Cautionary Photographs: the Demise of City Churches

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about some of the things I’m learning as Pastor of Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, NC.  I noted that this congregation is making a valiant effort to have a future.  If we succeed (and the past few weeks have been indeed fruitful and rewarding) we may join a very special group – once large urban United Methodist churches who have a future.  As I noted, United Methodism has closed thousands of city congregations that thrived only a few decades ago.  Why?  The reasons are many, but a basic reason is that somehow United Methodism, as we have practiced and administered our church in ways that were detrimental to countless city congregations.

If you have the courage, click on the images at the Huffington Post site at  There you will see a host of images of now closed, abandoned congregations.  One of my best students, a former attorney, has one of the appalling images of Gary, Indiana First UMC as her wallpaper on her computer.  She intends to keep this image ever before her as she prepares for ministry in the UMC.  I believe that one reason God may be calling her is to do a better job of leading these fragile, essential congregations than we led them in our time.

I know nothing about Gary, Indiana UMC except that I’m sure the Bishop and Conference made a string of unwise decisions about the pastoral leadership of Gary First UMC.  I’m sure that those well-meaning pastors had no training, or were unable or unwilling to get training, to lead an urban church in decline.  Look upon these images of a church of Christ that is now abandoned by Christ and by those for whom Christ died and weep.

When Adam Hamilton gave the General Conference a powerful video in which a faithful woman walked us through a big, beautiful city church that was closing – in the dramatic last image, she locked the door and walked away from an empty church, the General Conference reacted in anger and denial.  A consortium of groups and delegates led us in a complete denial and repudiation of the message of the video – change or die.  The video was the highlight of the last General Conference; the reaction to the video was the most frightening moment in GC.

I’m going to ask the leaders of Duke Memorial UMC to dare to look at these pictures and to ask ourselves questions like, “Are we making bad decisions in our day, are we avoiding risks and using too much caution, that might one day lead to the abandonment of this treasure that has been given to our stewardship?”  Sobering questions.  But utterly essential if our church is to have a faithful future.  General Conference, our Boards and Agencies, have no resources for facing the challenge God is setting before us in our city churches.  I believe that Duke Memorial Church has been given the spiritual resources to enable our church to thrive into the future – but it will not be without risk and hard work.

The first step in finding solutions, in becoming more faithful, is telling the truth.  These pictures of once great churches tell the truth we’ve been avoiding.  Fortunately, Jesus Christ is not only the Way, and the Life, but also the Truth.

Will Willimon

3 thoughts on “Cautionary Photographs: the Demise of City Churches

  1. See churches heal and come to health is a harder task than planting new ones – and while it has its challenges – it always has moments that are simply overflowing with tears of joy and awe at Go’s work.

    It is worth it – God doesn’t give up on a place where He put His Holy Name because it reached the end of a cycle. But it does take us to look at the church and why it sits where it is – a place of snactuary, a place where broken people find healing, a place where Christ is known and revealed to people.

    May our churches, Methodist or Lutheran, Catholic or Baptist, Non-denom or Presbyterian, comtinue to minister to the baptized and unbaptized alike!

    Thank you Bishop!


  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your question, “Are we making bad decisions in our day, are we avoiding risks…” and share your implicit passion. What I don’t share is your tactic for asking the question. We don’t rally the troops…uh…inspire disciples…by scaring them with the Gospel According to Statistics: “Look at these photos. We’re pretty much in the same boat, by virtue of the fact that we’ve been in decline as a denomination for over 40 years. We’re shrinking. We’re less relevant. We make bad decisions. Come and join us.” We can talk all day about shrinking numbers and statistics…or we can talk about the Good News. I share your passion, by the way. I love my church. I want it to grow and thrive. I fight daily against discouragement, despair, and apathy. But I will not use doom and gloom to get my point across. There’s plenty of that in the secular world.


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