Youngstown Ohio: A Parable for the Church

There used to be a house here. (Youngstown, 2007)

The Planet Money blog offered up this recent NPR story about Youngstown, Ohio, a town that has suffered in recent years from a shrinking population and diminishing economic opportunities.

The town cast about for various ideas to save it, to get it growing again:

Youngstown was going to replace the steel industry with a car factory. Or with a NASCAR racetrack, or a riverboat casino. Maybe a blimp factory out by the airport.

“That was the mentality,” says Mayor Jay Williams. “It was grasping for straws. If you came in with what seemed to be an even marginally viable economic idea, there was a rush to make that the thing that was going to save Youngstown.”

Where have I heard this story before? Ah yes… Our church needs a praise band! We need a shiny young minister! We need parenting classes to bring in those families with children that will save our church! Forget the fact that there were no young families nearby, and/or the population as a whole is declining in the neighborhood around the church.

To the credit of Youngstown’s leadership, it finally decided to stop searching for the silver bullet that would solve all their problems. Instead, they are rejecting the “most fundamental assumption of economic development and city planning”: that a city should always be growing.

Instead, Youngstown is trying to remake itself into a smaller town. Those old homes that nobody’s going to move back to? Demolished by the hundreds. With the closing of entire neighborhoods, garbage collection and other city services can be consolidated. And the few folks left behind in mostly abandoned neighborhoods are offered financial assistance to move to more populous areas within the city.

Though the Youngstown leadership might not put it this way, the message is clear: We are a community of people. We are more than our industries (what we do) and buildings (where we do it). Again, the parallels to church are obvious. Perhaps leaders of churches that have plateaued or are in decline don’t necessarily need to close up shop tomorrow, but maybe they need to admit that the pews won’t ever be filled again and (gasp!) remove some. Or (big gasp!) sell the building. Or maybe there needs to be some realistic expectations of the “services” members can expect to receive from the clergy. A part-time pastor will not be able to do everything that a full-time pastor did. (Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the pastor to the garbage collector.)

As you can imagine, there is resistance. Some folks would rather stay in the homes they’ve lived in for 50 years, surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty homes, than pick up and move a mile or two away. (I am picturing a smattering of churchfolk in a large building, sitting one person to a pew.)

So the process is messy, and slow. But I applaud the effort.

Growth is a tricky thing in the church. I do think we’ve become enamored of the same capitalist models that held Youngstown captive for so long. On the other hand, we are called to be evangelistic people. (I heard some grumbling this week about Rob Bell’s new book on heaven and hell, and even did some myself. We’ve been talking about this stuff in the mainline for years and never made it onto Good Morning America. Yeah, and his book is #5 on Amazon and ours aren’t, so maybe we need to do some soul-searching on why we’ve been having so much trouble getting the word out about a message that is clearly so compelling that people are flocking to this book in droves. As a fellow traveler in the way of Jesus, I am overjoyed that people are gravitating to the message of radical grace, and think we mainline folks need to keep our annoyance in check that people didn’t choose to play for our intramural team.)

And I’m going to be honest: the fact that we are growing at Tiny Church is a source of relief for almost everyone, especially the leadership. We are small, but we do not have one foot in the grave. We recognize that we can’t do things the way we’ve always done them and expect that to be compelling to a new generation; we understand that the culture is changing rapidly around us; but we’re approaching these questions from a position of strength. This is a blessing. (It’s also a challenge—how does one create a sense of urgency when everything’s muddling along pretty well? Why do we need to do anything different if we’re growing? But that’s a post for another day.)

The growth question is sticky, but I agree with George Bullard, who emphasizes kingdom growth, which is not the same as church growth (see #6 in the link). The transformation training our church is engaged in talks about growing one’s ministry capacity. That can happen through additional members. But it can also happen through a greater sense of depth and excitement among the folks who are there. And it can happen when churches free themselves from having to maintain large buildings, which can become a money pit for small membership congregations. (I once heard of a pastor of a small church with a large expensive building who semi-seriously prayed it would burn to the ground, it was such a burden.)

I wish the Youngstown, Ohio the best. I will be curious to see how it all works out.

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4 thoughts on “Youngstown Ohio: A Parable for the Church

  1. Shala says:

    Declining church membership is nothing new around here (MA). The rash of Catholic church closings (and the Catholic churches blessed with a few dozen members who refuse to physically leave the church buildings unattended long enough for the bishop to close them — the vigil at St. James went on for years, see http://wellesley.patch.com/articles/st-james-vigil-holders-hope-for-churchs-salvation) grab all the headlines, but the Protestants have been grappling with declining membership as well.

    The church I ended up at in Brookline (after the bishop closed my first choice, JFK’s childhood church St. Aidan’s in Brookline and converted its buildings to luxury condos) was United Parish in Brookline. As its name implies, the parish is the product of a 1970 merger between separate UCC, Baptist, and Methodist churches prompted by declining Protestant population in Brookline. The story of the merger is here: http://www.unitedparishbrookline.org/node/117 but in a nutshell, the three denominations experimented with a merger first by joining their Christian education programs, then began holding combined worship services that rotated between the three physical church buildings to see if it was possible for three different denominations to agree on a common order of service. Ultimately they closed and sold two of their church buildings, choosing the Harvard Church (the Baptist) building for their new united parish. New members join one of the denominations within the church, so you become either a Baptist, a Methodist or member of the UCC when you join rather than becoming a member of the United Parish itself. Church governance (and finances) is (are) divided by denomination as well, with so many slots available for Baptists, Methodists, and UCC folks. (Worker bees on committees can come from any denomination.) Service is pulled from all three traditions. This is most apparent in communion as the style of serving it changes on a rotating basis.

    It’s an interesting approach to resolving the issue of declining membership/need to reduce cost burdens on smaller churches, but has raised some problems of its own. For example, a few years ago, there weren’t enough young Baptists available to fill open church leadership slots (the Baptist congregation is mostly older folks who don’t like to go out at night). Consequently, there was a lot of talk about whether the traditional method of requiring folks to join a specific subcongregation still made sense anymore as in all other respects the United Parish feels like a single community. I left before this conversation was resolved, but on the whole, I’d say this was a highly successful solution for the problem of declining membership. In fact, one of the reasons I joined this church was its truly catholic attitude toward reaching across denominational lines.

  2. Rachel Heslin says:

    I love the idea of “right-sizing” a community, of understanding that not all growth needs to be outwardly expansive.

  3. […] wrote last week about Youngstown, Ohio and how they’ve decided to give up on the fundamental assumption of […]

  4. Rev Dr Mom says:

    I’m reading this late, but I hope this conversation will continue.

    I am reminded of a quote I’ve heard more than once. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Which seems to me, with regards to the church, to have some truth. But you raise the right question (at least one of them): What does it mean to grow?

    Where I live now there are 5 small Episcopal churches within a five mile radius. When these churches were founded in the early 1800s and people walked or traveled by horse to church, that made sense. In the 1930-50s when this area was a booming industrial center these churches flourished. But now industry is gone, we travel by car, the congregations are aging, and none of these churches (mine included) is what I would call flourishing. My parish is the best off because we have a sizable endowment, but that won’t last forever. And if we don’t grow in numbers we will die–some of these parishes sooner than others.

    Or we can find new ways to grow. We can let go of our separate buildings to start. I love a beautiful old church as much as the next person….but at what cost do we maintain these buildings? I almost understand the pastor’s prayer for the building to burn down.

    This past Christmas we had major boiler failure and had no heat and I made the radical decision to cancel our services and invite the congregation to worship with one of our neighboring parishes. I was struck by the number of people who DIDN’T show up for Christmas Eve services because they weren’t held in their own building–and many people told me that’s why they didn’t come. What does that say about who/what/why we are worshipping?

    Many of my seminary classmates (most far younger than I) talked about feeling like they were signing on to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, a sentiment I didn’t share at the time, but ministering in this particular setting I do sometimes feel that way now. And I don’t like it.

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