Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Some thoughts about a meeting concerning the future of the church of my own youth (First Baptist of the City of Washington DC)
On Sunday, April 6, 2014, I stayed well past the usual brunch and attended a symposium held by a consultant for the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, to discuss the long decline of the church in which I had grown up.
Mainline churches tended to do well until the late 1960s, when values began to change as a result of social changes, partly having to do with resentment of the Vietnam War as well as with the Civil Rights Movement (and soon to follow, Stonewall and gay rights). Declines have set in with many mainstream churches, and some congregations have died, with the sale of their buildings to other interests.
The Church today has the budget of a “Multi-celled” or even “Professional church”, partly because of real estate income associated with the apartment building going up on its former parking lot. It has one of the largest and newest concert organs in the nation. It was fitting that the organ postlude (which the congregation now stays for) had been “A Solemn Melody” by Davies.
The Church has a declining Sunday attendance, with a decline persisting for some years, and now the attendance matches that of a “clergy centered church”. In fairness, some of the decline in the most recent years could have been related to loss of use of the sanctuary for a number of months for construction to put in the new organ. The church had to meet in the Fellowship Hall for much of 2012 and early 2013.
Now at this point, I have to say that I can compare this meeting with other sessions I heard over the years, at Metropolitan Community Church (in Dallas, then Washington, and Minneapolis) and even the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (now part of UCC), which is very much at least a “professional church” in this jargon. I’ve heard similar analysis before. And I’ve heard before that the Vietnam era broke the pattern of conventional church growth.
I can recall (while “home” from Dallas, where I then lived) a Christmas dinner in 1983 at the home of church friends of my parents in McLean, VA, where the friend asked, “what was going to happen to the church?”
The presentation listed all the previous pastors back to Edward Hughes Pruden, in 1936 (pastor until about 1969 as I recall). Pruden was the pastor when the present sanctuary building opened on Christmas Day, 1955, with a lot of blue light coming through windows yet to be filled with stained glass. I was baptized with my mother in late January, 1956, at the age of 12, when in seventh grade. I recall attending Sunday School taught by president Jimmy Carter in the balcony in 1977 (I think it was the “divorce chapter”). I networked with Dr. Goodwin (pastor from 1981 to about 1994) on the debate over gays in the military that erupted as Bill Clinton became president in 1993. Dr. Haggray arranged the memorial service for my mother in early 2011.
There has been a pattern since Pruden left for pastors to seem more liberal on some issues than some in the congregation. Since the church is affiliated with both American and Southern Baptist conventions, there has always been a widespread diversity of views on most social issues, even if the overall mood is somewhat liberal, at least among younger and now middle aged members. Various management issues have developed with a few of the pastors, including the one who left recently (Haggray). I have no particular knowledge of the details of the various problems and no real position on them, other than the idea that a wide divergence of views on things among the congregation can lead to tension. I can recall a letter from a Dr. Jones (from GWU) in the late 1960s on the very rigorous educational requirements that any new pastor should have.
I also recall the youth programs of the 1950s, held on Sunday nights and sometimes Saturday mornings, including choir, and the various sessions in the Youth Lounge, and then various church retreats to Shrine Mont (near the West Virginia border). There were one or two particularly charismatic young individuals in the groups then (one whom I recall from Florida), an experience I have seen occur more recently in other churches. In more recent years, FBC has supported trips to Nacascolo (a mission in Nicaragua), a relief trip after Hurricane Katrina (which turned out to be difficult, according to reports), and a few years ago did support a young peoples’ Thirty Hour Fast.
FBC even produced a DVD of an “independent film” (100 minutes, “The First 200 Years: A Video Overview of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC”) of its history, in 2004.
I don’t usually speak at FBC meetings these days, as I am not officially a member, but I did this time. I offered two comments.
One is that Dr. Pruden, raised and educated in Richmond, was ahead of his time on social issues, especially race, even in the early 1950s. His 1951 book “Interpreters Needed: The Eternal Gospel and our Contemporary Society” lays out some of his positions, and delves into how a Christian nation, Germany, could have allowed the Nazi takeover and Holocaust to happen. Likewise, almost all the other pastors have been progressive, more so than some of the congregation.
The other is that, in many other churches I have visited, many in other cities (most of all, Dallas) I tend to see a lot more emotion and passion among membership than I usually see at FBC. You could say that “radical hospitality” comes from this passion. This sometimes extends to summer mission trips to third world (at least Central American) countries, with very close-up and personal interaction with local people, probably above my own social capacities, at least. I had noticed that in a “short film” about Trinity Presbyterian’s (Arlington) mission to Belize in 2012.
The facilitator closed by suggesting that the congregation would have to think carefully about the qualities it wanted in a pastor.