Carol Howard Merritt has an interesting blog post about declining churches and ten ways for new churches to sprout. One of the thing that she focuses on is that many churches built buildings for the 1950s, when churches were incredibly full. But over the last few decades, many of these mainline Protestant churches have declined, and these churches are now faced with smaller congregations and large physical plants.
This is the situation that First Christian in Minneapolis faced. Our current location was built in 1955 when the church had a membership over 1500. It wasn’t unsual for the church to have two worship services filled with folks and to have a Sunday School class with hundreds of kids. Let me repeat that hundreds of kids.
Flashforward to 2008. The congregation is now at the most around 150 members with 80-90 in worship. Now that number isn’t too bad, but try having a service in a sanctuary that seats 800. I came on staff in November 2008, just a few months after the church decided to sell their large building to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The building was sold and they were now tenants in the building they once owned.
The congregation had gone through a lot in the previous decade. The MIA allowed the church to stay in the building for a few years, which gave the congregation time to figure out what to do. After one indignity after another, the church was ready to just close the doors.
Except that we didn’t. A Transition Team was set up to decide what to do. We looked at few buildings to purchase, but there really wasn’t any interest in that option.
Then in 2010, the congregation was contacted by Salem English Lutheran and Lyndale United Church of Christ. The two congregations had entered into a partnership five years earlier and were sharing space in Lyndale’s building. Both congregations were also churches that were once large and now were dealing with a diminished present. The two churches were hoping to tear down the old Salem building and build a new facility that would have worship spaces for both congregations as well as mixed-income housing. That original idea didn’t fly with the local neighborhood group, so they chose instead to tear down part of the Salem property for mixed income housing and rehab the old sanctuary. After months of meetings with the other churches, First decided in January of this year to join the partnership. So, now there will be three churches in three worship spaces sharing one building in near Uptown, a part of Minneapolis that is a young, hip and vibrant area of town.
On January 15, 2012, First Christian will start worshipping at this new location. We will leave behind one chapter in the 134-year saga that is First Christian and start a new one with two other congregations.
I don’t know what the future will be for this congregation. Is this the last stand for the congregation? I want to believe God is not through with First Christian-Minneapolis yet. I have faith that God will do great things with this small flock.
Churches moving in together and sharing space is one answer to help congregations who are dealing with big spaces. It’s not the total answer to the declining mainline church, but I do think it is a way of being church that can empower declining congregations for mission in the coming years.