with churches who treasured their traditional, noninstrumental worship but installed women as elders. The differences in leadership structures between Black and White churches have existed for decades. The list goes on.
We are a fellowship that has fought battles and divided congregations over kitchens, Bible translations and the Holy Spirit. We’ve never all been alike. Do we really imagine the Jerusalem church bore much resemblance to the one in Corinth? Yet, they were the body of Christ, differences and all. He’s that big.
3. We are not alone in this, and we can learn from others. Within our own borders, numerous organizations exist to help struggling congregations find their feet or find a way to close their doors but preserve their legacy. No congregation has all the answers. Failing to get help is a mark of pride, not autonomy.
“No congregation has all the answers. Failing to get help is a mark of pride, not autonomy.”
We can also learn from other believers facing similar struggles. Pew Research says the U.S. is moving steadily toward Christianity being a plurality, not a majority. Churches of Christ are not the only ones bailing rising water. Episcopal and Methodist churches have divided over LGBTQ issues. Catholics and Southern Baptists have been traumatized by sexual scandals at the highest levels of leadership. We can learn from their mistakes and their successes as they have sought ways to heal, move forward and serve.
Jesus said, “Whoever is not against you is for you.” It’s time to take him seriously.
4. Compromise is not a dirty word. Neither is cooperation. Of the many congregations I talked with, all but one were in cities where neighboring congregations presented options to members whose preferences didn’t align with the direction of the church they were attending, making it easier to pull up stakes rather than do the hard work of compromise and cooperation.
“The apostle Paul knew something about adapting to different cultures and different people when he wrote, ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’”
A struggling congregation in the Midwest closed because the only other nearby Church of Christ declined to fellowship with them when they couldn’t agree about every item on a list of doctrinal and practice particulars. So, for lack of compromise, a congregation closed, and members sought church homes with other fellowships.
The apostle Paul knew something about adapting to different cultures and different people when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
5. Focusing internally instead of externally will never yield growth. Jesus said, “Go into all the world,” not “Go to the elders and complain.”
“Outreach in the 21st century may mean social media evangelism or a soup kitchen or a preschool or a fall festival or a laundromat ministry.”
An external focus will not look the same for every church. Perhaps door-knocking is still an option somewhere, but if I don’t open the door of my home to unknown solicitors, why would I expect someone to open their door to me? Outreach in the 21st century may mean social media evangelism or a soup kitchen or a preschool or a fall festival or a laundromat ministry.
Creatively sharing the love of Jesus is an endeavor with infinite potential.
Throughout this year I talked to experts, ministers, elders, academics and lots of sad, grieving churchgoers. None would guess what the church may look like in a decade, much less 50 years or beyond. Some doubt it will exist.
I disagree. Tomorrow’s church may not look the same, but it will sustain.
For 2,000 years the church has met in homes and in hiding, in blond brick buildings, roadside chapels and sprawling multi-structure campuses along city freeways. Jeff Childers, director of the Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts at ACU, said the earliest architectural record of a church building dates to around 250. Before that, Christians met in house churches and synagogues.
“The gathering space often symbolizes something deeper about what is happening in terms of community formation and missional impact,” Childers said.
Yet church buildings of this century and the last — both simple and splendid — stand empty or welcome a handful of worshipers to sanctuaries that once greeted hundreds or thousands. The trend is not in dispute. Perhaps it’s time for a different kind of gathering space.
Readers of a certain age may hear a melody in the name of the series. The 1960s folk tune made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary begins its cultural morality tale with, “Where have all the flowers gone?”
To young girls, who went to husbands, who became soldiers, who died and went to graveyards that gave way to flowers.
“When will they ever learn?” the chorus repeats. “When will they ever learn?”
When Jesus comes.
We’ll learn the answers when Jesus comes.
“The Kingdom of God survived the Roman Empire and everything else that’s come along, and it will still be around when the world comes to an end,” Harris told me. “It’s sustained by God, not by humans.”
Hope is required of us, and hope is promised.
Hope and a future.
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
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