I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.
It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."
There are several valid news angles there, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.
If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.
Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.
Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:
Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.
Now stop the train right there for a minute.
It's pretty common for congregations in oldline Protestantism to sell their buildings to all kinds of secular people, creating lovely art galleries, condos, restaurants, taverns and what not. However, leaders of the liberal Protestant mainline -- First Lutheran Church in Waco is part of the edgy, progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- rarely sell their buildings to new-born churches in conservative flocks, especially those emerging from the painful wars that are shaking the old denominations.
So how did this sale come about? Did the Tribune-Herald editors know that they had a rather unusual church-closing story on their hands?
It would appear not.
The story is strong when looking at the distance past. For example:
Heckmann, whose father came to Texas from Norway with his parents, Magnus and Ingeborg Nelson, in 1869, said the sale of the church building is bittersweet. At 94, Heckmann still delivers Meals on Wheels with her son, and has served in many capacities at the church, including deacon and a member of the choir.
“There are just so many memories here,” she said. “Sitting on the front pew with my family. My father helped build this sanctuary. I can look in a lot of places here and see his work.”
The original church for Norwegian immigrants in Waco was built in 1884 and called Ebenezer Skandnaviske Menighed. When the current sanctuary was built in 1917, it replaced the old structure and they changed the name to First Lutheran Church of Waco. The church also phased out Norwegian language services, according to church history archives.
The membership will meet temporarily now at Connally-Compton Funeral Directors on West Waco Drive until plans for a more-permanent location are finalized.
Now, what about the recent past? Was this church in the heart of Texas affected by progressive ELCA trends? Did it lose any members for doctrinal reasons in the past decade of two, as opposed to those who merely passed from the scene? This is not the story to examine those kinds of trends.
But there is this, at the very end.
Father Lee Nelson, pastor of Christ Church Waco, said his growing church is looking forward to “putting down some roots” at the new location after meeting for the past eight years at the Junior League House, the Clifton House, the Dr Pepper Museum, the chapel at First Baptist Church and other locations.
Nelson said the church currently has more than 200 members, adding that the congregation has grown 70 percent annually for the last three years. ...
“Mostly, we are trying to preserve the church’s architectural and historical value without making major changes to it,” Nelson said. “The way it was built suits our form of worship really well. We are really glad to be able to use the sacred space and be able to use it that way for many decades to come, and to use it the way it was intended.”
Did the Waco Trib folks ask any questions about these growth numbers? Why is one liturgical church rising, while the other -- the modern, progressive group -- is fading?
Come to think of it, did anyone call to request some kind of reaction from the downtown Episcopal Church parish? Did anyone call regional or national ELCA leaders?
Just asking. This is an interesting story, if you stop and think about it. Did any editors do that?