Asbury Methodist Church

As Washington, D.C., fills up with a new professional class that’s affluent and mostly white, historically African-American congregations are struggling to stay relevant.

Is it possible for a church’s congregation to look like the gentrifying city around it?

In Washington, D.C., urban churches, like schools, tend to be polarized. Longtime residents in historically African-American areas attend their established churches, while new neighbors, often white, young professionals, visit houses of worship designed specifically for them—if they go at all. Few churches combine the two populations.

The nation’s capital is a city that often finds itself divided along racial lines— lines which just as often serve as proxies for education and income levels. And that’s what makes D.C.’s Asbury United Methodist Church unusual.

The 180-year-old historically black church (it played a role in the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement) is creating a brand new service for the young lawyers and government workers in its downtown neighborhood. Called “The Bridge,” the Sunday night service is carefully designed to appeal to the city’s 20- and 30-somethings and will launch in September.

Church leaders want to turn Asbury back into the neighborhood institution it once was. Over the past few decades, its members have gradually moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, surrounding blocks have changed, with new upscale condos and renovated row houses. Appealing to the neighborhood will mean bringing diverse groups of people together in Jesus’s name. “We’re very dedicated to being a parish church, serving our community,” says Rev. Ianther Mills, Asbury’s senior pastor.

It’s also a survival strategy. Asbury, like most of D.C.’s historically black churches, is shrinking: some of the members who moved away no longer return on Sunday mornings. Some of the city's churches have in fact chosen to follow their longtime congregants to the suburbs, but Asbury's leaders don't want to do that. At the same time, there are fewer African-American congregants to fill the pews. Inviting in the young professionals who’ve deluged the city over the past decade seems like a natural next step.

Some of the city’s black pastors say they’re also open to some version of this concept, as a way of ensuring their churches’ futures. The challenges, however, are legion, including differences in race, class, education, age, and worship style.

Rev. Ruben Tendai can confirm that bringing in the city’s new residents is easier said than done. He’s the interim pastor of the Shaw neighborhood’s Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, an African-American institution whose congregation has shrunk from over 1,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 100 today. Like many other pastors throughout the city, Lincoln Temple’s leaders have employed a range of strategies to reach out to their new neighbors.

“We’ve tried to do several things—a ‘Clean Your Block day,’ a blessing of the pets. We have a sign saying that we’re welcoming all people regardless of their sexual orientation. We’ve had candlelight vigils, ashes on the sidewalk for Ash Wednesday,” says Tendai. But while neighbors sometimes wander in, few come back, he says.

That’s not too surprising, says Robyn Afrik, a Holland, Michigan-based consultant on diversity issues. “When a church is trying to change, I would ask, ‘Is that really part of your identity? If so, are you committed to it through thick or thin?’” she says. Becoming diverse is a long-term process that requires time and trust to succeed, Afrik says. And a church has to be willing to shift in fundamental ways. It can’t be accomplished through a few short-term outreach efforts.

That advice bodes well for Asbury’s leaders, who’ve been strategizing about The Bridge for well over a year. They’ve scheduled the service for a time slot (Sunday evening) that they think will be amenable to Millennials, and have constructed a new space that’s wired for sophisticated presentations and can host a variety of performances. They’re already reaching out to the neighborhood. A new website is in the works, and they’ll be leaning heavily on music that is both contemporary worship (church-speak for ‘white’) and contemporary gospel in style.

But they’re making more substantive changes as well. Rev. Mills and her colleagues have hired a young white minister, Rev. Matthew Wilke, to lead the process, and he’s gathered a multiethnic leadership team that will serve as the seed of the new congregation.

“People end up inviting people who look like them to church, so we’re trying to embody diversity,” says Rev. Wilke of the leadership team. The group has been meeting for months to hammer out differences and get a handle on what they’re embarking on; they’ve even met with a storyteller to better understand how to frame Asbury’s narrative in a way that appeals to outsiders.

Kevin Lum, pastor of D.C.’s Table Church, which formed in 2013, says that Asbury’s leaders have their priorities straight in focusing on the leadership team and the bigger picture. “It’s not just about a worship style,” he says. Michael Emerson, provost of North Park University and formerly the founding director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University, has more specific recommendations. “It’s easier to diversify from the start, so starting as if it’s a new church is probably a wise strategy,” he says, adding that for a church to successfully become multiethnic, its approach has to be intentional, with diversity explicitly written into the church’s mission. And the people in leadership roles should reflect those ambitions.

But there’s a hitch: Emerson and others who study church diversity largely focus on multiculturalism. For a church’s congregation to really look like the gentrifying city where it’s based, it has to bridge economic divides, too, and become multi-class. And that’s a whole separate process.

“There are powerful cultural differences between classes,” says George Yancey, a sociology professor at the University of North Texas and author of Beyond Racial Gridlock. “They have different values, and there may be a clash of those values.”

Indeed, if and when Asbury’s new and existing services come together, congregants will have a host of new issues to navigate, from basic power struggles to music and preaching styles. “What can happen is it can feel very ‘us and them,’” says Aaron Graham, who leads D.C.’s multiethnic District Church. To overcome the disputes that may arise, he says, church leaders must once again be extremely intentional about their choices.

For now, Rev. Mills and Rev. Wilke say they’ll be happy if Asbury’s new and old members mix at weekly bible study nights and community service events. Getting them together in one big service is a long way off. Nonetheless, even in its nascent form, their initiative is functioning as a laboratory for what faith can look like in a gentrifying city.

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