Will Willimon: City Churches


The Bishop has appointed me to Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  This 128 year old congregation in the heart of Durham was once one of Methodism's great flag ship churches. And yet, in the past three decades Duke Memorial has experienced steady decline as well as a rising average age of membership.  For the past five years, two talented pastors have led somewhat of a turnaround for us.  The congregation has learned that it can attract new members.  This summer our attendance has increased nearly 30% over last year and our giving has been at an unprecedentedly high level.  We are on the move, movement made all the more remarkable because our type of congregation - the once large, downtown church - has been the most threatened type of congregation in United Methodism.

Years ago, when Bob Wilson and I were working on a book on United Methodist renewal, Bob noted that one of the biggest stories of the last few decades has been the loss of our urban churches.  I told him we ought to cite some examples.  The next day he gave me a list of twenty churches that had two thousand members in 1960 that by 1979, when we wrote Rekindling the Flame, were closed.  Because these congregations paid a disproportionate share of the expenses of the denomination, Bob said that the loss of these congregations would change United Methodism forever.

A short time later I heard Lyle Schaller remark that United Methodism had shown that it could not keep urban churches.  Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians continued to have some large, thriving downtown churches.  Why not United Methodists?  Lyle responded to the effect, "I can think of only one reason why we've lost downtown churches - bishops!"  Ouch.

The United Methodist appointive system, as it has usually functioned, has proven to be toxic to these once great churches.  The leadership requirements of the large, downtown church are unique and demanding.  Whenever one of these congregations is used (abused?) to reward some good soldier, to provide a place for someone who ought to be given less demanding work, the results have always been congregational decline.

A key factor in any thriving urban church is preaching.  The urban church is in a competitive environment in which many members may have to drive past many other congregations on their way to the church.  A good-enough-preacher is never good enough to attract persons to these congregations.  Also, the demands of attempting to be church in an urban environment with (usually) an aging, very expensive to maintain building, security issues, the needs of the urban poor who surround the church, and the need for staff require that these congregations cannot simply have good pastoral leadership but must have excellent leadership.

It's sad enough to see us close or greatly diminish these churches, but even more sad considering the urban growth that's occurring as increasing numbers of people find the city a great place to live.  A brand new 150 unit apartment complex is being built right across the street from Duke Memorial on land that has been neglected four decades.

So we're having in Jim Harnish to talk with us about the legendary turnaround at Hyde Park, Tampa, we're having a staff consult with Scot Chrostic of Resurrection Downtown in Kansas City.  We're talking about the development of two new worship experiences at times other than Sunday morning, we've taken out radio ads and put up new signs in our determination to give our church a vibrant future in an urban setting .   Pray that our efforts at Duke Memorial will be fruitful and will play some part in helping United Methodism to learn how to serve Jesus Christ in the middle of the city.

Will Willimon


Taken with permission from Will's blog