What mainline hole in the ground?

uccgraphicHere is an old, old story that has been bugging me for some time now, which is why it ended up in tmatt's GetReligion Folder of Guilt. Then again, it's an old, old story about and old, but very important news story. There is a good chance that the Washington Post team that worked on it did not make the connection.

One of the dominant stories of our cultural and political era is the rise of the religious right. Love 'em or hate 'em, journalists who want to deal with religion in this era have to take evangelicals and true fundamentalists seriously, along with the other traditional religious believers who team with them on some, but not all, political issues.

But what created the space in the center of the public square that was filled by the evangelicals?

To some degree -- head on over to the Pew Forum to check it out -- the conservative churches have not grown that much, as a percentage of the population, over the past three or four decades (I'm not talking about individual congregations or the megachurch trend, but the total national statistics). But their social power has increased because of the stunning demographic suicide of the oldline, what used to be the mainline, Protestant churches. Click here to read a stark and depressing First Things essay on the death of the Protestant center.

This brings us to that recent Washington Post article that ran under the headline, "New Church Only In Their Prayers -- Economy Halted D.C. Worshipers' Rebuilding Midstream." Here's the top of the story, which is not by one of the newspaper's religion-beat professionals:

On a downtown Washington corner, where generations of babies were blessed and marriages celebrated, where prayers were recited and God was praised, is a crater -- 40 feet deep and silent.

The worshipers at First Congregational United Church of Christ did not want their land to appear this way, not by this point. Two years ago, fed up with their broken-down church and eager to raise money, the congregants sought salvation in the development company PN Hoffman, which offered to erect a 10-story office building and create a new sanctuary within its first two floors.

But the crippled economy has disrupted that plan, as it has at other local churches. Unable to sign a major tenant, the developer has suspended the project, after having demolished the church and digging a hole for a foundation. The church's 100 active members have had to relocate their services to temporary quarters, sharing space with two other congregations wrestling with their own real estate headaches.

Stop and think about this. There is, literally, a hole in the middle of Washington due to a collapse, on several levels, of a congregation with roots in the old Congregationalist traditions that played a pivotal role in the formation of, well, America. This is also the proudly liberal denomination that has given us a rather important figure in our national life at the moment, President Barack Obama.

This particular congregation has 100 members left. It takes, by the way, about 85 to 100 church members to even pay the salary and benefits of a mainline clergyperson. Here's another important question: What is the average age of the members of this church?

Read on and you will see that the Post, basically, approaches this as a real-estate story -- which it is, on one level. But that hole in the ground is there for a reason. There are important, even historic, reasons that this flock of believers needed to seek out this rather unconventional approach to building itself a new home, and paying its bills. Yes, the economy is playing a role in this drama, but that's not the main force that is at work here.

The project started. The project faltered. The result is a very symbolic and important hole in the ground. Why is it there? You will not read about that in this story.

First Congregational, with its social ministries, is having to share space with another urban congregation for now. We are told this:

The church members have learned that they are not alone in coping with a dramatically altered economic landscape. Their temporary home is First Trinity Lutheran Church, whose leaders have found their own talk of redeveloping their property at Fourth and E streets NW affected by the turbulence of the real estate market.

And what kind of church is that? Where does it fit in the cultural landscape? Wait! There's more.

First Trinity is also the temporary home of St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church, which knocked down its home in Southwest Washington last year and hopes to build housing and a new sanctuary. The changing housing market has forced St. Matthew's, in partnership with the Trammell Crow Company, to substitute rental units for condos in its plans.

Good luck trying to find out. You see, this is just a real-estate story.

Graphic: The slogan for the United Church of Christ's high-profile ad campaign for its postmodern approach to the Christian faith.

Please respect our Commenting Policy