21st Century Christian moving after 57 years
By Feb. 1, publisher and bookstore 21st Century Christian will…
The Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas and the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, Mich., are selling buildings that once welcomed thousands to continue ministry by smaller but still active congregations.
Highland Oaks, in the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the largest congregations in Texas, peaking at 2,000 members or more.
The Rochester Church of Christ, adjacent to Rochester University, had about 1,000 members at its peak. The congregation now includes roughly 300 family units, which longtime elder Burt Rutledge says represents about 425 members.
The sales in Texas and Michigan reflect a national trend that will become increasingly common, said Stan Granberg, trustee and vice chairman of the Heritage 21 Foundation.
The church growth scholar said the foundation — established to help dying congregations achieve renewal or secure a legacy — talked with about 20 churches last year that had reached a point where they couldn’t take care of their buildings.
“Churches are going to be smaller, and buildings are so expensive,” Granberg said. “Churches will downsize or move into rented space or close their doors.”
Many congregations today, Granberg said, are 20th century churches that are not able to transition to 21st century realities.
“Churches are going to be smaller, and buildings are so expensive. Churches will downsize or move into rented space or close their doors.”
Some debate whether a right or left lean on the conservative-to-progressive continuum has caused the decline.
But the scholar said “it has less to do with where they are on the religious continuum and more to do with a loss of outthrust” in their mission.
Barry Packer, an elder of the Highland Oaks church for 17 years, said it shrunk over time to about 400 to 500 on the roll and about 300 to 400 at in-person worship since the pandemic, a number that’s relatively small for a Dallas church but would be huge in many places.
The group today is predominantly older, but with active children’s and youth ministries, “age diverse but not evenly diverse,” he said. Racially, Packer said Highland Oaks has been “very actively engaged in the racial conversation over the last year and a half,” but it remains predominantly White.
The decline in numbers has been slow and gradual but more predominant during the past 25 years, Packer said. No single, significant issue led to a sudden slip, just a gradual erosion of “people who moved, who went to more conservative churches or who left the fellowship because we were not moving fast enough.”
Dallas, like many larger cities in the South, has congregations spanning the ideological spectrum from conservative to progressive. Packer, who spent 16 years in pulpit ministry himself before settling back in his hometown, described Highland Oaks as “a very grace-oriented church.”
“In some ways, those who move in that direction alienate themselves from a segment of Churches of Christ that are hanging on to more traditional ‘ways we’ve always done it,’ and that creates consternation,” Packer said. “We’ve gone through that shift — and we feel we’ve gotten healthier and stronger while diminishing in numbers.”
The healthier-stronger component, he said, is represented by broad community outreach, including making the building available to service organizations for events and to some who rent office space on the sprawling Highland Oaks campus. Its 43,000-square-foot, two-story building, constructed in 1986, sits on almost 18 acres along the Interstate 635 loop, known locally as the LBJ Freeway. Since the 1980s, population growth has shifted farther north and northwest.
Before 1986, the congregation was the Garland Road Church of Christ, located about three miles south of the current location in a building that, in an interesting twist, is now occupied by the Shoreline City Church, which is purchasing Highland Oaks’ property.
Packer said during the last 10 years, Highland Oaks’ leadership has acknowledged that, “We have a large facility that without question is much larger than we need.” Then there was the matter of about $1.9 million in debt.
“We’ve lived on less margin, and debt has restricted our capacity to do ministry because we’ve been straddled with an aging facility, with debt payments and higher maintenance issues.”
Although the contribution per person has increased, as membership diminished in size, so did total dollars.
“We’ve never been in a crisis mode where we can’t make payments or can’t pay the bills,” Packer explained. “We’ve lived on less margin, and debt has restricted our capacity to do ministry because we’ve been straddled with an aging facility, with debt payments and higher maintenance issues.”
About a year ago, as hopes rose that COVID-19 was waning, Packer recalled elders saying, “Let’s think about who we want to be and how we move forward.” Part of that, he said, was “Is this the facility that’s best for us to move forward?’”
The group leading the vision discussions concluded that the building was being used to engage the community in many ways, and walking away wasn’t appealing. They decided to stay.
Two weeks later, Shoreline — a nondenominational congregation — approached Highland Oaks about buying the property.
Over several months, conversations led to rethinking the decision. By early December, the churches had a contract. The final sale is expected within a few weeks.
A nondisclosure agreement kept him from sharing the sales price, but, Packer said, it will more than cover retiring the $1.9 million debt, and “we have sufficient funds to relocate in the same community but have millions of dollars in addition to invest in ministry and mission.”
The impetus for the pending sale of the Rochester Church of Christ to neighboring Rochester University also was an inquiry from a potential buyer — the university.
The institution, formerly known as Michigan Christian College, is associated with Churches of Christ.
Tom Rellinger, Rochester University’s executive vice president and CFO, was a member of the congregation at the time. He has since returned to preaching for the Petoskey Church of Christ, four hours north of the Detroit-area congregation, in addition to his role with the university.
Back in 2020, Rellinger “floated the idea past the Rochester elders and said, ‘If you’d be willing to look at a different arrangement about how both of us could use the facility, we’d like to talk.’”
About six months ago, conversations got more serious, and a sale of the building to the university for $2.25 million is nearing completion in March.
A long-term, facilities-use agreement provides that while classrooms will be adapted for university classes, the church will still use them on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The congregation also will retain some permanent spaces for their offices, copy room and storage rooms.
The university also will have some permanent spaces, and the two will share the 900-seat auditorium, which will allow the entire Rochester student body to be together for chapel rather than scattered in four spaces across campus watching a livestream.
“It’s the best possible scenario to add educational space we needed for the price,” Rellinger said. “We also pick up 15 offices for faculty and staff. We couldn’t come close to something like that for the price.”
The additional space will support six new programs Rochester University will launch in fall 2022.
The Rochester congregation membership skews young, elder Rutledge said, an average age of about 35. About 90 percent of members are White and 10 percent Black. The 32-year-old building where Rutledge and his wife were married has some debt, the result of flood damage in 2014 that led to some additional repairs and upgrades.
Once a church of 1,000 members, Rutledge attributes the decline to several factors. Being located in the northern suburbs of Detroit, “we’ve always had a lot of transient members anyway, but a lot more are moving out of state.”
In 2018 alone, 10 of its families moved out of Michigan, “but there’s not a lot coming in.”
Two large, multi-campus community churches have added campuses nearby in the past decade, and “a number of our members have made the transition to community churches,” Rutledge said. On the other end of the spectrum, “we’ve moved more progressive, and some of the more conservative members sought other churches also.”
“We have a philosophy of ‘called in and sent out,’” Rutledge explained, that calls members to more pastoral, community involvement. “We want to meet our community ministry partners out in the world, not get locked in to ministry being in the building.”
Five or six young people from the Rochester congregation are students at Oxford High School, where a Nov. 30 mass shooting left four dead. “We’re opening ourselves to Oxford and being accessible,” Rutledge said.
Another congregation goal is to be more financially healthy — to not have the debt and the cost of maintaining an older building. The sale allows them to direct resources to ministry and mission.
Rellinger says ministry and mission are goals the university shares in a transaction he described as a win-win: “We just want folks to know that we’ve got this shared mission with the churches — we want to partner with churches and move the kingdom of God together to reach people.”
In Dallas, Highland Oaks elder Packer echoed that desire.
“We’re seeing it not as a failure — there’s a sense that this is a way to live into discipleship and be more effective disciples of Jesus, with resources that allow us to make a significant impact on the kingdom.”
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