Mainline Protestant denominations make pushes to create new churches

CINCINNATI -- On the first Sunday of this month, Christians around the world celebrated an often-overlooked holiday called Pentecost, which commemorates a seminal event in Christianity.

According to the Book of Acts in the Christian Bible, Jesus' disciples were gathered to celebrate a Jewish feast day in the weeks immediately following his resurrection. God's Holy Spirit descended on them, and they began speaking in languages they didn't know.

They used their newfound linguistic ability to tell Jews, gathered in Jerusalem for the feast, about Jesus. That day, the fledgling group of disciples gained thousands of new members.

Today, America's mainline Protestant denominations could use a fresh outpouring of that spirit. These denominations, most of them founded hundreds of years ago, had their heyday in the 1950s and '60s, but since have been in decline.

Consider the Presbyterian Church.

As a movement, Presbyterianism began in the 16th century when John Calvin's student, John Knox, brought Calvin's teachings back to Knox's native Scotland. From there, Presbyterianism moved overseas to what would become the United States.

Some of Cincinnati's first churches were Presbyterian and are still meeting. First Presbyterian downtown and Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian both celebrated their 225th anniversaries in 2015.

But other congregations have not fared so well.

In May, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reported that it had 1,482,767 members, or nearly 90,000 fewer than in 2015. It was the fewest members the denomination has ever lost year-to-year, but it also gained the fewest members year-to-year. The number of congregations declined by 191 to 9,451.

The denomination has been losing members slowly but steadily since 1965.

In June 2012, the denomination's General Assembly committed the denomination to creating 1,001 worshipping communities over the next 10 years. Since then, 409 new communities have sprung up, and 85 percent of them are still active.

Two of them are in Cincinnati.

The Hive: A Center for Contemplation, Art and Action is located at 1660 Blue Rock Ave. in Northside. The Hive offers retreats, events, classes and one-on-one direction, plus a Sunday worship in conjunction with the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

Abby King-Kaiser leads the new Common Ground worship community that primarily comprises Xavier students. Photo provided

Common Ground, meanwhile, is a community of Protestant believers drawn from the student body at Xavier University. It's led by Abby King-Kaiser, the associate director of the university's Center for Faith and Justice and an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Common Ground meets for worship at 8 p.m. Sunday nights during the school year, King-Kaiser said, with an average of about 40 students in attendance.

Visitors from Presbyterian churches would feel at home in the worship service, she said, but they might not be able to put their finger on why. It's patterned on a traditional Presbyterian worship service, with one difference being that worshippers have communion every week, rather than once a month or once a quarter.

Another difference is that students lead the worship, King-Kaiser said, through singing, praying and sometimes even preaching.

If you ask the students involved in Common Ground what it means to be a Presbyterian, she said, they would probably know the word, but couldn't tell you what it meant.

That's not unusual. In most churches, people think of themselves as members of a church first, and not a denomination, as they might have years ago, King-Kaiser said.

One challenge for the 1,001 new worshipping communities movement is that for many of the new communities, she said, "people come to them because they are a place where they can experience God, not because they're Presbyterian."

On Pentecost Sunday, churches that belong to another mainline Protestant denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), collected their annual offering to support the growth and development of new churches.

They'll collect that offering again on June 11.

The Disciples are one of the youngest mainline denominations, being a creation of the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 in Paris, Kentucky. There are 35 congregations with 25 miles of downtown Cincinnati.

The Pentecost offering supports the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, a ministry of the Disciples charged with fulfilling 2020 Vision, a plan to create 1,000 new Disciples congregations by 2020.

It looks as though the denomination will make it with churches to spare. As of this year, 986 congregations had been created, said Bethany Lowery, interim director for Hope Partnership.

They have sprung up all over the United States and Canada, she said, and a large percentage don't conduct their services in English.

Before 2020 Vision began, Disciples worshipped in about six languages. But now, they worship in 28, including Hindi, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil and Chuukese, a language spoken in the Pacific Ocean nation of Micronesia.

It wasn't the plan to target immigrant communities -- it just worked out that way, Lowery said. But it does fit another goal of 2020 Vision: to make the Disciples a pro-reconciling, anti-racist denomination.

She said that two of the largest Disciples churches, with thousands of members apiece, are new African-American congregations, New Direction Christian Church in Memphis and Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta.

The denomination estimates that about 60,000 lives have been touched by the new churches, she said.

Unfortunately, that's not been enough to reverse the trend of declining membership, which peaked in 1957 at 1.6 million and has fallen to about 455,000 in the United States and Canada.

The good news, Lowery said, is that about 60 percent of the new congregations remain in existence after five years. That's much better than any other kind of startups in the American economy, she added.

"We're proud of that," Lowery said.

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