What mainline hole in the ground?

uccgraphicHere is an old, old story that has been bugging me for some time now, which is why it ended up in tmatt’s GetReligion Folder of Guilt.

Then again, it’s an old, old story about and old, but very important news story. There is a good chance that the Washington Post team that worked on it did not make the connection.

One of the dominant stories of our cultural and political era is the rise of the religious right. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, journalists who want to deal with religion in this era have to take evangelicals and true fundamentalists seriously, along with the other traditional religious believers who team with them on some, but not all, political issues.

But what created the space in the center of the public square that was filled by the evangelicals?

To some degree — head on over to the Pew Forum to check it out — the conservative churches have not grown that much, as a percentage of the population, over the past three or four decades (I’m not talking about individual congregations or the megachurch trend, but the total national statistics). But their social power has increased because of the stunning demographic suicide of the oldline, what used to be the mainline, Protestant churches. Click here to read a stark and depressing First Things essay on the death of the Protestant center.

This brings us to that recent Washington Post article that ran under the headline, “New Church Only In Their Prayers — Economy Halted D.C. Worshipers’ Rebuilding Midstream.” Here’s the top of the story, which is not by one of the newspaper’s religion-beat professionals:

On a downtown Washington corner, where generations of babies were blessed and marriages celebrated, where prayers were recited and God was praised, is a crater — 40 feet deep and silent.

The worshipers at First Congregational United Church of Christ did not want their land to appear this way, not by this point. Two years ago, fed up with their broken-down church and eager to raise money, the congregants sought salvation in the development company PN Hoffman, which offered to erect a 10-story office building and create a new sanctuary within its first two floors.

But the crippled economy has disrupted that plan, as it has at other local churches. Unable to sign a major tenant, the developer has suspended the project, after having demolished the church and digging a hole for a foundation. The church’s 100 active members have had to relocate their services to temporary quarters, sharing space with two other congregations wrestling with their own real estate headaches.

Stop and think about this. There is, literally, a hole in the middle of Washington due to a collapse, on several levels, of a congregation with roots in the old Congregationalist traditions that played a pivotal role in the formation of, well, America. This is also the proudly liberal denomination that has given us a rather important figure in our national life at the moment, President Barack Obama.

This particular congregation has 100 members left. It takes, by the way, about 85 to 100 church members to even pay the salary and benefits of a mainline clergyperson. Here’s another important question: What is the average age of the members of this church?

Read on and you will see that the Post, basically, approaches this as a real-estate story — which it is, on one level. But that hole in the ground is there for a reason. There are important, even historic, reasons that this flock of believers needed to seek out this rather unconventional approach to building itself a new home, and paying its bills. Yes, the economy is playing a role in this drama, but that’s not the main force that is at work here.

The project started. The project faltered. The result is a very symbolic and important hole in the ground. Why is it there? You will not read about that in this story.

First Congregational, with its social ministries, is having to share space with another urban congregation for now. We are told this:

The church members have learned that they are not alone in coping with a dramatically altered economic landscape. Their temporary home is First Trinity Lutheran Church, whose leaders have found their own talk of redeveloping their property at Fourth and E streets NW affected by the turbulence of the real estate market.

And what kind of church is that? Where does it fit in the cultural landscape? Wait! There’s more.

First Trinity is also the temporary home of St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which knocked down its home in Southwest Washington last year and hopes to build housing and a new sanctuary. The changing housing market has forced St. Matthew’s, in partnership with the Trammell Crow Company, to substitute rental units for condos in its plans.

Good luck trying to find out. You see, this is just a real-estate story.

Graphic: The slogan for the United Church of Christ’s high-profile ad campaign for its postmodern approach to the Christian faith.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    Here’s another important question: What is the average age of the members of this church?


    This picture suggests the congregation is somewhat older, 30s and up.

    Apart from sentimental attachments, why is the death of the mainline protestant churches “depressing”? I certainly have fond memories of Methodism (college) and Episcopalianism (16 years in that church)from the 70s and 80s, but from the first century of Christianity to the present day, you see any number of groups that spring up, usually departing the majority Church, some lasting longer than the current set of denominations, but all eventually falling into decline and extinction. The end part of that pattern can be particularly ugly, as groups attach themselves to behaviors that are personally and socially destructive; at the last, the death of these sects are a mercy.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    FW Ken:

    Depressing in the sense that a key part of American history is gone and/or has been redefined beyond all recognition or logic.

    Also, I think the empty space now occupied by the religious right is a mixed blessing, in many ways. Read that First Things piece. Honest.

  • dalea

    OK, I read the First Thing piece. What struck me is that it did not consider where the former mainliners, or their decendants, have gone. The author ignores the rapid growth of the New Age and NeoPagan spirituality. My experience is that these areas of religion are filled with people who 50 years ago would have been mainline, or liberal Catholic. It is possible that the mainline has simply relocated to other venues.

  • tmatt


    That is a totally valid point and a story in and of itself.

    Yet that is also another example of the splintering of the mainline/oldline that left the vacuum for the religious right’s rise and awesome, semi-united clout.

    I mean, look at the Pew Forum data.

  • Dave


    When two newcomers to the Unitarian Universalist congregation I belong to, told me separately that they were “kind of Pagan” themselves, I organized an Adult Religious Education forum for Pagans and those interested. Twelve people indicated interest and ten have showed up so far to two meetings — this out of a congregation of less than fifty members! I think there’s a lot of us in the woodwork out there.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Think about it. 12, out of 50.

    And this compares to the 10,000 members of your local evangelical/charismatic megachurch?

    There is a story there. But you are sort of making my wider point for me.

    But I will concede one major point. The UUs are small, but are they still growing? At one point, they there the only crowing Oldline post-Prot church.

  • Dave

    Terry, if I’m making your point it must be unconsciously because I no longer get the point.

    My point was simply that I had no idea there were that many folks in the congregation following that path or interested in it (the latter including one staunch Humanist who was literally the last person I expected to see).

    UUism is growing very slowly, not as fast as the population, so on a normalized basis we are shrinking. There’s a big push underway within UUism to turn that around. I am part of the latter at the level of my own congregation. Some UU churches have experienced rapid growth, and the idea is to look at what they do and see what can be adapted to our local situation. (My formation of an Adult RE affinity group was, in fact, an example of the latter. I swiped the idea from a UU church up the pike. Our president informally designated me the “poster child” for such undertakings. ;-) ) The UU Association is currently having its periodic contest for president, and what to do about this normalized shrinkage has become a major issue in the campaign, rather like the economy in last year’s national election.

  • dalea

    What I find interesting is that the article refers to urban mainline churches. My understanding is that suburban and small town churches have held their own while urban and rural churches have declined. That most of the decline in the mainline is confined to rural and urban areas.

    Throughout the midwest, there are small clusters of old homes, maybe 4 to 8, and a church. No gas station, but a working Methodist or Lutheran church. Frequently they survive because someone long ago left the church a farm. The income from the farm pays for a minister and keeps the building up. The population has been declining for a century, so church growth is not possible.

    Urban churches are in a different quandry. Some become Hispanic congregations. The ones in trendy gentrified areas have fewer options. Residents tend to be young, and socially liberal. And single. After the follies at Broadway UM and Resurrection Lutheran, the mainline really shot itself in the foot.

  • FW Ken

    tmatt -

    Possibly, I’m indulging my cynical side, but I’ve watched the mainline churches implode throughout my adult life. I looked back over Joseph Bottum’s essay (which I read when it came out), and see that the collapse of one leg of his stool (borrowed imagery that it is) could be depressing, especially if you don’t see a viable alternative to the mainline. But culture’s and societies do collapse, and maybe our time is over.

    dalea’s point is interesting, but I the real growth, I think, is in secularism rather than religious groups (pagan and New Age). First, yes, there is the numbers thing, but there is also the question as to whether the anti-catholic fervor of the culture wouldn’t apply also to pagan and new age: it’s all hocus-pocus, you know, whether it’s about Jesus or a goddess. Secularism, of course, is the handmaid of the culture, and can’t perform the functions of the old mainline. But that’s where the growth is.

  • Joe

    The other ghost is what happens to the social services provided by these churches. What is striking in the story is how important providing help to the poor is for these churches as part of their mission. The 100 members of this UCC church probably help more people on a daily basis than churches five times their size. When these Mainline churches struggle, there’s little evidence that other faith communities step in take their place helping the poor on the street

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Where the mainliners have gone is that they aren’t being born. A careful look at ECUSA statistics shows that they are having enough kids to keep going, and in fact they were stable until the key year of 2003. Evangelicals and other growing groups are still having kids well above the replacement rate. There is a lot of presumption that the evangelicals are winning converts from the mainline, but I don’t think this has really received any serious study.

  • FW Ken

    C. Wingate -

    What stats are you citing? From what I’ve seen, ECUSA (TEC) started to decline in the mid-70s at about .5%/year. By the 90s, the rate increased to about 1.5% and today it’s running about 2%, maybe more. The total loss since the mid-70s is something over 30%.

  • Dave

    FW Ken (#9), if secularism is the growth trend, why does such a large majority still call itself Christian? And why aren’t UU churches stuffed to the gills?

  • FW Ken

    From the Pew Report:

    While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation…

    Further down the page:

    Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).

    We can quibble about the status of that “religious unaffiliated” group if you like, but I’ll bet a fair number of the folks dalea referred in #3 would fall into that group.

    Who knows, 50 years from now, Christians may not be the majority in this country. It’s a growth trend, Dave. Or, there could be a another Great Awakening and millions pour into churches.

    As to why the UU churches aren’t stuffed (though you guys did have an increase in the mid-90s), that’s an interesting question. Anecdotally, my niece, who definitely qualifies as a “hard-core secularist”, was having trouble getting a judge for her wedding, yet rejected the idea of having a UU minister, that being too religious. Maybe that sort of attitude plays a part?

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    If you look more closely at mainline/oldline stats, one of the complicating factors of what’s going on over the last couple years is that the combined impact of health insurance costs and maintaining pension minimums (if you’re not mainline, never mind) all means the minimum average attendance you need for a full time ordained clergy person is more like 120. In the 1940s and 50s you could manage a new, straight out of seminary pastor at ASA 50, and by the time i was in seminary it was called 75; i still hear judicatory folk say 100 ASA, but realistic ones concede 120 is the bare minimum unless you’re eating your seed corn (designated endowment dollars, etc.).

    Multi-point charges, especially in the UMC, have buffered this by allowing an approximation of the right number, but when a three point charge carries ASAs of 30, 15, and 45, it can’t do it, even with a paid-off parsonage with a new roof. The trend lines were also buffered over the last 25 years by the expansion of women clergy, who have expected/tolerated/grudgingly accepted lower pay rates; second career folk with half-retirement pay were the second wave of rationalization.

    What’s been going on for the last few years is a wide spread reality check across mainline congregations of what makes viability vs. ordained ministry. Perversely, ordained clergy in those traditions have been fighting a brisk rear-guard action against the growth of licensed/commissioned ministry by folk with bachelors only (or less) and some workshop/local judicatory training. That puts the viability number for attendance and income lower, but at a place that everyone realizes is a floor. Some congregations embrace a more lay ministry centered model as a result, and others see that closure and/or merger with another congregation is an absolute necessity if ordained ministry at the altar/pulpit is required.

    But the economic downturn has pushed fast forward on that new program, and i think you will see some dramatic reorganization on the congregational, middle judicatory, and even general level structures — reassessment and review that is painfully long overdue. When denominational structures, seminaries, and outdoor ministries have been living off their capital funds more than their return rate for ten years and more, the sudden loss in value means that stories such as that of Lexington Theological Seminary a few months ago represent the tip of the coming iceberg rotation.

    There’s going to be some major sloshing in the mainline/oldline punchbowl over the next eighteen months, a reckoning that has been held off with dollars that no longer exist, and so will happen with remarkable — for the mainlines — rapidity.

    For those of you who don’t drink out of this punchbowl at all, the impact, such as it will be, is what i read TMatt as talking about here; i think Joe makes a fair point — mainline congregations still “punch above their weightclass” when it comes to helping ministries across the midsection of the country (that’s all i can vouch for myself, leaving the coasts to those who might know).

  • dalea

    What do these terms refer to: judicatory, licensed/commissioned ministry, general level structures?

    The churches I was referring to were beneficiaries of trusts that held farm land. Twenty years ago, 160 midwest acres would yield, after property taxes, a bit over $100,000 per year. Which was enough to keep the church going. I even knew of one church where all the living members were in nursing homes yet they had services without anyone attending.

    The hitch was that the donor had set up the trust so it benefited one congregation only. If the church closed, the flow of funds reverted to some other local institution. This seemed somewhat prevelent throughout the upper midwest, congregations with substantial assets that the denomination could not touch.

    The other problem comes when there is an attached cemetery subject to regulations. The money paid into the maintainence fund can only be used to keep up the cemetery, nothing else.

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    There’s a whole slew of reasons for mainline decline. In my little corner I’ve noticed the gross ineffectiveness (and now with declining numbers, money the lack of) college outreach and campus ministry. There are a few bright spots, but in many campuses the mainline is not to be found.

    But that’s just a small tidbit. If I wanted to make a broader generalization it’s this: as the religious right has grown and the mainline has shrunk you get this “”It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism–mainline versus evangelical–is collapsing,” said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. “A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United State s.”


    What does that do? Anybody who is liberally minded just assume the religious right defines Christianity and will have nothing to do with it. Christian faith has ceased to be a live option and during the Bush years when Christianity became identified with this, even more so. It was something I had to cut through a lot doing campus ministry. To plant the idea that there was another way of doing Christian faith. It worked for some students, but overall it’s a hard proposition to break through.Thus the UCC advertising campaign.

    I think it ends up being a shame, because it feeds into itself. The more mainline decline, the more rise of the religious right, the less likely folks who are liberally minded would even consider Christian faith. It shuts off a religious option, reduces the diversity and plausibility of the faith for many, cuts off possible and creative sources of interaction between the church and the wider society that the mainline had engendered for over a century.

    It becomes established enough that genuine anger is had when someone challenges it. I remember a piece about a women reform rabbi in Israel and she was verbally attacked by the orthodox and secular Israelis. They found a third way incomprehensible and unsettling. That worries me. I run into it from the right and left, both upset that I could identify as a progressive and a Christian (a reformed one at that). Both invested in this polarized religious environment. Folks like Harris and Hitchens count on it. Folks like Al Mohler do too. As a liberal Protestant, I’m still interested in breaking out of this unfortunate religious situation.

  • david s

    Another local angle to this story is St Patrick’s, the Catholic church across the street from First Congregational. In the 90′s, St Patrick’s sold ‘development rights’ which gave them a large infusion of money to upgrade and remodel the church and other buildings. (Can’t say I’m crazy about the results of the church interior remodeling). In exchange, the developer got rights to build a larger building in some other part of DC, while St Patrick’s is restricted from further development on their church property. St Patrick’s parish web site: http://www.saintpatrickdc.org/

    Also, St Patrick’s Sunday congregation had dwindled to very small, but they put in a big effort to develop a weekday congregation of downtown workers with daily Masses, confessions, devotions, and other activities. Now that people are moving downtown to live, I expect their Sunday congregation is bigger too.