City Churches

The Bishop has appointed me to Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  This 128 year old congregation in the heart of Durham was once one of Methodism’s great flag ship churches. And yet, in the past three decades Duke Memorial has experienced steady decline as well as a rising average age of membership.  For the past five years, two talented pastors have led somewhat of a turnaround for us.  The congregation has learned that it can attract new members.  This summer our attendance has increased nearly 30% over last year and our giving has been at an unprecedentedly high level.  We are on the move, movement made all the more remarkable because our type of congregation – the once large, downtown church – has been the most threatened type of congregation in United Methodism.

Years ago, when Bob Wilson and I were working on a book on United Methodist renewal, Bob noted that one of the biggest stories of the last few decades has been the loss of our urban churches.  I told him we ought to cite some examples.  The next day he gave me a list of twenty churches that had two thousand members in 1960 that by 1979, when we wrote Rekindling the Flame, were closed.  Because these congregations paid a disproportionate share of the expenses of the denomination, Bob said that the loss of these congregations would change United Methodism forever.

A short time later I heard Lyle Schaller remark that United Methodism had shown that it could not keep urban churches.  Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians continued to have some large, thriving downtown churches.  Why not United Methodists?  Lyle responded to the effect, “I can think of only one reason why we’ve lost downtown churches – bishops!”  Ouch.

The United Methodist appointive system, as it has usually functioned, has proven to be toxic to these once great churches.  The leadership requirements of the large, downtown church are unique and demanding.  Whenever one of these congregations is used (abused?) to reward some good soldier, to provide a place for someone who ought to be given less demanding work, the results have always been congregational decline.

A key factor in any thriving urban church is preaching.  The urban church is in a competitive environment in which many members may have to drive past many other congregations on their way to the church.  A good-enough-preacher is never good enough to attract persons to these congregations.  Also, the demands of attempting to be church in an urban environment with (usually) an aging, very expensive to maintain building, security issues, the needs of the urban poor who surround the church, and the need for staff require that these congregations cannot simply have good pastoral leadership but must have excellent leadership.

It’s sad enough to see us close or greatly diminish these churches, but even more sad considering the urban growth that’s occurring as increasing numbers of people find the city a great place to live.  A brand new 150 unit apartment complex is being built right across the street from Duke Memorial on land that has been neglected four decades.

So we’re having in Jim Harnish to talk with us about the legendary turnaround at Hyde Park, Tampa, we’re having a staff consult with Scot Chrostic of Resurrection Downtown in Kansas City.  We’re talking about the development of two new worship experiences at times other than Sunday morning, we’ve taken out radio ads and put up new signs in our determination to give our church a vibrant future in an urban setting .   Pray that our efforts at Duke Memorial will be fruitful and will play some part in helping United Methodism to learn how to serve Jesus Christ in the middle of the city.

Will Willimon

9 thoughts on “City Churches

  1. I think I know where you are going with this. My only side thought is that we as a connected church need a better bench.

    Maybe our example should be the Green Bay Packers. They had early almost dumb luck success with assembling a team for the ages, and then, just like that were no longer relevant. For twenty years they were lost in a wilderness of “us too” strategies, and if they “just got this one player” they would compete again. Finally when they realized that Green Bay is always going to be the smallest team and because of that they needed to think completely different. Completely different. That’s when you began to hear about Green Bay outside of Wisconsin.

    That is when they decided that they had to build teams composed of multiple layers of players who actually wanted to play football. Players who weren’t worried about how much their pay ranking for that position was, but rather people who are not afraid of playing in frigid snow for what amounts to minimum pay for that position. Playing in a town where they would be loved and forgiven, but also they would held to a higher accountability both by their team and the community they work for(*). Sure they have stars, but the guy standing right behind him is just as talented, and knows that his job is not to take the other guy’s job, but to hold that position at a superior level when the other player has to step aside.

    The result is a team with backup players as good as their “star”ters so that when week 12 rolls around and most teams are banged up and are desperately trying to plug holes, they run into a wall of ready and willing opponents.

    I am not sure how we do this, but we need to be developing talent so that even larger congregations like COR and Ginghamsburg don’t collapse upon themselves if or when dominating personalities like Adam or Mike step aside. Our bench has to be the best. Not the best we can muster. But the best. And a light must shine on them once in a while in order to make sure their polish is intact and ready to be deployed.

    We need to execute a plan that does not worry about how we look in week one of the season, but rather “what do we look like in week fourteen”, and that we have a plan to have the best 24 players in the game on the field on that date. You can only do that if you have a strong bench and a mentality that you will succeed no matter who steps into the light.


    (*) I really wonder if most city-church leadership truly understand their calling. That they are to be as important to the fabric of a community (maybe much more so) than any elected or government official. They “work” and “serve” everyone in their community.

    Kind of how Green Bay embraces it’s roster of players. People of Green Bay know that no matter how short a time a player may be a “Packer”, that the player is dedicated to their town and the town responds in kind (sometimes multiple) to them.

    I wonder how may times a random person in a random town when they run into senior staff of a city-church at a random place like a Walmart would think to themselves “I know that person, they are from the Methodist church downtown”, and I am sure glad they live and work in my town.


  2. If you have worship services at a time other than Sunday morning, I’ll be there! One of my great frustrations has been finding a Methodist service on, say, a Saturday or Sunday afternoon/evening.


  3. This piece mentioned only the numerical growth of the congregation. That numerical growth is attributed to the drawing power of a magnetic, charismatic preacher. In this, the self-agency and personal competencies of the pastor are highlighted; the emphasis is on what the pastor is doing. As a Christian educator, I’m concerned about the self-agency of the people in the pew, and what they are doing. Are they coming simply to “watch” a magnetizing sermon? Or, are they themselves growing in their own self-agency and self-identity, and engaging in fresh forms of face-to-face relational solidarity with working class poor people in their immediate neighborhood and wider environs (and responding not simply through charitable hand-outs, but also in efforts to reduce systemic injustice, such as lack of a living wage and lack of healthcare)?

    I can draw a crowd with pyrotechnics—and here I’m not casting aspersions on the theological integrity of the preacher, for Willimon is one of the best—but the question is, as a result of what happens in worship, is the crowd developing a sense of being a collective people willing and actually able to stand together in the public square and speak Truth to Power? Do the people know and live their baptismal covenant to use the freedom and power God gives them “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”? Are the people equipped with the arts and skills of public life, and do they have the courage, compunction, and capacity to be faithful and effective witnesses in the public and political sphere? Are poor working-class families of Durham better off because this congregation exists? As per their baptismal covenant, is congregational worship and all aspects of congregational life opened up to and inclusive of the ‘full, active, and conscious’ participation of “people of all ages, nations, and races”?

    I don’t automatically celebrate a 30 percent increase in worship attendance because a charismatic preacher is in the pulpit. The standard rhetoric is that people first have to merely show up for anything of theological and biblical significance to happen. Who can argue with that? Yet, for decades, I’ve seen people here in the larger Dallas, Texas area regularly show up in large numbers in prestigious urban and suburban congregations– only to reproduce middle to upper middle class white privilege and status quo societal arrangements decade in and decade out. So what?! And because certain pastors draw crowds and keep ‘em comin’, they get bigger and bigger pulpits and bigger and bigger salaries (and sometimes bigger and bigger egos), while some of the most stunning and transformational forms of ministry are being carried out in smaller neighborhood churches, with diminished numbers of congregants, but who are willing to be down in the trenches with the working class poor and welfare poor. One of the most formidable challenges the church is up against is the illusion that something significant is happening because people have packed themselves into the pews. It’s tough to evangelize people who think they’ve already heard and “gotten’ the Good News and assume they’re engaged in it, when nothing of the sort is actually true.

    I wish Duke Memorial UM Church well, and look forward to keeping up with its ongoing journey of renewal and revitalization.


    1. There’s some good sense here. Of course I really don’t care about United Methodism or any other competitor in the religious market. I’ve been paying attention lately to Paul’s warning that “you come together not for the better but for the worse.” Suzanne is explaining a bit how that can happen.

      Jesus wasn’t interested in religious marketing and institutional self-preservation. In fact, like Gideon he would see that there were too many and say some truth or other to thin them out.


  4. Reblogged this on teddy ray and commented:
    While Bishop Willimon’s blatant consumerist view of the Church is tiresome, he still manages to make some very good points about (once)-large downtown United Methodist churches.


  5. All church declines, happen, in part because of poor leadership and, too often in our system, a string of “bad” appointments. However, in talking about the “comeback” of urban churches, we can’t ignore the suburban sprawl and white flight of the 60’s and 70’s. In the last 10 years there’s been a huge emphasis on urbanization, gentrification, and sustainability. The recession only accelerated it because folks have realized we need strong and sustainable urban cores where people live AND work. Driving an hour from your 3,000 sq ft home in the burbs, each way, ultimately is unsustainable. Urbanization is happening all over the country, and certainly sounds like is happening in Durham. I don’t mean to take credit from strong pastoral leadership and great preaching, no church will grow without those, but the urbanization/gentrification factors play a huge role here. We also need to be cautious when talking about “destination” churches in downtown and urban areas. The folks who are revitalizing and living in our urban cores are highly suspect of anything “big box” or “attractional,” destination churches smack of the suburbs and all things unsustainable. If you want deep and authentic roots in the community, your historic/urban congregation needs to become a part of the community and culture, and that will mean spending a lot of time outside of the building and supporting all things local. (FYI- I’m an urban church planter in downtown Phoenix, AZ)


  6. Actually the revitalization of Duke Memorial began when a few SPRC members read your and Bob Wilson’s book, “Rekindling the Flame” in the late 1980s. They persuaded the SPRC, the Trustees and the Administrative Board to cut the senior pastor’s salary, ask for the two or three associate pastors to be moved and to sell the personages for the associate pastors. The resulting younger pastor emphasized children, music and mission. With the extra funds from freeing themselves of the associates and their parsonages, the church hired a very young minister of music and a lay member with a Ph.D. in childhood education. In two years, a new sense of renewal resulted in plans to build a Habitat house, to remodel the offices and library, and to ask for an associate to focus on discipleship and evangelism. Even as the membership rolls were purged, worship attendance grew and new younger members joined.


  7. One thing I see lacking in these comments is what the church’s purpose is for that community. I have seen a lack of congregational care, out reach inside as well as outside the church and too much emphasis on how fancy the worship service is rather than getting to know the people who attend the service. You can have the younger ministers who might attract new younger families, but lets not forget the older crowd either. After all in many cases the older crowd is what made the church thrive in the first place and are most likely the biggest financial supporters of the church.
    I do agree that good leadership is vital, but at the same time the church needs to recognize that if the leadership is bad, it time to bite the bullet and replace them as soon as possible. Bad leadership can destroy a once thriving church in a matter of years. I have seen this myself.


  8. So just like Jesus said, the important thing is for people to drive past all the other gatherings of disciples and join yours.

    This will, however, be stressful for the pastor, because it means looking over his/her shoulder, watching to see if the Presbyterians (perish the thought!) get a slightly better preacher. Worry, constantly, about hitting a dry spot –and if that happens, you’ll be sorely tempted to borrow a few paragraphs from Tom Long, after all, the preaching’s the thing. So go ahead. Luckily, preaching is a talent that has remarkably little to do with spiritual depth. You just have to be a good writer with a little personal charisma. Throw in some community organizing skills and you’ll be golden. You’ll feel so successful you won’t even have to consider the condition of your own soul. You’ll be too busy! And here’s a word of advice, avoid downtown clergy gatherings unless you can be sure you’re the most clever person in the room, otherwise, they’ll just get you down. Don’t ever stop comparing your church to the others, because that will bring you peace.

    Competition is the thing. And your goal is to stay on top.


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