Can Church Come Back Like Cities Are?: Old First E-pistle 11.22.19

Can Church Come Back Like Cities Are?: Old First E-pistle 11.22.19

I have realized for some time that I and my whole cohort of clergy colleagues — both those older and younger than me… for us, our whole careers will be carried out in a time of church decline. Of course, church participation in the post-war 50’s was at an all-time high, so our high water mark is high. But we wonder how far back the Living Water might recede as now we are moving into numbers that are all-time lows. 

There have been other eras of waxing and waning church participation and the consequent increase or decrease of influence, importance and horizons. The history of the church is long, and our forebears suffered hard times as well as celebrated successful times. 

There is a theory, I think put forth by the church historian Phyllis Tickle, that about every 500 years there needs to be a major reorganization of the church. Would I like my generation to be responsible for figuring out what’s next — the upcoming 500 years! — and how to make the Gospel crucial for our day? Yes, but I can also accept the career faithfulness of doing my part to keep the home fires burning, knowing that it will be others who come after us who will figure out the conundrum of the future of the church. 

But recently, I had a revelation of sorts. It came in the form of a parallel I had not considered before. 

I have marveled at watching Philly and other cities reinvigorate. As you all know, I think, I am a lover of cities. It is exciting to watch as the ever widening concentric circles of suburban sprawl have begun to reverse and we are watching as the city is rebuilt, redeveloped and greater density has become a goal. I am not sure the circle is actually shrinking, but its center is climbing higher. 

I am aware of the complexity, hardships and injustices that can be involved in renewing our urban centers and their surrounding city neighborhoods, especially how gentrification pushes poorer families from their neighborhoods and makes lower cost housing harder to find. Imagine if we could figure out, in the midst of this re-ubranization, how to make jobs pay a living wage, housing affordable for all income levels and renewing neighbors economically and demographically integrated? 

As a child born in the early 60’s, the first two decades of my life were encapsulated in the long period of the suburbanization of the U.S. that began as early as the 40’s, perhaps even earlier. Cities were losing their tax base and becoming known more for their urban problems than what they offered. Some sort of bottomless pits that there was no hope for anything thrown into them making a difference. 

But in the 80’s, there was a sea change. And what started out as a trickle became a stream and now  a river. People were coming back to the cities. Or maybe the younger generations just stopped leaving at a certain point in their lives. 

Neighborhoods here and there began to change notably. Then there were larger developments happening. And in my time in Philly, a decade, I have seen whole neighborhoods transformed. 

The glimmer of the city set on the hill seems to have returned — with the Four Seasons hotel lobby on the top floor of the latest Comcast Tower. 

Who would have thought? I mean, in the late 70’s when NYC was on the brink of bankruptcy and the subways were covered in graffiti and the news was crime. I hear Philly wasn’t faring better. That’s when my neighborhood, Francisville, really hit the skids. As Germantown and Mt. Airy opened to middle class Black families, there was an exodus from Francisville. People who could moved out, leaving behind mostly the families with less resources. 

But everywhere you look now there is new construction. Gleaming office towers and blocks and blocks of new residential properties, in almost every neighborhood. Even the places you do not expect! (Who is going to take all these new apartments? Where are the jobs for all these new residents?) Did city planners of the 60’s and 70’s imagine there could ever be the boom that is going on now? My point is simply that as the urban downturn in time has swung back up, and that there was a cyclical pattern happening which from inside we could not see or even imagine. 

It occurs to me, could there be some sort of larger range, big picture cycling happening with the church too? Some sea change, a host of interrelating but complex factors.more Zeitgeist than an human engineering, that in time reverse all the social realities that currently work against church participation… 

And as with our cities today, perhaps in the renewal to come, we’ll find a second chance to try and get things a little closer to right in the next upswing… 

See you in church,