On November 20, 2022, the church I grew up in held its last worship service in the Burlington, N C building where it operated for generations.
After careful deliberations and following the protocols established in the discipline of the Methodist church, the congregation at Davis Street Methodist Church voted to shut the church doors on Davis Street near downtown and move to a new location.
Sadly, Davis Street isn’t alone in their actions. Aging congregations, tired buildings, economic instability, and the inability to attract new members are among the challenges congregations face across America.
This downward spiral is in sharp contrast to the growth churches experienced post World War II. At that time, church planters had a “if you build it, they will come,” mentality. Churches were built and people came.
Clearly, the pandemic impacted church operations and attendance. But truthfully, churches were already experiencing difficulties prior to the pandemic. Lots of data is available regarding this significant decline.
The latest Pew Research Center report from September 2022 doesn’t hold much hope for a reversal of this spiral. Churches and their congregations aren’t immune from political division, challenges to their doctrines related to sexual orientation, and a longstanding stubborn resistance to change.
Growing up at Davis Street, I don’t recall political bickering, nor conversations about sexual orientation. However, the “turf and personalities” of a church could collide if an impactful change was proposed.
During my growing up years at Davis Street, the pace of the world was slower. Sundays were quiet. Only essential businesses were open. Unless there was sickness, our family was in church every Sunday.
Today, our pace is entirely different. With many retail businesses open, Sunday is a popular day for shopping.
But there is a busyness impacting families and the choices they make over the course of a weekend. In these over-extended families, church might not be on their top five list of planned activities.
In an article in the Spring 2022 edition of the William and Mary Alumni Magazine, Brian Shallcross, General Manager of the minor league baseball team, the Bowie Baysox, talks about how his organization works to bring people to a game.
When Shallcross started his career, the focus was on “discretionary income,” the extra income a family might have to spend.
Now, Shallcross states the focus is on “discretionary time.” Marketers attempt to figure out how to persuade a family that a baseball game is the best option from the multiple options they consider during a weekend.
For churches attempting to rebuild by focusing on young families, it is critical for pastors, staffs, and congregational leaders to understand “discretionary time.” Churches who acknowledge the impact of “discretionary time” might rethink worship schedules that could be more appealing for young families.
But, I also wonder if congregations become too mired in their own church busyness? Does this church busyness and reliance upon worn practices impair congregational vision? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes.
If churches expect to survive this decline, their pastors, staff, and laity must be willing to take risks. Fear of taking risks, failure to implement overdue changes will only ensure more church doors closing.
With this closing of Davis Street, I imagine some significant seismic shifting came from the graves of its founders. Honestly, I admire the congregation for making this difficult decision.
If churches expect to exist beyond the dismal predictions, their leaders and congregations must make some tough decisions.
I believe churches still have a place in our communities.
But their future depends upon their ability to confront the fear of change.
Note from the author: I was honored to have this op-ed piece published in three North Carolina newspapers on Monday, January 23, 2023. The piece appeared in: The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer, and the Durham Herald-Sun.