Mainline Protestant churches in small-town America: it’s time for a few more disciples.

The borough of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, isn’t a hotbed of economic activity, and it’s not receiving a surge of new arrivals. But as minor cities in Pennsylvania go, it could be in a lot worse shape. Unlike the vast majority of municipalities in the Keystone State, it has about the same population it did in 1930; in fact, most estimates suggest it might be a bit larger. (The borough dipped below 10,000 people during the 1960-1990 doldrums, but it has recovered all of its population since then.)

Compared to most other communities in central PA, Waynesboro is stable. Pennsylvania, like many other northeastern states (and unlike most of the rest of the country), is 100% incorporated. If you’re not living in a city in Pennsylvania, you’re in either a borough or a township. Every square mile of the county that encompasses Waynesboro belongs to some local government; there’s no unincorporated Franklin County. This characteristic has prevented municipalities in Pennsylvania from annexing since a constitutional amendment in the middle of the 20th century. So while shrinking cities throughout the South and Midwest have expanded their boundaries to recover population (and a tax base), Pennsylvania communities are stuck. Thus, the fact that Waynesboro is growing again is a very good sign: it indicates that people are coming back. My only guess is that, despite its isolated appearance, Waynesboro sits about equidistant from two important metros: Harrisburg (Pennsylvania’s bigger-than-you-think-it-should-be capital) and Baltimore. Additionally, the nation’s capital isn’t that much further, and it’s more of a direct path down I-70. Therefore, people are coming to Waynesboro because it rests within the orbit of bigger cities, while comfortably dodging the exorbitant housing prices associated particularly with Washington DC.

It’s a pleasant looking town with a main street characteristically well-preserved as Pennsylvania towns go. Not vibrant, but hardly moribund, and much of the century-old architecture remains fully intact, as this street scene suggests. Nonetheless, on the heart of Main Street, just a few blocks from the absolute center of Waynesboro, the visitor will encounter this eyesore.IMG_9248It’s not closed for renovation. The First Christian Church of Waynesboro hasn’t been such a dolorous sight for all that long though. A Google Street View image from the summer of 2012 reveals the fully exposed stained glass windows, suggesting the building’s owners hadn’t yet mothballed the structure. But wait—couldn’t it have been fully operational six years ago? Perhaps, but I suspect it was already closed; take a look at the small placard just to the right of structure, where a church would normally list its pastor and the times for the Sunday services. Blank. Only if we dig back further—to the summer of 2008 (the oldest Street View image)—does First Christian Church show signs of hosting an active congregation. So it has clearly deteriorated over the decade.

And in 2018, it’s even worse.IMG_9247The residential structure just to the right of First Christian Church is gone. Nothing more than a vacant lot. And the church itself looks considerably more weathered. Comparing this site to ten years ago, it’s now a clear blight to Waynesboro’s otherwise largely intact historic main street. So what happened? Well, it’s obvious the church closed, probably at least six or seven years ago. And my suspicion is the adjacent house was a parsonage, or a rectory, or whatever they call it—the home where the pastor and his or her family lived. And it vacated at the same time as the church, then burned to the ground, quite likely through arson. The fire didn’t spread so easily from the wooden home to the church of masonry, and a mothballed structure remains.

The type of church might also offer a clue. With a name as seemingly generic as “First Christian Church”, it could have belonged to any larger affiliation, but I’d wager that it was The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), one of the country’s oldest, largest, and most established Mainline Protestant denominations. As I’ve written about multiple times in the past, the Mainline Protestant church denominations—which include the Episcopal Church of the USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Disciples of Christ, among others—have long been instrumental in the dissemination of religious and cultural mores throughout the country. The vast majority of U.S. Presidents have belonged to Mainline Protestant denominations. I explored these churches in great detail on an article in The Episcopal Café a few years ago, but to sum it up briefly: today the majority of them are characterized by a European counterpart from which they’ve evolved. Many of them date from the colonial period; all are at least 150 years old. (Among the largest Mainline Protestant denominations, Disciples of Christ is the one true exception, having purely American roots.)  The congregations typically have above average incomes and educational attainment, are slightly older than the national median, employ a traditional and liturgical approach to weekly services, and they embrace a theology that is generally politically liberal or even leftist.

Additionally, virtually every one of the Mainline Protestant denominations shares an unfortunate characteristic: they’re shrinking. Most of them achieved their peak in membership and influence in the 1950s, and as the more youthful and mission-driven Evangelical churches have expanded in popularity, Mainline churches have flagged. Churches like Disciples of Christ (to which I’m almost certain First Christian Church in Waynesboro belonged) have suffered from low birthrates and an inability to retain younger members up to adulthood, many of whom either migrate to a non-denominational alternative or leave the faith altogether. Additionally, these Mainline Protestant churches often remain located in aging structures in old parts of town; their charming but creaky buildings are expensive to maintain. It’s possible that the First Christian Church featured here still exists in some other form, having moved to a smaller, newer building, or operating out of a person’s living room. But the future for the old church is bleak.

In larger cities with more active downtowns, vacant Mainline Protestant churches have proven lucrative real estate for the conversion into multifamily residential buildings. Many years ago, I featured a conversion in my home city of Indianapolis (also the headquarters of Disciples of Christ, incidentally) of an old United Methodist Church into condominiums. It’s a fitting use for a charming old building, but a town the size of Waynesboro does not yet boast the same demand for multifamily residential. Many of the people who have moved to this remote location specifically sought a place like Waynesboro because of the availability of lower-cost detached or semidetached housing—not to live in the apartments that are so ubiquitous throughout metro Washington DC. That said, if Waynesboro’s main street remains active and aesthetic, and the urban-minded population from neighboring cities keeps immigrating to this rural outpost, the demand may eventually escalate so that a developer could reasonably repurpose the old First Christian Church. The country as a whole certainly is facing an rising number of dying old church buildings, typically in reviving old walkable, urban settings. Many of them will face the wrecking ball. Waynesboro’s prominent old chapel may suffer the same, but it does have one other selling point for a developer: that vacant lot next door could at least serve the new residents as a parking lot. Sigh.

 

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15 thoughts on “Mainline Protestant churches in small-town America: it’s time for a few more disciples.

    1. Claudia Reese

      I lived in the parsonage in the early 1960’s. My brother and I found what clearly was the underground railroad, going from the basement of the parsonage to under the foundation of the church. The symbols were still painted on the walls. I didn’t know what it was as a child. Much later I tried to tell researchers, but never got responses. Anyone interested in the details? Interesting attic spaces as well.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks for your contributions, Claudia. This is a somewhat old article at this point, so it’s hard to know the condition of the church itself, but I’m 99% certain that the vacant lot to the right of the church was the space that formerly hosted the parsonage. It was still standing in 2012 but was gone by 2018 when I visited. I’m not sure when between those two years it got demolished, or what the conditions were that prompted the demolition. Even if the church was closing in the early 2010, you’d think the owners could have sold the parsonage as a private residence.

        You might check with a historic society in Waynesboro to see if you can offer any details on the structures that they don’t already have. Since it’s been 4 years since I was there, I’m not sure if the church building itself is still standing these days.

        Reply
  1. Michael Sherrard

    Fun (if depressing) read. Minor quibble: The Disciples of Christ are actually the only one of the seven sisters without any kind of European genealogy. The Stone-Campbell movement is a thoroughly American phenomenon.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Very true Michael. And thanks for the response. I tried to account for this and should have been more careful in my wording (I have family who are D of C) but, after rereading, you’re right: my sentence suggests that Disciples are European. While they formed as a reaction to European (often Presbyterian) tenets like the Westminster Confession, they are an American denomination. Kentucky and Pennsylvania, I think? I’ll try to edit that portion of the article within the next day or two.

      Reply
  2. Aaron M. Renn

    Many of these old buildings are extremely expensive to maintain – some of them need many millions of dollars in repairs. You probably see that the famous D of C churches in Columbus, Indiana need bigtime maintenance at present. Pew did a study on religious buildings in the city of Philadelphia a while back, if you can find it. They tried to assess the condition and make estimates of the cost of repair of all of them.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Hi Aaron, thanks for writing. I noted the maintenance costs for old buildings like these, as well as heating and cooling. It’s a shame, but a predictable dilemma. A well regarded brutalist building in the heart of downtown Washington DC got demolished a few years ago, largely because the Christian Science denomination wasn’t big enough to support the size and couldn’t justify the cost for utilities and maintenance.

      I hope that the world famous “oil can” Church in Columbus isn’t similarly threatened. I knew the former organist at that church, and he never referenced whether the health of the congregation seems like a problem. I just presume it’s fairly elderly, but that’s typical of most mainline Protestant churches.

      Reply
    2. Chris B

      It’s a bit like a wealthy family’s estate home. At some point there is neither enough income nor accumulated wealth to maintain the property.

      As Aaron points out, two of the most famous modern churches in the world (First Christian and North Christian in Columbus, IN designed by Saarinen pere et fils, respectively) face the same fate as older traditional brick churches in small cities and towns now that the benefactor is gone. North Christian, my favorite and arguably the most distinctive Christian church in the world, is on Indiana Landmarks’ “Ten Most Endangered” list this year at the ripe old age of 55. (Alas, I am not wealthy enough to replace the Millers as benefactors unless I win the Mega Millions jackpot.)

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt

        So I see. https://www.indianalandmarks.org/endangered-property/north-christian-church/

        Interesting that they’re talking about sharing the space with other congregations. I can’t help but wonder if the growing Asian immigrant community in Columbus might be interested in using a building like this to host its services. This is very, very common among Mainline Protestant churches these days, and, in many respects, it keeps them afloat.

        As for First Christian in Waynesboro, it’s not likely to make any lists as an architectural treasure. It appears that the wood-frame add-on in the back (or perhaps the primary structure, and the brick façade was merely for appearances) is deteriorating.

        Reply
          1. AmericanDirt

            Seems like a more likely outcome. It’s a matter of time before the creep of Washington DC affluence reaches out this direction (much the same way it has to Frederick, MD), but we’re still probably a long ways to go.

            Reply
  3. Alex Pline

    I enjoyed the piece, but I’ve been a little hesitant to wade into these waters as formal, organized religion is not my wheelhouse, but one of the observations I have made is given the current abundance of mobility in our society, at least compared to 50+ years ago, local/urban churches have a hard time with membership which leads to a self selecting congregation. Sadly not unlike the rest of of society. No longer do you go to the local church because you could walk to it which provided a much more heterogeneous congregation within that denomination even if there were “compromises” you make to do it, but instead you travel to be with your tribe. I think this church in your piece is a victim of that incentive.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      You could be right, Alex. The walkability–or lack thereof–certainly could hurt places like the First Christian featured here. Most of these old church buildings in urban settings did not historically have their own parking lot because people walked, or the handful that drove simply parked on the street. Sometimes these churches get abandoned (relocated to the greenfields nearby) because they find that they needed dedicated off-street parking to satisfy an elderly or car-dependent congregation. Then again, many of them have shrunk so badly by the time they get to this point that a half-dozen parking spaces out front is good enough. And they close because the congregation itself is too small to support a building, which seems to be what happened in Waynesboro.

      As for heterogeneity, I’m not sure that’s something that has deteriorated. Many of these churches, particularly in more urban settings, were ethnically segregating: the people of northern German descent went to one, southern German to another, English to one, Scottish to another. And when theological differences emerged (i.e., places became too heterogenous in terms of worldviews), a schism took place and a new church was formed. That’s partially why we have such an insane number of Christian denominations–something like 20,000 out there. From my own (admittedly limited) experience, the Evangelical megachurch of the 21st century is far more ethnically heterogeneous than the typical Mainline Protestant church…then again, that’s not hard, when Evangelical churches often are very large, and Mainline Protestant churches are often small.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        Great points on the heterogeneity; I was thinking of heterogeneity in terms of ideas not ethnicity or social class, but I think your comments counter that assertion regardless. Are evangelical churches doing well because they are, well “evangelical”, where as more mainline Protestant denominations like those in New England where I grew up do not proselytize, which leads to their decline?

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          I’d say that’s a huge factor. Also, Evangelical churches tend to thrive in rural or exurban areas where land is cheaper. In accordance with those lower housing costs is a cultural desire for bigger home and bigger yards to host bigger families. Evangelical birth rates are still well above the 2.1 needed for replacement. From my experience around evangelical communities in the military, it is not uncommon to have 5-7 children.

          Reply

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