September 5, 2023
Observation, interpretation and intervention are key to revitalizing our big downtown churches
Nearly 50 years ago, the authors of “What’s Ahead for Old First Church” examined the strengths and weaknesses of these anchor institutions. The lessons are surprisingly relevant today.
Years ago, Ken faced a struggle in the downtown church where he was serving as a young associate pastor. On a return visit to Duke Divinity School, he described the dilemma to Robert Wilson, an approachable and curious member of the faculty.
Wilson listened, paused and then began to talk about a book he had co-written in 1974 called “What’s Ahead for Old First Church.” It draws on a three-year study of more than 300 downtown congregations in more than 100 cities.
“You know, that book has sold and sold and sold!” he said with a smile.
The question at the heart of the book, published almost 50 years ago, remains: What is the future for “First Churches” — those anchor institutions in our cities? Ken returned to the book amid the pandemic and was struck by how much in it still resonates today.
How do you know whether your congregation is a First Church? (Keep in mind that a First Church might be called Central or Trinity or be named for one of the saints.)
These institutions are often described with three words: quality, prestige and leadership. The book notes several signs of an Old First Church:
- Is an easily recognized urban landmark.
- Is a symbol of its denomination.
- Is a symbol of the role that religion plays in a city.
- Is instrumental in giving birth to new churches.
- Is known for excellence in worship and music.
- Counts among its membership persons of affluence.
There are also some less research-based signs: Does your church have a wall dedicated to 8-by-10 photos of pastors past? Do you have a ceramics room, complete with kiln and ceramic figurines? Do you find yourself talking about a nostalgic past, when the congregation carried more influence? If so, you might be a First Church.
For those of us who regard the downtown big-steeple church of 50 years ago as the height of the mainline, it’s important to note that the book also points to these traits of an Old First Church:
- Is in decline.
- Is surrounded by change.
- Has deferred maintenance.
- Has more money than people (although that may be in question).
- Has leadership in denial about the trends.
- Yearns for a pastor who can recapture the glory of former times.
Wilson and his co-author, Ezra Earl Jones, are clear about the problem: “A large number of Old First Churches are rapidly approaching a crisis point.” We were surprised to see this — 50 years ago, these churches were in crisis?
This runs against the grain of a common narrative, which sees a generation ago as the era of glory and success. Many of the artifacts displayed in First Churches reinforce such a perception; they hold up the past by honoring an influential pastor or lay leader, a very large Sunday School class or youth group, and evidence of their former position of prominence in the community.
We can only imagine that the book sold so much because it identifies the paralyzing tension that many First Churches find themselves facing — then and now. They must honor and maintain the church of the past for longtime members while also creating a new church with new people to continue the gospel message of Jesus.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention. The authors of “What’s Ahead for Old First Church” engaged in this kind of exercise, and our own congregations merit the same intentional process.
First Churches often have long histories and complex narratives. At the same time, they might have a propensity to oversimplify what is going on — whether within their buildings, among their people or in their surroundings.
A more nuanced observation helps us understand the multilayered context in which these churches are located. Cities are contested spaces; denominations are themselves a changing landscape; workforces are departing from commercial centers and in different ways returning to them; and the nature of work, gathering and spirituality are being revised by digital access and experience.
Observation leads to interpretation. A deep practice of interpretation involves multiple conversation partners — often drawn from fields as diverse as urban planning, economic development and community organizing.
Ken often asks leaders of these churches, “Whom are you learning from?” A church in Miami can learn from a church in San Antonio, and the same church in Miami can facilitate learning with a church in Los Angeles.
After that groundwork, intervention is crucial. The absence of an intervention can be a kind of work avoidance or even a failure of nerve.
First UMC in Miami is one example of a church that was willing to live through a necessary change. Audrey led a multiyear reinvention of the church and has lived the book’s question.
What resulted flowed from the iterative process of observation (what was going on within and around First UMC Miami), interpretation (what was needed in the next generations among the dynamic mission field surrounding the church), and intervention (the destruction of what had been, the migration of worship to a new setting for over three years, and the design and creation of a new structure with expanded purposes and partnerships).
First UMC Miami wrestled with the question, “What’s ahead?” and came up with an answer. Other First Churches need to do the same for themselves. The answer to the question is unique to each geographical context, each collection of leaders and each congregational history.
What’s ahead for Old First Church? Our conversations with lay and clergy leaders convince us that this remains a crucial question. Yet we believe in those institutions. They can thrive — if they have the courage to embrace and honor the past while building a pathway toward the future that God dreams about for vital churches in living communities.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention.