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A Mission Outpost

Reversing Decades of Decline at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church

In 1886 the tobacco magnate Washington Duke helped to found a new Methodist congregation in Durham, N.C. “We have Trinity Church; why do we need another?” a friend asked Duke, referencing the so-called mother church of Methodism in Durham.

“Yes, but we need one for the masses,” Duke replied.

By 1960 the church that started in a tobacco warehouse would indeed be a church for the masses in one respect—it was one of the largest churches in the North Carolina Conference, with over 600 people packing the beautiful sanctuary each Sunday.

In 2008 when my wife, Ginger Thomas, and I were appointed the co-pastors of Duke Memorial, people had been wondering for years where the masses had gone. The population of Durham had nearly tripled since 1960, but worship attendance at Duke Memorial had declined by 60 percent. Two traumatic staff reductions in the previous decade and five consecutive years of dipping into endowment funds to make up budget shortfalls had disheartened leaders. And one of the reasons two young, relatively inexperienced pastors were being appointed to share one position was that the senior pastor’s salary was being cut by $20,000. The church could no longer afford the older pastors they had been used to.

“Do your best,” one district superintendent told us. “But if you can’t turn the church around, don’t feel too bad. The inertia of decline may be too strong.”

Five years later members of the church are no longer using words like decline to describe their congregation. They are using words of life—revitalized, renewed, resurrected—to name the increase in worship attendance and the slowly growing diversity of the congregation, both racially and socioeconomically. They are using these words to describe four years of budget surpluses, the nearly 200 adults each spring and fall in small groups, new ministries that encourage members of the church to get to know their neighbors, and new ministry partnerships that cross the lines of race and class.

These words describe seeing for the first time in many years adults confessing faith in Jesus Christ and receiving baptism. They refer to the feeling that in worship people have encountered the living God who welcomes and forgives, sustains and sends them.

“We are so glad we lived long enough to see the rebirth of our church,” one couple wrote to us on our final Sunday. While they were implicitly giving us the credit, we know the factors producing revitalization are myriad and often unknown. As I reflect on what contributed to this renewal, however, three factors stand out: a theological vision, a bias for action, and plain good management.

A Theological Vision
Retired Harvard business professor John Kotter says in his classic book Leading Change that an organization needs a clear vision with specific, measurable outcomes that can be articulated in a short paragraph. But, for the church, vision is more than that. We discovered that our vision needed a wider context, something more like a landscape. And what we did for five years, together as leaders and as a congregation, is explore the landscape of God’s kingdom and imagine our place in it. Before we arrived, the church had adopted a vision statement that declared that the church aspires to be “a sign and foretaste of God’s kingdom in downtown Durham.” As the preacher, I took up the job as tour guide, leading weekly expeditions into the landscape of God’s kingdom so that we could inhabit its varied terrain.

Mainline churches have tended to use language of the kingdom of God as a way to avoid embarrassment about Jesus. The discovery that the preaching of Jesus consisted of announcing the kingdom of God gave us a way to look to something other than Jesus himself; his “kingdom” language could represent universal truths with which we all agree—justice, equality, and kindness. We didn’t have to get more specific than that.

The theological vision that contributed to Duke Memorial’s renewal, however, involved pointing again and again to the comforting, infuriating, and perplexing life and message of Jesus himself—the one who is the kingdom of God in his very person. If we are to be a sign of God’s kingdom, then we can’t ever stop exploring the landscape that is Jesus Christ, whose own life and mission is God’s kingdom among us. Only within that landscape will we find our own particular vocation, our own unique vision.
The great gift to this tour-guide preacher was that people were ready for an expedition. They were excited to discover that Jesus’ welcome is wide enough to include more than we might have imagined, and Jesus is interesting enough to pay attention to week after week.