What happens when an ‘Old First Church’ needs to change?

First United Methodist Church of Miami was Audrey’s second pastoral appointment. She left a deeply challenging and meaningful missional ministry in South Miami to come to the big, shiny downtown church and find some rest, security and stability. She thought.

It didn’t take long to notice that the exterior cross was not shiny but rusty, the roof was leaking, and the sanctuary pulpit had been eroded by termites. The building maintenance list was twice as long as the hospital visit list. So much for rest!

This is the reality of most of our beloved “Old First Churches.” Because First Churches — often, the first of their denominations to be established in a city — are in strategic locations and have significant influence, they have long drawn the attention of observers.

In 1974, Ezra Earl Jones and Robert Wilson wrote a book titled “What’s Ahead for Old First Church?” In their research, they focused on the role of the downtown church in the civic, religious and social life of a city, region and denomination. They noted a number of common traits of Old First Churches — quality, prestige and leadership.

And yet reading their work almost 50 years later, we were struck by the undeniable sense that already in the early ’70s the Old First Church was in decline.

The disestablishment of mainline religion was underway; the function of downtown areas was shifting, especially as the suburbs were growing; and the aberrant patterns of convergent and cohesive communities that had occurred in the post-World War II 1950s were giving way to divergent patterns of social life.

Audrey’s church fit this model, which we included in our 2020 book, “Fresh Expressions of People Over Property.” First UMC Miami’s history is deeply linked to its origins as a downtown church with multiple locations, narratives and identities.

Miami is magical, especially at night. This was not the case 126 years ago, when First United Methodist Church was birthed. The location on the Miami River had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans and had been visited by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s; the city itself was incorporated in 1896.

At that time, it wasn’t much of a city, comprising wooden structures, mangrove trees and mud. Many of our early members imagined more; the people who built the city were also the founders of White Temple ME Church (in the northern faction of the Methodist Episcopal denomination) and Trinity ME Church South (in the southern one).

historic postcards
Postcards of The White Temple Methodist Church and Trinity Methodist Church in Miami, Florida. The two congregations later merged to become First United Methodist Church of Miami.

Both churches started in houseboats, then upgraded to buildings and eventually erected their sunbathed sanctuaries just two blocks from one another. The churches had been in their new downtown buildings only about 20 years when the northern and southern Methodists reunited.

Although the two churches were now under the same denominational umbrella and less than a mile apart, they never spoke of merging — they were too big. The growth continued until the ’60s and ’70s. But perhaps spurred by a damaging fire at White Temple, the two churches merged in 1966, meeting at the Trinity campus for several years before constructing a new building on Biscayne Boulevard, completed in 1981.

White flight continued, and by the ’90s, most mainline churches in Miami had lost 50% of their membership. Many wondered what was ahead.

Urban theorist Richard Florida has noted that suburbanization “accentuated [the] fissure of urban areas into separate zones for working and living.” Many of our downtown structures were defined and built for an earlier way of life. But church leaders were slow to adapt to change.

Still, adaptation would come. Many downtown churches simply followed their people to the suburbs; as we know, systemic racism was and is a factor in real estate markets.

Alongside the change came a nostalgia for the past — when sanctuaries and Sunday school classes were filled with people, when prominent preachers held esteemed positions in the community, when political and civic leaders of influence sat in the pews and were active as members.

This selective memory does harm to leadership in the present, lowering morale and increasing anxiety and stress.

When Audrey arrived as pastor of FUMC Miami in 2015, some members still identified themselves as “Templers” or “Trinity.” Many carried with them the nostalgia and prestige passed on to them by the ancestors who had built the city and had stayed when so many others left.

Not all were longtime locals, of course. The faithful folks she inherited were from more than 25 countries around the world, and they also embraced FUMC’s identity “in the heart of the city with the city in its heart.”

The men’s group started a powerful ministry with the unhoused. Many members started tutoring at local elementary schools. The church became a leader in Miami’s People Acting for Community Together and took on many social issues downtown. FUMC’s music was far from contemporary, and its sanctuary bore no screens, but each year new people trickled into the church.

Like many bighearted downtown churches across the country, First UMC found that love was not enough to pay the bills and do new things. Solutions such as budget cuts and renting out space helped for only so long. The church was looking at half a million dollars in upgrades, such as improving bathrooms and organ pipes — expenditures that were necessary but did not bring in new people.

For many churches, large property decisions arise from two main drivers: declaration and desperation. First UMC was motivated by both.

The congregation wanted to stay downtown to declare the gospel and serve the homeless. They also were becoming desperate. Audrey spent her first few months at FUMC crunching numbers. How much square footage was used for ministry? How many of the top 25 givers were over 65? (Answer: too many.)

The questions and the data led to a decision: They had to do something.

How could First UMC remain an Old First Church, willing to understand its past and appreciate its traditions, yet discern what in all of that could be released and repurposed for mission in a changed landscape?

The church formed an exploratory development committee, which created a plan and process to partner with a developer. It then sold a little over an acre to a developer who is building two towers on the property. The church will occupy 20,000 square feet on a corner of one building, and the rest of the building will have 696 microunit apartments, 40 of which will be used as a hotel. The second tower will be residential.

The income received from the sale is being used to buy and build the church’s portion of one building. The rest will be in an endowment to fund the church in perpetuity.

The vision is to have a hub in downtown and spokes in the city. The spokes will be created by the missional and faith needs in their locations, such as a new brunch church directed toward the LGBTQ community or missional ministry with veterans.

FUMC of Miami does not want to stop following God where God might lead them now that they are building a beautiful home. Each year, they’re working to live into a new future for their beloved — new — First Church.

When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations of all sizes overwhelmingly embraced virtual services to ensure that they stayed connected with their members and communities. Recent research suggests that this shift to technology is here to stay.

It was only a few years ago that online church and the adoption of digital technology ranked last among pastors’ concerns, as evidenced in Barna’s State of the Church 2020 research.

The yearlong project, which launched Feb. 3, 2020, with the release of a report on pastors’ concerns, revealed that “challenges to the traditional church model (e.g., house churches, online churches)” ranked next-to-last, at 21st, for respondents, while “keeping up with the latest digital and technological trends” ranked last, at 22nd.

Of the 547 pastors surveyed, only 11% and 7%, respectively, rated those issues as “concerns facing the Christian church in the U.S. today.”

“The pandemic forced a seismic paradigm shift for most pastors,” said Nona Jones, who is chief content and partnerships officer for the online Bible platform YouVersion and also co-leads the Open Door Ministries church in Gainesville, Florida.

Jones is among numerous congregational leaders and researchers who are convinced that the hybrid offering of church services will be a lasting model.

“I believe the digital church is definitely here to stay,” Jones said. “Churches continue to livestream at unprecedented levels, and they are using digital connection platforms like never before.”

Early findings from a more recent Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) survey support that trend, according to Scott Thumma, the principal investigator for the project, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

“When asked if they will continue to do hybrid worship five years from now, we’re still seeing a pretty consistent number of churches — about 80% — who say they will,” Thumma said. “Based on about 2,000 responses we have received so far, nearly everyone who is doing hybrid worship plans to continue to do hybrid worship.”

Developing a strategy for church growth through online engagement

In the face of declining church membership, online engagement may provide a path for churches to continue their impact — and growth.

According to initial EPIC study findings, churches experienced a 12% decline in attendance during the two-year period from 2019 to 2021. In comparison, U.S. congregations had experienced a five-year median attendance decline of 7% pre-pandemic, according to the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey.

However, the 2019-2021 decline was not experienced across the board. Just over a third of churches did report a decline of 25% or more in attendance. But looking more closely, 15% reported stable attendance, and 28% of congregations actually experienced growth.

The mode of worship delivery made a significant difference. Churches that met only in person saw a decline of 15.7%; those that met only online, 7.3%. But congregations offering hybrid services showed overall growth of 4.5%.

“It’s pretty clear that the pandemic has shifted human behavior and social organizations,” Thumma said. “We see it in restaurants, movie theaters, … in every aspect of our lives. So it’s not surprising that churches feel that as well.”

According to John D. Witvliet, the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, which regularly hosts conferences for hundreds of congregational leaders, many pastors are increasingly conveying that they are seeking ways to use technology to cultivate deeper relationships, participation and overall engagement.

“It’s one thing for a congregation to livestream a service or event to a largely passive audience,” he said. “But it’s another to have a congregation actively seek to engage people through a Zoom chat, an email exchange or a phone call after they’ve just watched a service. We have definitely noticed churches are engaged in all kinds of experiments on how to enhance and deepen engagement.”

Witvliet said that many of the pastors he interacted with during recent conferences were hopeful about the positive impact they could make on people’s lives through a hybrid church experience.

When considering a plan to build a stronger online church experience, Jones said, it is important to move forward strategically and prayerfully.

“An online church should be approached with as much planning and consideration as you would approach launching a new physical church,” she said. “I often joke that you wouldn’t launch a physical campus out of the blue one day — see a ‘For Sale’ sign and buy the building and have a church service that night.

“You would prayerfully think about where you want to open the location, then once that is decided, you would probably start embedding yourself in that area of town — getting to know the neighborhood and business community,” she said. “You would then raise or allocate funds to get a solid staff in place to serve the new congregation and have that team begin inviting people to your launch service.”

The same intentional approach should be taken for a digital ministry, Jones said.

The Rev. Laura Edgar said she’s long had the intention of holding conversations with her church’s neighbors at nearby Auburn University. But only recently has she learned the language and skills to do that, said Edgar, the associate pastor for youth, college and young adults at Auburn First Baptist Church.

The key, she said, is “to learn what the needs truly are, and not what we think the needs are.”

Edgar’s congregation is one of 16 to take part in The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing at the Intersection of Church and University. The program invites congregations close to college campuses that are ready and willing to build or expand relationships with their campus communities into a two-year process of congregational reflection, listening and discernment.

There are about 20 million college students across the United States, and about 5,000 churches located within 2 miles of a campus. We believe that in bringing these two communities together, the torn fabric of American life can begin to be rewoven by forming healthy human beings serving the common good in the likeness of Christ.

In 2021, the college ministry Mere Christianity Forum launched The Vinery to build connections between churches and universities with a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving Congregations Initiative.

The Vinery does not focus primarily on college ministry programming or increasing attendance numbers of young people in Sunday worship. We do hope that these are manifestations of the inner work of the congregations. But before that work can begin, we invite congregations to practice deep listening.

Why deep listening? Deep listening, in simple terms, is intentionally hearing the needs and interests of others and taking them seriously. It involves listening to what is said and what is not said.

At our 2023 annual Vinery gathering, the Rev. Judy Peterson offered some guidelines. Deep listening is more than being present, having good body language and hearing what others are saying, she said. It entails exhibiting a generosity that invites speakers to talk to us from their hearts — and does not send them signals that we only have time for a summary.

We begin by asking participants to explore how they are listening to God, themselves, their congregations and their campuses. Then we ask how listening more intentionally might help them become better neighbors to the young adults, staff, administrators, faculty and alumni near them. Through their listening process, congregations can learn of needs they hadn’t anticipated or sense a call to people they hadn’t noticed.

As our first group of congregations finishes its first year, this emphasis on deep listening has made a remarkable difference.

The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan of United Church of Gainesville in Gainesville, Florida, said that people have started showing up in her office to talk over concerns about issues on campus and their sense of inadequacy in the face of overwhelming student need.

“Slowly, through deep listening, a nascent vision of what ministry alongside our university neighbors could be is beginning to emerge,” McCleneghan said.

Deep listening entails building relationships and allowing our learnings to guide strategic and ministry plans, rather than showing up with agendas preset by boards and councils.

Granted, it’s easier to plan a pizza party at the church than to commit to regularly eating in the student dining hall. It takes less effort to build a ministry program from a list of suggestions than to take time to learn what people really want.

But when congregations really listen to their collegiate neighbors, they can serve them better. One Vinery congregation heard from students that buying textbooks was a financial burden; the church created a fund to help them. In another congregation, young adults are finding companionship with a small group of octogenarians who drink tea and knit on Friday afternoons.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.

McCleneghan in Gainesville said the conversations she’s had have inspired her to take that next step.

“It’s not what I anticipated, but it certainly feels important. Deep listening is allowing me and the other lead team members to hear God calling us to some new thing,” she said.

McCleneghan said she has scheduled a meeting to talk with the folks showing up in her office and sending her texts — an event that will be “just the next stage of this unfolding conversation.”

Peterson, in her address to the annual Vinery gathering, said that a deep listening practice isn’t just for specific occasions or meetings; how we listen — or fail to listen — in the everyday, mundane moments of our lives creates our listening habits.

The Rev. Elexis Wilson, the pastor at Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomington, Illinois, said at the gathering that we have to discipline ourselves not to mentally multitask by thinking about what’s next or how we might fix the problem at hand: “Many times, the task is to just listen.”

For Wilson, whose father was a pastor, this practice has particular meaning.

“I do not think I am ever listened to without [listeners] looking for the end game,” she said. “As a preacher’s kid, I felt like there was no genuine want to know my thoughts unless they wanted something from my father or were being paid. Nobody naturally would sit and hear me.”

Deep listening is vital to The Vinery’s process. It requires that we be intentional about prioritizing listening, even when it’s inconvenient.

Can we teach ourselves not to answer the phone when we’re distracted? Can we avoid thinking about laundry or clicking on Facebook during Zoom meetings? Can we learn to say, “I’d like to hear what you’re saying, but now is not a good time — could we schedule a conversation later, when we both can focus?”

How do we listen, not only to our congregations, campuses and constituencies, but also to our co-laborers? How might our deep listening make us better disciples, colleagues, leaders and friends?

Yes, it feels terribly inefficient. Yet I know that for my life as a disciple — as well as for congregations — it’s crucial. May we help people know that they are cared for and listened to — by us and by God.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.


Until the early 2000s, traditional American churches mimicked the communication that congregants saw in their everyday lives. Like businesses and other organizations, churches used a top-down, factory model: leaders dictated communication needs, and workers used technology to produce documents and share them through the community’s delivery system.

Technology has changed that. Since the turn of the current century, new technological options have exploded — both for creation and for distribution. Other institutions have generally adapted to this new shift in communication challenges and needs.

No longer does the audience rely on one channel or platform — newsletter, email, social media, website — to receive information, and no longer does it want that to look a specific and fabricated way. The audience welcomes creativity and individualized messages.

And perhaps most significant, the audience looks for community and enhanced relationships through the delivery platforms. While people have more channels and messages than ever, that does not guarantee deep human connection.

If the church wants to connect with its congregation and community, then congregational leaders must learn modern communication strategies. They must be user-focused, employing a variety of channels, and must be creative, flexible and collaborative.

We should not treat church communication as something that one person handles for the church, nor should we treat it as just about disseminating information.

Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships. Communication platforms and channels do not exist to replace in-person conversations, but they should point congregants toward these experiences. The desired outcome is always real-life engagement within a communal body of Christ.

Fortunately, congregational leaders understand connection through communication. Every week, they tell stories from the pulpit and in classes and other settings. Even Scripture reminds us of the importance of story: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

However, it is not enough to be a good preacher or group leader or to write a great column these days. A lousy communication system has felled many good ministers.

Despite the ever-changing technology landscape, best practices do exist, and every institution should have a few overall guidelines in place for effective and thoughtful communication. Here are some suggestions for establishing a church communication strategy.

Remember that content is king. This means that your message — the who, what, when, where, why and how — is always more important than the channel or design. And brevity is crucial.

Understand the effect of the congregational leader’s relationship to the audience. When the leader cares for the audience, the audience cares about what the leader has to say. The most effective communication strategy cannot hide a leader’s true feelings; in fact, a failed communication system often highlights disregard, thoughtlessness or lack of engagement.

Use multiple channels. Do not rely on just one outlet; use as many channels as possible, but tailor the message — and its design — to the form that works best for each channel.

One common example of a disconnect between message design and delivery channel is a print newsletter that is emailed as a PDF attachment. A print newsletter is intended to be held and read in your hands; an email is designed to be read on a digital device. Sending a printed piece as an email attachment may be a convenience for the staff, but it’s a hindrance for the audience.

Limit insider language. Often, church communication includes abbreviations, partial information or references to previously mentioned news. All of this, unfortunately, implies that some of the audience is knowledgeable and the rest is out of the loop. It feels exclusive, and instead of encouraging people to become more informed, it turns them away.

Another form of insider language is a focus solely on events. Leaders may neglect to tell the stories, trials, joys and journeys of the faith community because they forget that not everyone has lived those experiences with them. But when churches share only programming, they lose the opportunity to connect, be personable and provide entry points for those who would like to join in.

Develop staff, volunteer and community communication policies. While templates do exist, it is best to create these collaboratively and to include different audience members.

A social media policy, for example, should be designed with staff, lay leader, congregational and community input. An 80-year-old in the congregation cannot alone determine what is acceptable on Snapchat for a 25-year-old youth minister whose audience has particular expectations, norms and rules. However, the wisdom of the elder is useful, and the younger minister could benefit by creating the policy in collaboration with such audience representatives.

This focus on the audience — often described as “user-centered” — is a crucial element to successful communication. The primary way to understand the audience is to solicit feedback.

Feedback could be in the form of surveys, metrics, and analytics provided by digital channels, social media engagement, and informal and formal conversations. The goal of feedback is to learn which channels to use for various communication needs and how the audience accepts them.

Ideally, congregational leadership will talk about communication policy goals in person and online with the congregation and enfold this conversation into elements of community worship. Together, you can determine your particular concerns and focus on how the congregation can be more involved and engaged with one another and the online community.

What permissions and freedoms does the congregation need to give to the ministers? How can you set guidelines and boundaries for yourself and all congregants, including the children? How can you make sure your messaging is accessible to people of different abilities?

Using as many channels as possible, congregational leaders can ask how effective their church communication is, whether people feel informed, and how the church can do better. In this way, they may reach even the “nones” and “dones” of religious faith. The landscape of modern communication allows for even more opportunities for evangelism and relationships if leaders navigate these platforms with open minds.

Seek out examples of successful church communication strategies in your community. Finally, take a moment to look at a successfully communicating church — perhaps the megachurch nearest you. Visit their website, sign up for their e-newsletter, like their Facebook page, get on their mailing list and watch their YouTube videos. Visit their church on a Sunday morning, observing the way they engage visitors.

Most likely, you’ll find that they won’t shout about upcoming events; instead, they will convey a purpose. They won’t advertise services; instead, they will connect relationships. They won’t confuse people with insider language; they will assume that everyone is new and needs help. It will be apparent that their reason for reaching out is not attendance at the latest program but a desire for the audience to feel known.

Study them, not for their worship style, theological perspective or facility arrangements. Instead, learn how they use communication styles in the 21st century to reach and connect with their audience. Any 150-year-old congregation can do the same without changing its worship elements, theology or traditional facilities. It is communication strategy that can make the biggest impact.

Want to learn more?

Background articles

Pew Research Center: “10 Facts About Americans and Facebook” 

The New York Times Magazine: “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”

Marketing Teacher.com: “The Six Living Generations in America”

World Religion News: “You’ve Heard of the Religious ‘Nones’; Here Are the Religious ‘Dones’”

Interaction Design Foundation: “What Are Personas?”


“The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World,” by Max Fisher

“Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” by Roger McNamee


Vox: “Land of the Giants”
Crooked Media: “Offline With Jon Favreau”
Center for Humane Technology: “Your Undivided Attention”
The Verge: “Decoder with Nilay Patel”


Michael Wesch: “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”
TED: “Clay Shirky: Institutions vs. Collaboration”

Websites and resources

Church Marketing Sucks (archive)

Digital Congregations

Humane Tech Community

Pew Research Center — Internet & Technology

Ultimately, the goal of communication should be to enable and encourage real-life experiences and relationships.