The church isn’t dying. It’s being remade

Picture this: An old church is now a cafe. From 9 to 5, it serves coffee, cakes and sandwiches in the historic hallowed space, with light streaming through the stained glass. Young people with piercings serve chai and lattes to customers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Then, on a Sunday evening, with the smell of coffee still in the air, people gather around tables to talk about justice and economics and to question the role faith plays in their lives.

It’s not a secret: the way we church is changing. Yet many of our structures and systems and ways of doing church still hang on a model from another era. Modern life is different. Work is different; dating, community life, technology — they’re all different. So shouldn’t church be different as well?

This is a question I’ve been asking for nearly 30 years. Perhaps it started when I took my college friend Kim home with me one Easter. When we went to church, everyone else got dressed up, but Kim just had jeans. Afterward, she said that while her experience in church had been nice in some ways, she had felt like a fish out of water.

After college, I had friends who were longing for conversations about meaning and purpose — but church was the last place they would look for such discussions.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked to create communities that offer space for deep relationships and deep questions while at the same time serving people less fortunate than ourselves. I’ve tried a lot of experiments, building the road as I’ve walked it.

In turbulent times, we look for the safe harbor, the thing that doesn’t change, to help us stay grounded. For the church, I believe that the gospel — not the form of church — is that thing.

As new forms of mission and ministry are taking shape, this is a moment of hope as well as pain. Just like the messy but beautiful process of giving birth, the re-imagining of the landscape of the church is an intricate dance of pain and promise.

There’s always a risk when we step into the new. We have to let go of something to make room for fresh things. Isn’t this a hallmark of the Lord’s leading? There is an invitation to trust. We don’t have to have it all buttoned up and figured out before we step out.

As someone who has lived and worked on the margins of the institutional church for decades, I am grateful, proud and optimistic when I see all the vibrant initiatives that are taking root. It is clear this is no longer a fad of the 90s.

You don’t have to look far to see breweries and bakeries popping up in restored church properties or in new monastic communities. Just look around and you will find kitchen table entrepreneurs putting idle church kitchens into service, using food to address loneliness and food insecurity. Churches are also leveraging their land to meet the needs of their neighbors with efforts such as affordable housing, senior communities and new economic development.

These new models are creating jobs, community and new financial futures for congregations. But they’re also showing the world a dynamic church, transforming the lives of people and the community around them. To me, that looks like the gospel in action.

If you are in a church longing to see something new, how do you know where to start?

  • Don’t look back. When I travel, I’m often struck by the way that people in other countries seem to be looking ahead, looking forward. I find that in the U.S. and Europe we tend to look back to the “good old days.” This is not a time to look back but rather a time to look ahead and embrace the future.
  • Lament. You do need to grieve what is being lost. The ability to grieve well is a signature gift of those with Christian faith. After all, we believe in a gospel of death and resurrection.
  • Experiment. When you try new things, hold them lightly. If you want to do something with food, host a farmers market or a pop-up restaurant, but do it once or twice before making further plans and see what you learn. If you know a lot of people working from home, try a work-from-church day. As you set off to do some experiments, it is helpful to embrace a theology of enough and to approach it as a learning exercise.
  • Serve. It is important to adopt an attitude of service and to make justice a priority. This starts by really seeing others, loving others and understanding the challenges they face. Launch a listening tour in which you ask questions, listen deeply and find out from your neighbors what they need most. Then start right there! It will lead you to bigger systemic issues, and you’ll be able to approach that complex work grounded in the experiences of those most directly affected.
  • Be open to surprise. We know that the ways of God are not our ways. After all, God came to us as an infant and not as someone in power. Be ready to be surprised — and to surprise your community — by doing something new. The church is turning up and creating impact in ways that are unexpected.

I use the acronym BLESS to teach these five steps: Don’t Look Back, Lament, Experiment, Serve, Surprise.

The world hasn’t been expecting the church to radically create affordable housing, provide for those exiting prison, offer services for seniors, etc. To be honest, a lot of people see the church as an in-group seeking to push its own agenda. But that isn’t our story.

Churches becoming pubs and cafes and new housing developments? I say yes, because it is all part of the church becoming new. We can repurpose our sacred buildings so they can shimmer with hope and justice for all.


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The formerly enslaved artisans who constructed First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, sometime after the Civil War didn’t use nails. Metal was expensive and often hard to come by for Black builders less than a generation from bondage.

The Rev. Alexander McBride, First African’s senior pastor, explained how the laborers built the church in Gothic Revival style, noted for its signature pointed arches and windows. The current building replaced an antebellum praise house, an open one-room clapboard space with little furniture so the enslaved could engage in a more mobile, joyful service removed from white surveillance and sit-quiet worship styles.

First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina
First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, was constructed by master craftsmen more than a century ago.

“They used the mortise-and-tenon method, where they interlock the wood. And this church has withstood every hurricane” that has rolled through the coastal city, said McBride, the 16th pastor at First African in its more than 150 years of existence.

And there have been many storms. An 1893 hurricane drowned many of the town’s Black residents, stranded in low-lying areas or swept to their deaths. But even that massive storm didn’t cause significant damage to the church, thanks to the unnamed craftsmen who may have lacked nails but had possessed the skill and wisdom to use the strongest joint known to woodworkers.

The church’s biggest current enemies are time, termites (which have eaten their way through some of the structure’s undercarriage) and moisture — largely unavoidable menaces for a century-old building in a humid seaside town.

Earlier this year, First African was among dozens of historically Black churches to win grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Those monies, through the Preserving Black Churches initiative — $4 million in this funding cycle — will support projects that recast their sites’ history through new interpretation or exhibits, grow capacity through staff hires and community outreach, and repair aging or damaged buildings.

Diversity of spaces

The grantees highlight the diversity of Black worship spaces and the history of how Black Americans have fought for religious freedom and built their own institutions amid racism and violence. They include institutions such as 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which just marked 60 years since the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls and damaged the church; the elegant Black-majority Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia; one-room churches built by hand and heart; and churches in places with historically small Black populations, such as Alaska and West Virginia.

Two images side by side, one of a brick church steeple, one of a white basilica
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, (left) and Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, are both grant recipients.

“Black churches are living testaments to the achievements and resiliency of generations in the face of a racialized, inequitable society,” said Tiffany Tolbert, the Action Fund’s senior director for preservation. “They’re foundational to our Black religious, political, economic and social life.”

In some places, a church is the only building that remains as an artifact of a Black community that no longer exists. Scotland AME Zion Church in Potomac, Maryland, not far from the nation’s capital, is one such example from a community swallowed by encroaching development and urban sprawl.

Religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln once described the Black church as the unchallenged “cultural womb of the Black community.” Fellowship halls and sanctuaries in Black churches have long functioned as multipurpose rooms, where worship and politics meet. Churches like Beaufort’s First African have been incubators for Black social enterprise; during Reconstruction, First African was the site of a school for freed people, hungry for the literacy denied them during slavery.

Numerous historically Black colleges, civil rights protests and social movements trace their origins to Black pulpits and pews. Preserving church spaces can thus have a multiplying effect, documenting as well the stories of Black communities at large and the work of Black architects, artisans and mutual aid.

Worthy of preservation

It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?

Image of a church made with stone bricks
Design features of the Halltown Memorial Chapel are tangible history of the people who worshipped there.

That’s the case with the Halltown Memorial Chapel, built in 1901 not far from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown and his band of brigands in 1859 had raided an arsenal in hopes of ending slavery. The one-room chapel is small, only about 40 feet by 50 feet, with room for 13 pews. It was built of rubble stone by church members, stone masons and laborers who also constructed a nearby turnpike or worked at the local paper mill, which has since closed. Services continued there for decades, only ceasing after World War II because of a dwindling congregation. After that, it hosted the occasional gathering until its last event — a wedding of one of the founders’ descendants — in 1988.

Kim Lowry, the treasurer of the Halltown Chapel Memorial Association, cataloged the many repairs needed via email. “Water damage from a hole in the roof and from water seeping in under the foundation was the culprit. And without regular events or services, the chapel suffered from neglect. The plaster walls needed to be rehabilitated, the flooring had rotted and deteriorated and required replacement, and exterior work was required on the wood window sills and frames and the Chapel entrance area.”

Powderpost beetles had chomped on the pews, spreading ruin with every bite. One of the church’s three stained-glass windows was missing altogether, and the others needed restoration. One is a poignant tribute to Edna, a church member’s child who had died in infancy. Such design features — with references to congregation members who fundraised for such elements — are tangible history, traces of people long gone and their efforts to build beloved community.

“It’s impossible to talk about American craftsmanship without talking about the Black and Indigenous hands that constructed it even before 1776,” said Brandon Bibby, a senior preservation architect with the Action Fund. “It’s important to preserve that aspect so that we as a society don’t forget. By preserving, we are saying, ‘This place matters in the whole context of the American landscape.’”

“What I want most is that through this project, Black congregations and communities will see the value and beauty in their places and see they are worthy of preservation,” he said.

Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?

Image of a man inspecting the foundation of a building
Repairs being made at 16th Street Baptist.

Recognizable elements of church design can be particularly vulnerable to deterioration. Steeples are both symbolic and pragmatic communicators; their towering presence in a landscape announces where people can worship or seek shelter. Yet sitting aloft, largely inaccessible, placing strain on dramatic, heaven-pointed roofs and often channeling rainwater to places it shouldn’t go, steeples can be a source of problems that go unnoticed until a leak sprouts or cracks appear.

Many of the Preserving Black Churches grant recipients need steeple repair. When congregations are forced to choose among costly repairs, a steeple can sometimes take a back seat to high-traffic areas with more visible problems, such as the sanctuary itself.

Funding a range of needs

What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?

Declining church attendance has meant less coin in the collection plate and, in turn, fewer resources for maintenance and repairs. Black American church membership has dropped in recent years, from 78% in 1998-2000 to 59% in 2018-2020, though Black Americans remain one of the top populations most likely to be church members (along with conservatives and Republicans), according to a multiyear Gallup poll released in 2021.

A 2012 Kellogg Foundation report also found that Black people give more of their income to community-based causes than whites, in part because of a culture of mutual aid, lack of access to white-dominated institutional funding and traditions such as tithing. Even so, when an evangelical research firm surveyed church financial well-being, more Black pastors said their congregations had less than seven weeks of cash reserves — perhaps because they are dependent on a community with lower wealth in the first place. Getting money to repair churches can be particularly difficult.

Following the first grants that went to 35 churches across the country, recipients of another $4 million will be announced in January, Tolbert said, as part of a plan to distribute between $8 and $10 million, with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. In total, $20 million will be invested through Preserving Black Churches across all of its program goals.

If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?

headshot of Tiffany Tolbert
Tiffany Tolbert

That funding will go not only toward capital needs, Tolbert said, but also toward planning, to help churches understand how to undertake preservation. Matching grants will help churches create new preservation endowments so that invested income can be used to support maintenance and preservation of existing buildings. Emergency grants are also available to address immediate issues such as damage caused by floods, fires and even acts of vandalism.

And the Action Fund is working with six churches — four in Alabama and one each in California and Chicago — to help develop comprehensive stewardship plans that will address restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings along with programming and interpretation, activating space for community, and bringing in arts and social justice programs. They will benefit from a consulting team of architects, engineers, business planners and capital campaign fundraisers.

“It is essential that these places are activated,” Tolbert said. “They are centers of worship, but also, they continue to serve the community.”

Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs told The Washington Post in an interview that Black churches are exceptional lenses through which to view Black and American history. “It’s amazing to see centuries of Black history told at historic Black churches. Some of the stories include formerly enslaved Africans moving through emancipation, beginning to form communities, … and some of the earliest buildings founded by African Americans in the United States [include] a Black church. These places are of exceptional significance. Their stories matter, and they are worthy of being preserved.”

Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

Questions to consider

  • It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?
  • Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?
  • Steeples are a traditional element of many churches, yet they can be difficult to maintain. What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?
  • If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?
  • How is your space “activated” for your community? Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

As a sociologist, Jennifer M. McClure Haraway knows that relationships are good for people — many studies show this. In her new book, she makes a related argument: that relationships are good for congregations.

“Congregations need that kind of support just as much as we as humans do, because congregations are living organizations,” she said.

No Congregation Is An Island book cover

In her new book, “No Congregation Is an Island: How Faith Communities Navigate Opportunities and Challenges Together,” McClure Haraway identifies the types of relationships between congregations and the ways in which those relationships can benefit them. She also offers advice on developing congregational connections.

McClure Haraway, an associate professor of religion and sociology at Samford University, studied congregations in an eight-county area of central Alabama that included the cities of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She collected data through a survey of 438 (mostly Christian) congregations and conducted interviews with 50 ministers and leaders from 19 denominations and traditions. She explored the ways that relationships helped congregations and asked leaders to share stories about those relationships.

She talked about the findings of her research and shared her advice for pastors and churches seeking to establish and maintain congregational relationships with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Why is it important for congregations to have relationships with other congregations?

Jennifer Haraway McClure

Jennifer M. McClure Haraway: When we as humans are going through a difficult time or we have an exciting opportunity, it’s helpful to reach out to others for moral support, for advice, for practical help. And I think that applies to congregations as well.

F&L: What kinds of support can congregations offer each other?

JMMH: In the book, I talk about three main types. The first one is emotional support. And that’s, “I care about you. I love you. I’m here for you. I’m happy to listen; I’ll let you vent.” Of the three kinds of support, that is the most important kind — to help us know that someone’s there for us, that someone’s rooting for us.

The second kind is informational support. Sometimes we need more than just emotional support; we need practical advice or information or resources on how to do something that we need to do.

The third kind is instrumental support, and that’s where we help someone do something. In the U.S., many congregations are small — under 100 people on a given weekend — and many congregations do not have the resources to do all the things in ministry that they would like to do. It can be very helpful for congregations to collaborate and pool resources.

F&L: What would be your, let’s say, three top pieces of advice for clergy or congregations who realize they could use more connection in their communities?

JMMH: The first thing is to do what you can. Many ministers and congregational leaders have too much to do and not enough time to do it. I don’t want this book to become one more thing that they don’t have time to do. If all a congregation can do is the very most convenient and easy-to-develop idea, that’s better than nothing. The first thing is to do what you can.

The second thing is to nurture close relationships. It’s very important to have close relationships where there’s a lot of trust and where there’s a lot of interaction, frequent interaction, and there’s mutual support. So I’m going to be there for you and you’re going to be there for me, no matter what.

We really need those kinds of relationships. And those kinds of relationships can weaken if they’re neglected. They’re very important to invest in.

But my third piece of advice is not to forget about acquaintanceships. They may not seem as meaningful; they may not give us the same rich support as friendships. But because they can typically give us access to a wider range of information and ideas and resources and opportunities to collaborate, it’s important to keep them in mind.

F&L: You did your research in central Alabama. Are your findings particular to that context, or do you think they can be more broadly applicable?

JMMH: I think they can be more broadly applicable. There are thousands of research articles on social support and on those three kinds of social support, which happen across numerous settings. It’s not just something that happens among individuals in central Alabama. It’s not just something that happens among congregations in central Alabama. It happens everywhere in lots of different kinds of relationships.

The other reason I think it’s more broadly applicable is the other main concept that informs the book — “homophily”— which can be described in the phrase “birds of a feather flock together.”

We tend to prefer relationships with people who are similar to us in at least some way. In the book, I look at relationships within the same religious group, those that bridge across religious groups, those within the same racial group, and those that bridge across racial groups.

Homophily is also something that shows up in numerous studies in lots of different settings — friendships, marriages, work relationships, choosing what congregation to attend, which colleagues you become friends with at work. It shows up in so, so, so many settings. It’s something that is widely seen around the world as well.

F&L: You’ve studied all kinds of relationships. Do you find one type to be better than the others, or are they all pertinent in different ways?

JMMH: I think they’re pertinent in different ways, and they have different benefits and drawbacks. So when we think about relationships with congregations that are similar to us, those are the most convenient to develop. It’s sort of like the low-hanging fruit. If they have to go to denominational meetings anyway, then it’s a really easy way to build relationships with other ministers at other congregations. And so they’re very convenient, and they tend to be more trusting.

When there’s a shared theology and a shared approach to doing ministry and a shared governance structure, that trust makes it easier to share ideas and resources and to trust the ideas and resources that we get. It makes it much easier to collaborate. It’s much more convenient, because that trust is already there.

But one of the downsides is that you don’t get as wide a range of information. If you’re swimming in the same pool or breathing the same air, you may not get as wide a range of information.

So there’s a pastor of a megachurch, who’s part of a large church planting network, who talked about how when he goes to those network meetings, he absolutely loves all the information that he gets. And it’s all very pertinent to his church. But he also would love to sit down with his mom’s Methodist pastor, because he would get more ideas and resources there that he wouldn’t get through the network that he’s part of.

I think it applies to race as well, because there are barriers that hinder relationships between racial groups. A preference to build relationships within one’s denomination is sometimes by default a preference to build relationships within one’s racial group, because so many denominations are mostly racially homogeneous.

Or a preference to build relationships with other local nearby congregations is often by default a preference to build relationships with racially similar congregations, because of racial segregation. And then there are theological differences or political differences that can become barriers as well.

In my study, I found that most congregations by default are building relationships within their own racial groups, because they’re much more convenient. But there are benefits to bridging to different organizations.

Now, I would say the big downside of those relationships is that they’re not as close. I had a Muslim leader who said, “Well, we’re happy to work with other congregations toward social justice and making the community better, but when there’s a difference on a moral view, we’ll just go our own way.”

So they tend not to be as close, but congregations [willing to bridge] typically get a wider range of information and resources and a wider range of opportunities to collaborate.

Congregations that want to serve in the community who bridge across different religious groups or across different racial groups often hear about more opportunities. Our social circles where everyone knows each other and is really tightknit tend to be people like us.

When we have acquaintances, our acquaintances are less likely to be like us, and they’re more likely to be in other social groups. But those acquaintances can help us get a wider access to things.

F&L: So the advantage of people near you is that the relationship may be closer, but it may not offer you as much exposure to new things as a relationship across difference, which may be less close but offer you more in terms of new ideas or information or resources.

JMMH: Exactly.

F&L: So when you describe relationships, are you mostly talking about relationships between clergy?

JMMH: I look at four different kinds of relationships, and they’re not the only kinds of relationships that can exist between congregations. I look at friendships between the ministers, joint events between the congregations, ministers being involved in ministerial associations or clergy peer groups together, and then pulpit exchanges, where a minister is preaching or teaching or speaking at another’s congregation.

Even if the tie between some congregations is a friendship between their ministers, it still has a bigger impact than just those individuals. One minister might be able to share something — say, a resource that some lay leaders put together on faith formation for youth — with a minister at another congregation, who then shares that with their church’s youth ministry.

And there’s research that shows that for clergy who are involved in a ministerial association or clergy peer group, their well-being tends to be better, and they tend to get helpful resources in that group that they can then share to lead and minister more effectively in their congregations.

One of the examples I give in the book is two ministers talking, and one says, “Hey, this is really hard. I want to quit.” And the other one says, “Me too. Let’s go get lunch.” And then at the end of the day, neither of them quits. It’s good for both of their congregations that they were there to support each other.

F&L: You mentioned cross-racial relationships. How common were they in the congregations you studied?

JMMH: Only 30% [of the relationships] were between congregations with different racial compositions. And half of the congregations did not have any relationships with a congregation that had a different racial composition.

I think there are important benefits of bridging across racial groups, especially (and this is not unique to central Alabama) in a setting where there is a long legacy of racial injustice and where there’s still significant inequality and segregation by race. And so I think they’re important for helping to heal those divides.

But the difficult thing is that if a congregation doesn’t go about building them carefully, they can undermine what they’re trying to support. It can be easy for predominantly white congregations to unintentionally undermine congregations of color by assuming that [a white congregation] needs to come in and have all the answers and fix things. Or by not understanding the histories and dynamics that have gotten things to where they are and not working in mutually reciprocal ways with congregations of color.

That’s the chapter of the book where I give the most nuanced advice on how to build those relationships, because when they’re not built well, they don’t help to bridge the divides. They can make them worse.

F&L: In your experience, is it primarily white congregations reaching out to congregations of color, or does it go the other way as well?

JMMH: I didn’t have a way to quantify that, but in my interviews for the book, I was seeing it going from both directions. And there was often some kind of mediating organization, like a nonprofit a predominantly white congregation would work with that had connections to predominantly Black congregations. Or a racial reconciliation program that would bring together congregations and match congregations with different racial compositions to worship together and have meals together and serve together and have events together.

But there were also just ministers who did a good job reaching out across those divides and being bridges across those divides, though some of them faced pushback for doing so.

F&L: When you look at the research, what do you think is the most important finding?

JMMH: The most important thing that I want people reading the book to take away is that they’re not alone. And that regardless of what opportunities or challenges they’re experiencing or what support they do or do not have in their local context or in their religious group, I want them to know that that support is out there and give them practical ways to build relationships to access that.

If all a congregation can do is the very most convenient and easy-to-develop idea, that’s better than nothing. The first thing is to do what you can.

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.

We addressed this in our book “Fresh Expressions of People Over Property,” and we also highly recommend “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky.

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.