Is development an answer for city churches?

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page article by Paul Schwartzman about how development has helped save or fortify unstable congregations is worth a look by anyone in a historic city-center church.

As it happens, I know of most of the churches in the article. Yes, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist — until recently an architectural island at the edge of downtown — has survived the infill of office buildings and has profited from it. Yes, some congregations — like Metropolitan Baptist — are finally following their members to the ‘burbs. (These all are black churches, a fact not known in the article, which also doesn’t rehearse the continuing tensions with newer, mostly non-black neighbors, mostly related to parking and coded anti-gay, anti-white preachments. I think the moves are long overdue.) Yes, First Congregational is replacing its building with one that takes a part of a larger condo development. (But I’d hardly call the old building — of 1966 vintage — “antiquated.” Obsolete and dysfunctional, perhaps. I had members in my last pastorate who were married in the First Congo that stood there before that one. Does that make them older than antiquated?)

But I’m not happy with the depiction of developer-as-savior. You heard of enough stories and inferences that developers act like — well — business-owners and church leaders don’t. And you know who ends up in hot water.

Plus, the understory is that new urban congregations share the crisis of unaffordable housing with their would-be members.

Development Has Become New Savior for City Churches” (Washington Post, 31 October 2007)

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Development as savior? Development can also be the unholy temptor/temptress of urban churches. I have lived in low income neighborhoods where churches (whose members live in other neighborhoods) have become slum-lords owning neighboring apartment buildings. In a different kind of case, there were legal fights in Boston over the Swedenborgian Church On the Hill’s cash-cow building (chapel on the first flower, upper levels containing high-price Beacon Hill rental units). In Chicago I knew of a church that had a huge pot money from developing its former site, and a dysfunctional remnant oligarchy so hyper focused on their new-found endowment that they no longer do ministry. The development of their property only worsened their pre-existing “devolution”.

    Urban churches looking to achieve financial stability throug the development of their real estate, should do so with great fear, trembling, and caution. It is very easy to get “much more” than you ever bargained for.

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