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Center City Churches: The New Urban Frontier [Secure eReader]
eBook by Lyle E. Schaller

eBook Category: Spiritual/Religion
eBook Description: Since the 1950s, conventional wisdom has insisted that cities are not supportive environments for large, active missionary churches. In this fascinating new book, however, church growth expert Lyle Schaller debunks this myth. In fact, states Schaller, research shows that more than one-half of the largest Protestant congregations in the United States are to be found in the large central cities -- as are more than one-half of the forty fastest growing Protestant churches.

Center City Churches demonstrates that urban churches actually provide the most creative new frontier for church growth, and Schaller offers fourteen profiles of "high performance" urban churches to illustrate what is taking place in cities today. Each profile focuses on quality of the church's ministry, the personalities of its usually long-tenured and visionary pastors, community outreach, members, preaching, music, weekday programs, reputation, real estate, and, in many cases, radio and television ministry.

You'll also find that Schaller identifies thirty themes that surfaced repeatedly in his work with large, growing central city churches. These themes not only explain the complexity and challenge of urban ministry, but also provide a conceptual framework for analyzing an urban congregation, and -- according to Schaller -- "grist for the mill that grinds out a denominational strategy for ministry on this new urban frontier in the twenty-first century."

eBook Publisher: United Methodist Publishing House
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2002


In preparation for the first assembly of the World Council of Churches, to be held in Amsterdam in 1948, one document summarized the spread of Christianity during the previous one hundred years. It included this provocative statement: "There are three great areas of our world which the churches have not really penetrated. They are: Hinduism, Islam and the culture of modern cities."

Perhaps those words were written to provoke discussion, to motivate more aggressive evangelism efforts, or to stimulate action. Whatever the motivation, they represented a misreading of urban America.

Another contemporary misconception is that American Protestantism has abandoned the central cities as the churches have fled to the suburbs. While that does reflect what has happened in several of the older and long-established denominations, it is a misreading of contemporary reality.

While it is true that thousands of Anglo center-city congregations have dissolved, merged, or moved to the suburbs since 1948, that is only one part of the larger picture. It also is true that hundreds of other center-city congregations have shrunk drastically in size and have become dependent on denominational subsidies for their continued existence. But that, too, is only one slice of a larger pattern.

In several traditions, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Reformed Church in America, The Southern Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, and The United Methodist Church, many, if not a majority, of today's largest congregations are to be found in central cities. While they include only one-sixth of the nation's population, large central cities account for twenty-six of the forty largest United Methodist congregations in the United States. According to the research of Dr. John H. Vaughan, who specializes in tracking the growth patterns of large Protestant churches, more than one-half of the forty largest Protestant congregations in the United States are to be found in large central cities as are more than one-half of the forty fastest growing Protestant churches in this nation. A disproportionately large number of the largest churches are to be found in the central city.

Despite the evidence that suggests the central city is a supportive environment for the large high-performance missionary church, the conventional wisdom has long insisted the opposite is true. This conventional wisdom can be traced back to the 1950s. Out of that came the widely shared conclusion of the 1960s that the traditional structures of congregational life created insurmountable obstacles to effective ministry in the city. A variety of alternatives was proposed. These ranged from a ministry of "a Christian presence" by a clergyperson who would be unencumbered by serving a parish to intensive training programs for the laity, who would be enabled to carry out a ministry in their workplace to urban training centers for the "retooling" of both the laity and the clergy to lay-led house churches to ecumenical action ministries apart from congregational life to a focus on community organization to campus ministries in urban universities that were not identified closely (except, perhaps, for financial support) with any worshiping community.

Overlapping that was the conviction shared by many mission executives and pastors that an effective ministry in the central city probably could not be expected to be financially self-supporting. Substantial financial aid would be required. It was widely assumed that one of the responsibilities of wealthy suburban congregations was to subsidize center-city churches.

Suburbia was seen as the new and challenging frontier after World War II. Most of the mainline Protestant denominations concentrated their resources on organizing new missions in suburban communities. One happy result was the creation of hundreds of large, vital, and strong suburban parishes.

In retrospect, however, it can be argued the most creative new frontier was back in the central cities. The competition for residents' attention, interest, participation, commitment, and support was and is far stiffer in the anonymity of the central city than in suburbia. One result was the widely publicized numerical decline of the majority of thousands of old center-city churches.

While it has received less publicity, far more important has been the emergence of hundreds of high-performance congregations on this new urban frontier. The purpose of this book is to lift up the ministry of these high-performance churches. Many of them are African-American congregations, another large group are predominantly Anglo, others are multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic congregations. A growing number reflect the immigration from the Pacific Rim, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and India.

To gain a clearer understanding of the nature of these high-performance churches on this new urban frontier, it is useful to go back to a concept developed many decades ago by missionaries. They articulated the threefold goal of self-governing, self-propagating, and self-financing worshiping communities. If one accepts that as a definition of a missionary church in a hostile environment, these urban congregations can be described as missionary churches.

Those who feel high-performance or missionary church are inappropriate terms may be more comfortable with two others. The first is pilgrimage. Every one of the fourteen congregations described here clearly is on a self-conscious pilgrimage. They do not attempt to recreate yesterday. They do not pray that next year will be a reincarnation of 1953. They earnestly seek to move in the direction God is calling them to go.

The other relevant word is intentional. They do not drift from crisis to crisis. Every one is on a pilgrimage marked by an intentional desire to discern and follow God's will. They do not expect their goals will come out of denominational headquarters.

The fourteen congregations that are described in this book were selected to illustrate what is happening in these missionary or high-performance churches on the new urban frontier. Before introducing them, two other points need to be explained.

First is the difference between represent and illustrate. The goal here is to illustrate several different types of strong, vital, and growing central-city churches. They were chosen to illustrate the range of what is happening. These fourteen congregations illustrate the presence in the central city of new, old, liberal, evangelical, charismatic, black, Penteeostal, middle-of-the-theological-road, conservative, liturgial, nonliturgical, large, very large, immigrant, ex-immigrant, Anglo, African-American, Asian-American, regional, community, racially integrated, independent, denominationally affiliated, low income, middle income, high income, working class, professional class, and socially inclusive churches. Obviously all of those selected illustrate at least three or four of those characteristics.

No effort was made, however, to draw a representative cross-section of center-city churches. The obvious omissions include the hundreds of small denominationally subsidized congregations, those that are growing older in the age of the members and smaller in numbers, and the thousands of small congregations led by a bi-vocational pastor. Likewise the hundreds of small, faithful, struggling, and obedient worshiping communities that are not interested in numerical growth are not represented in this volume.

The primary criterion in the selection process was to focus on what can be described as examples of high-performance, missionary churches in the central city. Hundreds of central-city churches can make a completely persuasive argument they should have been included if that was the focus. Why were they not included? The answer is simple: The purpose was to produce a book, not a catalog.

Second, a few readers may inquire about the distribution by denominational affiliation. That would be a relevant question if this were a book about churches in small town and rural America. The denominational label, however, is not a critical component of the identity of the large, growing, high-performance, strong, future-oriented, needs-driven, vital, missionary church in the large central city. The identity of these congregations is in (1) the quality of the ministry; (2) the personality of that long-tenured, visionary pastor; (3) the community outreach; (4) the members; (5) the preaching; (6) the music; (7) the weekday program; (8) an earned reputation; (9) the visibility, location, and accessibility of the real estate; and in many, but not all, cases (10) the radio or television ministry. The denominational affiliation ranks no higher than tenth or eleventh on the list of characteristics outsiders (and most members) use to define the identity of these high-performance churches.

Five groups of people still rank denominational afffiliation high on the list of characteristics that define the identity of a Christian congregation. The first, of course, consists of denominational officials. The second is the parish clergy. The third group includes many, but not all, of the Americans born before 1930. The fourth group consists of adults who have lived all their lives in nonmetropolitan counties. The fifth is journalists.

Conspicuous by their absence are recent immigrants, retirees who crossed a state line to find a retirement home, American-born blacks, adults in their second or subsequent marriage, most adults born after World War II, Asian-Americans, refugees from a Roman Catholic heritage, Hispanic Americans, never-married adults, those who place a high value on music as an essential component of corporate worship, and, most important of all for this discussion, residents of large central cities.

It may be true that, with the possible exceptions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, no one Christian religious tradition has been able to penetrate the culture of America's large central cities, but the fourteen churches selected for this volume demonstrate that the Christian churches are transforming the lives of tens of thousands of central-city residents. That is one explanation for describing these congregations as missionary churches.

One of the recurring themes in this collection of stories about missionary churches is that they seek to listen to God and to be faithful to the call of the Lord. How does that happen in real life? That is the theme of the first chapter.

Where would it be most difficult, if not impossible, to launch a new mission that soon would be a self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting missionary church? One obvious nominee would be in mid-Manhattan in New York City during a major economic recession. The second chapter explains how that can be accomplished.

Whatever happened to the Jesus People who were so highly visible back in the late 1960s and early 1970s? Is it possible for a group of Christians to replicate in a complex urban setting the model of the New Testament church described in Acts 4:32? What would a servant church look like in a neighborhood in Chicago, filled with the victims of urban poverty? Those and similar questions are answered in the third chapter.

Between 1963 and 1990 the population of Akron, Ohio, dropped by a fourth. Blue-collar employment dropped from 46 percent of all jobs in 1964 to 23 percent in 1990. Most of the large central-city churches saw their average attendance decline by 30 to 80 percent. One exception was The Chapel in University Park, where the worship attendance doubled to nearly 5,000 on the average Sunday morning. That is the story, to be found in chapter 4, of a congregation that decided to remain downtown rather than to relocate.

Back in 1932 a nine-year-old farm boy in Wisconsin began a lifelong hobby as a baseball fan. He suffered through forty years in the wilderness as his favorite team, the Philadelphia Athletics, moved, first to Kansas City and later to Oakland, before winning another pennant. Shibe Park, the old home of the Philadelphia Athletics, is now the new home for one of the largest Protestant congregations in North America. That transformation is the theme of chapter 5.

"We draw the circle to include people, not to define whom we exclude," explained a lay leader from Plymouth Church in Des Moines. Chapter 6 elaborates on that point to explain how large and liberal can be compatible in today's urban America.

One of the most significant characteristics of a missionary church is a clear identity. One example of when this can become a problem is when the immigrant congregation with a strong nationality and language identity seeks to reach and serve second and third generations who identify themselves as "Americans." A more sensitive and complex example is when a black congregation affiliated with a predominantly Anglo denomination seeks to reach and serve younger generations of African-Americans. That is the theme of the seventh chapter.

The next chapter recounts the pilgrimage of the oldest congregation in the book. It began as a Dutch Reformed parish in 1662. Today it is a model of a multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic ministry in the largest city in North America.

The Charismatic Renewal Movement has been one of the most powerful, and also one of the most widely misunderstood, factors in the renewal of the faith in the central city during the past quarter century. Chapter 9 tells the story of renewal in one central-city parish.

One of the big differences between the large central cities in the Northeast and Midwest and those in the Southwest is the capability of the city to grow in land area. Most of the older cities are ringed by incorporated suburban municipalities that prevent growth. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, is locked in to an area of slightly over 55 square miles. By contrast, Oklahoma City is spread out over 600 square miles, and Tucson has grown from eighty square miles as recently as 1970 to 125 in 1986. Can the center-city church grow as the city grows? Two affirmative and highly creative responses to that question are found in chapters 10 and 11.

The past four decades have brought forth scores of experiments in campus ministries. In many, the frustrations and disappointments have exceeded the expectations. Experience suggests that many of the most effective ministries with both undergraduates and graduate students in the large urban universities is through networking. The parachurch organizations have demonstrated one model for creating and nurturing these informal networks. One of the most effective approaches, which builds in continuity with both the past and the future, is to begin with corporate worship. This has been a theme with several large regional churches. Chapter 12 describes a university-regional church on the West Coast, while the next chapter is about the evolution of an immigrant Norwegian parish into a large regional-university congregation in the Midwest.

The boats that brought the immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia have been replaced by the airplanes and ships that bring new generations from the Pacific Rim. Chapter 14 recounts the remarkable story of a relatively new immigrant church in a city that has become the new home for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world.

What can we learn from these high-performance missionary churches on the nation's new urban frontier? Each contributor has been asked to conclude by lifting up a few lessons from experience. In addition, the last chapter identifies thirty themes that surfaced repeatedly in working with large, growing, and vital center-city churches.

These thirty recurring themes help to explain the complexity and some of the challenges of ministry in the central city. They also can be used to create a conceptual framework for analyzing the role, identity, and ministry of your congregation.

Finally, these thirty themes are grist for the mill that grinds out a denominational strategy for ministry on this new urban frontier in the twenty-first century.

The dedication page represents (1) a tribute to that high level of competence necessary for effective ministry in the twenty-first century, (2) an expression of gratitude, and (3) a remembrance of the fact that this book was conceived on August 21, 1991, at an event in Colorado, sponsored by the Leadership Network.

Copyright © 1993 by Abingdon Press

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