In the 1940s and ’50s, it wasn’t unusual to find 2,500 people worshipping in the grand sanctuary of Oak Cliff United Methodist Church. The congregation, which formed in 1887, boasted many of the neighborhood’s leaders in its pews each week.
By the time Rev. Diane Presley arrived in 2002, however, the church on the corner of Marsalis and Jefferson was averaging 50 people on a Sunday morning, and had enough money to keep the doors open only two more months.
“There was a sense this dear matron should not die,” Presley says, yet the small congregation could no longer afford the utility bills for the enormous campus that had been built during the
“There was no conceivable way for this church to continue,” Presley says. “What we were facing was too daunting and too impossible. Our eyes were ready to see the miraculous.”
Oak Cliff United Methodist isn’t the only church in our neighborhood that has found itself knocking on death’s door. Many congregations in Oak Cliff are decades old, sometimes even a century or more, and have weathered neighborhood changes with varying degrees of success. Some churches are on their second incarnation as they have moved farther away from the city center, usually as a survival mechanism. Others never made it into their twilight years.
As a glance around our neighborhood shows, churches that don’t reinvent themselves will eventually die or cease being relevant.
Of course, what’s a few less churches in Oak Cliff? The idiom that Dallas has a church on every corner is no less true in our neighborhood. If churches wind up closing their doors, likely the only people who will mourn them are currently sitting in the pews, holding on for dear life.
And that’s exactly what our neighborhood churches are coming to grips with. Gone are the days that a congregation can expect people in the surrounding community to darken its doors each Sunday. Even some people who call themselves “religious” are staying home because they simply don’t see the point.
Any church that wants to live to see the future will have to learn what some Oak Cliff congregations already are discovering: The difference between death and life is the difference between a church simply taking up space and a church looking beyond its walls and trying to make a difference for the people on the outside — the ones who don’t have any reason to walk in.
The mass exodus
No pastor of a longstanding church in Oak Cliff can talk about his or her congregation’s history without bringing up the ’60s. It was a period of “white flight,” they say, as Oak Cliff families picked up and moved farther away from downtown. Many churches were casualties of the mass exodus, and those that have survived have never been the same.
What has happened for the most part is that our communities have changed and our congregations have not, says Robin Lovin, Southern Methodist University ethics professor and former dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. Most if not all of the people who built the churches are gone, and those who have sustained the congregations “are coming to the end of their lives, and they’re not being replaced by the same kind of people that were there before,” he says.
The most recent Gallup poll on church attendance found that roughly half of Americans attend a worship service at a church or synagogue at least once a month. Of those who seldom or never attend, only about a quarter of them cited reasons that had to do with laziness or not having enough time, while fully half referenced some sort of grievance with the church — they don’t believe in organized religion, they don’t believe in what churches teach, they don’t believe in going to church, or they don’t believe in God.
“We don’t live in a time when people will walk through the door and explore this for themselves,” Lovin says. “There are so many things competing for attention in society that a church has got to identify itself in some distinct way. It has got to give people a reason to want to come, and it has got to make that identity known in a public way.
"You can’t just sit there on the corner and hope that people will walk in, and hope if they do walk in, they will find something that they like,” he says. “A congregation that really wants to stay the same will eventually die. The same people will continue to do the things they’ve done until they die, and then the congregation will die.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, many neighborhood churches began to realize the neighborhood was changing, Presley says, but they had a hard time being open to the differences between the people meeting on the inside of the church walls and the people living on the outside.
“First, you don’t even recognize it, and then you get a little scared because you’re afraid you’re going to lose what you have, and you want to hang on,” Presley says. “And then you don’t even know how to have conversation, and then you may have a language barrier.”
Let it go
What happened at Oak Cliff United Methodist Church, Presley says, is that Methodist leaders told the mostly elderly and Anglo members that if they wanted the church to live, they had to be willing to let everything go.
The few members who remained resolved to do just that.
“They did not want this church to close and did not want to spend the final years looking back and saying, ‘Those were the golden days,’” Presley says. “They say the golden years are ahead of us. We’re not here just to keep the doors open for our funeral, and then who cares.”
Relinquishing their stronghold on the building and grounds lifted the church out of dire financial straits. Sunday school classrooms are now leased to a charter school, and the former youth memorial building is now home to a childcare center. In the summers, 100 children spend four days a week in the church as part of the United Methodist denomination’s Project Transformation summer camps for low-income families.
All of that amounts to a lot of wear and tear on the church, but “better a broken building than a broken life,” Presley says of her congregation’s new attitude. Oak Cliff United Methodist looks like a broken down church, she says, and people who want modern and new won’t find it there.
Instead, she says, it’s a church for people with a “real heart for mission.” These days, Presley says, people can walk in who have never set foot in a church, including the poor and the homeless, and be genuinely hugged by members. More recently, Oak Cliff United Methodist launched a second bilingual contemporary service led by new pastor Edgar Bazén, which has doubled in size since January.
“We are tap dancing on the precipice,” Presley says. “This is a preposterous situation, I would say. Every once in a while, you get the privilege of being put there, and you can look down or you can look up, and so we looked up together.”
In the last few years, Lovin says, the congregation has established “an unusual record of being able to reach out to those new communities in the area and provide services that are needed that have not traditionally been a part of what the church, and especially that church, has done.
“I think you&rsquo
;ve got a core in that congregation that has really risen to those new challenges.”
Many congregations, one church?
Different congregations worshipping under a single roof is one of the models emerging in Dallas, Lovin says. It’s not unusual, he says, to have a new Hispanic congregation or Vietnamese congregation worshipping in the same building as the Anglo congregation that may have formed the church or kept it going.
Christ Episcopal Church on 10th and Llewellyn began a Spanish-speaking service in the mid-’90s, and now its Hispanic congregation doubles and sometimes triples or quadruples the size of the Anglo congregation. The Anglo congregation — which in the past had 200 to 300 members, says Rector Gerald Krumenacker — now averages 50 to 55 each Sunday.
Krumenacker leads services in both English and Spanish on Sundays, but though the two congregations make space for each other, he says, there is “not that natural ability to form community together, which starts
It’s not always necessary for different congregations in one church to meet together in order to be successful, Lovin says.
“If you want to point to the question of survival of the church, forming the life in such a way that these different worshipping groups see themselves as part of the same church is important — whether they worship together or separately,” he says.
“If the future of the church means that it’s whole history goes forward as opposed to one group hands the building over to another one at some point, they need to work on ways that they live together and become one church, even if there are multiple congregations.”
Church by the numbers
If there were a prize in Oak Cliff for the church with the most congregations meeting under one roof, it would likely be Cliff Temple Baptist with four. The Well, a community of people suffering from mental illness, meets Saturday nights, then on Sunday mornings the mostly black congregation of Union Cathedral meets in the chapel, followed by the Hispanic congregation of Mission Central, which meets the same time as Cliff Temple Baptist’s service in the sanctuary.
Just a few years ago, Cliff Temple was the only congregation meeting at Zang and Sunset. The church’s history parallels that of Oak Cliff United Methodist. It formed just before the turn of the century, and in the ’30s when the sanctuary was built, the average Sunday school attendance was 2,400 — “the second largest Southern Baptist church in the United States,” says Jerry Spivey, minister of education and administration.
The ’60s affected Cliff Temple the way it did many other churches in our neighborhood, prompting a 50-year attendance decline. These days, roughly 200 people gather in the sanctuary each Sunday.
“We’re always trying to keep our head above water,” Spivey says. “It’s an Anglo congregation essentially in a 95 percent Hispanic neighborhood.”
One of Cliff Temple’s biggest problems was an underutilized building, so earlier this decade, the staff undertook the challenge of employing all 120,000 square feet. Today the campus houses two charter schools, an after-school ministry and a child development center that has grown five times larger in seven years, Spivey says. Additionally, Buckner Children and Family Services partners with Cliff Temple in the Goslin Care Center on the church’s campus, a food pantry that served 26,000 people between January and August 2008 — the same number served during the entirety of 2007, Spivey says.
“While we say we have been showing a number of decline, there’s been a reverse incline in the amount of ministries that we do … we’re just not showing growth in what Baptists traditionally count,” he says.
“Churches frequently call and ask me how can we keep going in such a transitional neighborhood, and I always tell them the value of keeping our church open during the week. We were getting ready to mothball the old education building and started getting $18,000 a month in rent for it, plus utilities.”
“If it’s the difference between leasing space and continuing ministry or closing the doors, I’ll lease everything we have,” Spivey says, “including the roof.”
Beyond brick and mortar
Surviving is one thing; growing is another. To reverse a trend of decline, a church has to be able to define its mission, Lovin says.
“Where change will happen is when you’ve got a core group of people in a congregation who are excited enough about the experience they’ve had that they want to share it and make sure it survives for another generation.”
However a church distinguishes itself, Lovin says, it’s crucial that such an identity grows out of the congregation already in place. The mistake many churches make is trying to mimic the strategies of other churches experiencing growth. Instead, Lovin says, any church that wants to survive a generational transition must find a mission unique to its own makeup and surroundings. What’s clear, he says, is that a one-model-fits-all approach won’t work.
“People keep holding up models and saying, ‘Be like this, and you’ll succeed.’ That’s the problem. You don’t want to say, ‘Be like this other church down the block.’ It’s being something different and distinctive that gives you a chance of having a future.”
Cliff Temple found its way by responding to needs that show up on its doorstep — literally. Whenever a beggar came to the church, it fell to former young adult minister Joel Pulis to respond, and he began realizing that many of the people he encountered had mental illnesses. From those experiences sprung The Well, a congregation that not only meets for worship Saturday nights but also gathers socially each weekday.
Another response is the after-school program welcoming dozens of students, from the charter school at Cliff Temple or from nearby Adamson High School, who flock to the church after the bell rings each day. Some of the students have graduated and now attend college, but still return.
Exciting things are happening at Cliff Temple “beyond the brick and mortar and keeping the lights on,” says music minister Brad Jernberg.
“If you’re looking for a place where you can come on Sunday that gets you feeling good about yourself, you’ll find some of that here,” says community ministries liaison Wes Keyes, “but if you’re looking for a place where we’re going to put you to work, where you’re going to live out your spirituality, then you need to come here. There’s always something to do; there’s always someone to be loved.”
The problems plaguing Protestant churches in Dallas also are impacting the city’s Jewish synagogues. A congregation like Temple Emanu-El, with 2,600 regular attendees and 7,500 people who affiliate themselves with the congregation, isn’t in any imminent danger, of course, but a recent demographic survey revealed that the temple is struggling to retain its young couples and singles.
Unlike Christians, Jews do not actively seek converts, so their future rests heavily on younger generations. Temple leaders decided to approach the problem in two ways: first, by offering reduced annual t
emple dues for 20- and 30-somethings, and second, by hiring a young adult — Mimi Zimmerman, daughter-in-law of former Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman — to create programs and activities specifically geared for that age group, such as an Asian Shabbat dinner or a Rosh Hashanah martini reception.
Conversely, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches may be the exception to the rule as far as lifecycles in Dallas are concerned. In Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lovin says, “the continuity of style of worship is very important for the identity of the community.”
Mainline Protestant churches, however, need to create a new identity in order to survive, he says. One of the keys is “a purpose that is outward-looking and relates to the wider world, and isn’t just inviting someone in,” Lovin says. “You want to tell the difference from a church seeking to grow as opposed to a social club seeking to grow, but there are lot of ways to do that.”
One may be serving as a neighborhood’s “town hall,” which is how many North Oak Cliff residents view Kessler Park United Methodist Church, says Rev. Tim McLemore. Being a public building in a largely residential area, the church often hosts homeowners association meetings, 12 step groups and public hearings led by city councilmen.
“Persons with very different religious viewpoints or persons who may feel antagonistic to organized religion in general will frequently find themselves in our church building, though never perhaps in a Sunday morning service.”
McLemore has watched longstanding members of different denominations join Kessler Park United Methodist “because we are a North Oak Cliff presence,” he says, or because their children attend The Kessler School, which is housed in the church.
Being a church for the neighborhood took on a different meaning in 1995, right after the church completed a demographic study. Like other neighborhood churches, Kessler Park had been in decline for 35 years and wanted to reverse the trend. The study showed that a number of gay and lesbian people were moving into the surrounding neighborhood, McLemore says, so the congregation publicly reaffirmed its commitment to be open and inclusive.
“We didn’t decide to become a niche church, defining ourselves only by our welcome to gay and lesbian persons; rather we simply deepened our commitment to be a neighborhood church including all the people in our neighborhood,” McLemore says.
Kessler Park attendance is now on the upswing, and “while our gay and lesbian population isn’t numerically large,” McLemore says, “the fact that we welcome all persons has been a factor in
Another pendulum swing
After three or four decades of decline, Oak Cliff residents may be getting ready to experience the pendulum swing once again, this time with a commonly cited buzzword: gentrification.
In the ’70s, when many immigrant families began moving in, “people would say wake up and smell the tacos,” Krumenacker says. The new trend, however, is “wake up and smell the Starbucks,” he says.
“I really think our future in this community and as a church is probably going to reflect the same thing that’s happening in the Bishop Arts District,” which is about three blocks from Christ Episcopal Church, Krumenacker says. Spanish speakers will remain in both the church and Oak Cliff, he says, “but what’s changing is the Anglo young professional.”
Laura Fregin, pastor of Church in the Cliff, believes neighbors are conflicted about gentrification. On one hand, they want the neighborhood to be all it can be, but “it tears our hearts that we’re pushing people out while it’s happening.”
The diversity of Oak Cliff was its selling point for Fregin. As she and her husband were trying to decide where in Dallas to buy a house, they sat down to dinner at Gloria’s on Davis.
“We looked around, and it’s this diverse mixture of people — different kinds of couples, different kinds of families, different culturally, ethnically …”
At the time, Fregin was pastor of City Church in Uptown, which had decided to move somewhere else, and simultaneously, Cathedral of Hope in Cedar Springs wanted to plant a church in Oak Cliff. The two congregations, both known for being open and affirming to the gay and lesbian community, decided to come together this year to form Church in the Cliff.
“We’ve kind of said to people when we moved that the Cliff was not just a place, that it was a state of mind,” Fregin says, describing the mindset as “more open to diversity in all its forms, eclectic, progressive.” The church holds what it calls an “emergent” worship service each Sunday in Kidd Springs Recreation Center where, Fregin says, “I don’t do sermons — we have conversations.”
Church in the Cliff had planned to move into Trinity Presbyterian Church on Zang opposite Lake Cliff Park after the congregation closed its doors, but the Presbytery decided to use the building for a blossoming Hispanic congregation, Iglesia Emmanuel.
“We would have put in an art gallery and a coffee shop and all those kinds of things, but it probably didn’t fit that neighborhood,” Fregin says, “and Iglesia Emmanuel fits that neighborhood.”
The most segregated hour
Trinity Presbyterian’s conversion to Iglesia Emmanuel is an example of another common occurrence in Oak Cliff: a dying church replaced by a congregation with a starkly different culture, socioeconomic and sometimes language than the people who previously worshipped there. Trinity closed because it “stayed an Anglo church in downtown Oak Cliff, and that can’t survive,” says Rev. Clay Allard of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church.
If any church knows about bringing people of different cultures and ethnicities together, it’s Oak Cliff Presbyterian. The congregation is roughly half white and half black, and has been desegregated longer than perhaps any other neighborhood church, but it wasn’t until recently that the church actually integrated, Allard says.
“People sat beside each other, but they didn’t know each other,” he says, “Five years ago, this was a white church where black people were welcome. What we’ve done in the last five years is you can’t label us anymore. We’re not a white church, we’re not a black church, we’re just in the middle. We have given up all of that cultural heritage of that Anglo world for the mission that we have.”
Allard makes these statements from a church sitting opposite the Dallas Executive Airport, miles away from many of its counterparts that also formed before the turn of the 20th century. Oak Cliff Presbyterian’s original location was on 10th Street, where the North Oak Cliff Library now stands.
“This was a church much like First Baptist downtown: If you were black and showed up, they would tell you where to go to worship — and it was not here,” Allard says.
What turned the tide was the congregation’s invitation in 1967 to Rev. Thomas Currie, a beloved former pastor. Currie agreed to return to Oak Cliff Presbyterian if the church would agree to welcome anyone who came in the door, “and everyone knew what that meant,” Allard says.
The subsequent vote favored Currie&
rsquo;s position, 60 percent to 40 percent. The 40 percent left, and Currie took the remainder of the congregation and headed in a new direction, which included moving the church to its present location. At a time when many churches were closing their doors and locking them from the inside, Currie “singlehandedly protected the first African Americans brought into the congregation,” Allard says.
Oak Cliff Presbyterian’s mission is to destroy the statement made by the late Martin Luther King Jr. in his last public sermon that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Over the last few years, these efforts have led to a growth spurt in the church.
“The church should be the place that is the most integrated of any place in this culture — generationally, racially, by socioeconomic status,” Allard says. “If we took seriously who Jesus Christ says he is and we are, how can it be any different? And how will anybody believe in heaven if we can’t live that way on earth? It sounds ‘Field of Dreams,’ but if you do it, they will come because people are looking.”
A future on the fringes
It should encourage neighborhood religious leaders that population trends are in their favor, Lovin says. Unlike in Chicago or St. Louis, where some religious institutions will die because there are simply fewer people to fill their sanctuaries, “there’s no reason that a congregation in Dallas has to die. People are moving into the city; the overall population is growing,” Lovin says.
Even so, these leaders know that urban renewal doesn’t automatically translate to rising attendance in their congregations. Beyond the generational transitions many churches in Oak Cliff are experiencing, religious institutions across the country are in the beginning stages of a major shift, pastors say, one so immense that the implications aren’t yet clear.
What we’ve had for decades are “congregations with no mission,” Allard says. As church buildings and their corresponding congregations have aged, they have learned that simply gathering together each week isn’t reason enough to exist.
“The church has always had to change, and we just got spoiled, especially in America in the last 200 years,” Allard says. “There’s something new happening in the church, and it’s not going to happen in Preston Hollow or Highland Park, it’s going to happen on the fringes.”
Neighborhood churches that have a future are churches that have found their mission, he says. They have something “stronger than race, stronger than class, stronger than generation that binds us,” and that’s what makes living south of the Trinity exciting,
“They’re all wrong up north — this is the best place to be.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.