Covering classic mainline blues

the bluesThe Dallas Morning News had a compelling story last week that dealt with the closing of a 118-year-old neighborhood church that draws on local, regional and national religion trends. Locally, dwindling membership and declining revenues have challenged the church. In addition, the church has struggled as a "predominantly Anglo church in a largely Hispanic area." Nationally, as a reader pointed out to us, if reporters look at the demographics of the Presbyterian Church USA denomination, they will realize that this story will become quite common in the coming years. To sum it up, the church struggled as an aging congregation in an area becoming less and less "predominantly Anglo." Efforts to reach out to Hispanics with multi-lingual services and advertising the congregation's gay-friendly status did little to slow the decline.

The reader also noted that the story's end could be theologically related and yearns for a follow-up of some sort:

Trinity will have a worship service Sunday morning, followed by an official closing service at 3 p.m. Preaching then will be Steve Jester, who grew up attending Trinity and now is pastor at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Hurst.

"The direction I'm heading is to give thanks for all of the ways that the church has witnessed to Christ in the community over the decades," he said. "And, as I would at a funeral, I want to focus on the promise of new life. We trust that God will continue to work with the people in ways we can't see."

As with any institution lasting for more than a century, there are many ways to look at this story. This is true particularly of churches because they can define the way in which a group of people views their community. See this paragraph on the church's belief that the institution had a purpose in its neighborhood:

Though Trinity has reached out to Hispanics -- hosting a small Spanish-language congregation called Iglesia Presbiteriana Emmanuel, as well as English language classes -- efforts at dual-language worship flopped.

In the last few years, Trinity tried various strategies, including advertising that it is openly welcoming to gay people. But nothing reversed the decline.

"We're dying off," Mrs. Mitchell said. "You've got to have the young people to carry on the church."

Trinity might have followed the lead of many urban churches and moved to the suburbs. But that, according to members, would have violated its sense of mission.

"We chose to stay and serve the neighborhood," Mr. Manton said. "That's probably why we're having to close."

Reporters covering church closings in other communities could look to this story as a model for what kind of questions to ask and what sort of trends for which to look. Abandoned downtown churches have affected most cities, and most mainline denominations have dealt with the closings of timeless congregations. At some point the national story on this needs to be updated with a frank look at the demographic numbers and the changing face of American cities.

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