It was as obvious to Trinity United Methodist Church members as it was to anybody who sat in the church’s back pew during Sunday services — membership in the once-vibrant congregation was dwindling and aging.
Having a graying congregation is not a problem unique to Trinity. Church membership in mainline denominations is declining across the nation. Trinity’s reaction, though, was unique, especially in South Carolina.
Trinity put itself up for adoption.
Buncombe Street United Methodist Church, one of South Carolina’s largest Methodist congregations, voted overwhelmingly to take Trinity in and create one church with two campuses. When the state’s Methodist leadership approved it, it became the first such “adoption” in the Methodist Church in South Carolina.
“They realized there was no future for the church 20 years down the road,” said Dr. Bob Howell, senior pastor at BSUMC.
Most churches in the U.S. are not growing.
A Pew Research Center survey showed that the percentage of the nation’s adults who identify themselves as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent from 2007 to 2014, while those who were “religiously unaffiliated” rose from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Mainline Protestantism has shown the biggest dip, declining by about 5 million during that timeframe.
Churches are also aging.
The American Congregations Overview Report by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that 22 percent of the nation’s adult population are adults ages 18 to 29. But they make up only 11 percent of churchgoers. In the study, church members over the age of 60 increased by 5 percent, while people under age 35 decreased by the same percentage.
The decline in generational replacement is just part of the problem. People are switching religions at a greater clip as well. Thirty-four percent of American adults identify with a religion other than that of their childhood.
Trinity’s decision came after a months-long in-depth look at itself and concluded that the church could no longer sustain the type of ministry they wanted for the congregation and the community.
“The will didn’t dwindle, but the numbers did,” said longtime Trinity member Dr. Carol Wilson. “We knew that circumstances would mandate change if we didn’t do anything. We decided we wanted to shape the change.”
That meant losing the name of the first Methodist church in the Augusta Street area.
“They were willing to sacrifice the label for the ministry,” Howell said.
Jack Griffeth, the lay leader at BSUMC’s Trinity campus, said the decision was difficult, especially for longtime members. “It was a sacrifice of love. It was the only way to keep the church at Trinity.”
A new idea
When Howell was approached by Dr. George Howle, Greenville District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church, his initial reaction was to say no.
Howell had just returned to Buncombe Street as senior pastor after decades at other churches. But the longer the men talked, the more open Howell became to the idea.
“I thought maybe it’s not just George, but God was in the middle of it,” he said.
After that talk, Howell took the idea to a church committee, and BSUMC did a due diligence study, looking at how adoption would affect church finances and the momentum BSUMC had been able to generate in recent months. Eighty-three percent of the members said yes in an April vote. Buncombe Street held its ministry leadership retreat at Trinity as an early demonstration that it wanted to be good stewards, said Tommy Sinclair, chair of the church’s transition team.
On July 1, Trinity’s property was deeded over to Buncombe Street and Trinity became BSUMC’s second campus.
“It’s been hard for many people,” said Howell. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s bad. We know the pain is worthwhile.”
Looking to the future
So why does BSUMC think it can attract younger members to the Trinity campus when Trinity itself could not? Burt said BSUMC knows how to reach people of all ages, as demonstrated by the range of people who attend services and participate in the church’s variety of programming.
“Each generation listens to music that is different than their parents. Music is always changing. But the constant is everybody loves music,” said Rev. Ben Burt, BSUMC associate pastor who will lead the Trinity campus. “That’s true of the gospel message.”
“Buncombe Street is ravenous for ministry, and they know how to do it well,” Burt added. “The history of Trinity has been passionate, brilliant people who were trying to do church in a way that wasn’t reaching people outside of their walls effectively. We’re going to transplant the best of this church and customize it at Trinity because the 29605 is not 29601.”
In the Sundays since the adoption, Sunday attendance at the Trinity campus has increased from about 40 to more than 100. Howell said there’s talk of conducting Bible School at Trinity because that campus has more available space than BSUMC’s larger downtown site. Pastoral leadership will also rotate between the campuses while Trinity gets to know Buncombe Street and Buncombe Street gets to know Trinity. “All of us are pastors of this church,” Howell said.
Howle said this adoption could become a model for the state.
“It’s going to become the model for the conference,” he said. “This is one of the most inexpensive ways to revitalize congregations and to start congregations, to revitalize communities, and to revitalize our churches in decline. It costs less and carries much greater prospects for success than new church planting, and helps save and grow churches rather than shutting them down.”
Wilson said the adoption provides hope for Trinity and beyond.
“We see a great deal about which to be hopeful,” she said. “We believe it will provide hope for other congregations that find themselves in the position we did. We believe good will come from this.”
Carol Allison, who retired as Trinity’s pastor in June, said adoption is not going to be for every church. but it is an option for churches that find themselves in Trinity’s position. “It makes more sense to have a dozen large churches than 76 smaller, struggling churches,” she said. “It’s an option for churches to consider.”
Allison added that every pastor wants to leave a church larger and stronger than when they found it. “I believe I did,” she said, “but not in any way that I had envisioned.”