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    Downtown living breeds churches

    In a major reversal, congregations are thriving in city centers. And it's not just Mars Hill.
    The new Mars Hill Church will be in the former First United Methodist Church at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, pictured in 1926.

    The new Mars Hill Church will be in the former First United Methodist Church at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street, pictured in 1926. IMLS Digital Collections and Content/Flickr

    Pastor Mark Driscoll preaching at Mars Hill Church in Ballard.

    Pastor Mark Driscoll preaching at Mars Hill Church in Ballard. Mars Hill Church

    Twenty years ago, when I was leading a congregation in downtown Seattle, the conventional wisdom — confirmed by the statistics — was that a city center or downtown was a tough location for a church. People had moved farther and farther away from downtowns, while those urban cores struggled with varied forms of social decay and decline. True, there was plenty of work for congregations that stayed downtown, but often fewer people to fill the pews and pay the bills.

    I took some pride in the fact that Plymouth Church (at Sixth and University) in downtown Seattle bucked the trend of the time and was actually a growing congregation in those years. 

    Overall, however, the pattern of downtowns being tough territory for churches held true for 50 years — but that’s changing. Now, surprisingly, downtowns and city centers are newly fertile ground for churches.

    That was the conclusion of the most recent Faith Communities Today national study, released in 2011. According to the FACT study of the Hartford Research Institute on patterns of church growth and decline between 2000 and 2010, city centers are a good place for growing churches. Here’s what the Faith Communties Today study reported:

    In a shift, congregations located in the downtown or central city area are more likely to experience growth than congregations in other locations. Previous surveys found that newer suburbs were associated with the greatest potential for growth. 

    So the announcement that Seattle’s Mars Hill is moving its downtown congregation to the historic building of the former First Methodist at Fifth and Marion is noteworthy but not altogether surprising. The city center is, newly, where it's at, even if First Methodist is Seattle’s oldest congregation, founded in 1853.

    While Mars Hill is in many respects a special case, other congregations in Seattle’s downtown, including First Methodist at its new location near Seattle Center, and First Baptist on First Hill, are reporting moderate growth as well. Meanwhile, Gethsemane Lutheran, also downtown near the bus station, has recently completed an attractive renovation and is experiening new vitality. And two years ago this month, the Catholic Archdiocese officially opened a new downtown parish, Christ Our Hope. Membership growth has to do with a number of factors — spiritually alive worship, a clear sense of mission, absence of chronic conflict, and capable leadership — but downtowns are no longer the challenge to churches that they were for so long.

    Moreover, as the FACT study and Seattle churches indicate, growth is not limited to conservative or evangelical congregations. “Theological orientation,” indicates the Hartford research is less important than clarity about mission, a religious or spiritual orientation (in contrast to churches that morph into social clubs), and willingness to embrace change.

    Mars Hill embodies another trend among larger or mega-churches today, that of the “multi-site” church. Nationally more than half of mega-churches (congregations with weekend worship attendance of more than 2,000) are now multi-site. This means that one church will offer worship services and programs at multiple sites, often simulcasting the sermon from a primary or central location, while having a pastoral staff and musicians at each local site. “Multi-site” is something like franchising in other sectors.

    But the question remains, why are downtowns and city centers newly promising for religious congregations? It’s not entirely a mystery. City centers and downtowns are now popular as residential communities. Seattle embodies this trend as well as any place, having been transformed since the mid-1990’s by much greater population density and significant increases in housing stock in the urban center. Where Seattle’s downtown was once a business but not a residential center, that’s significantly changed today with lots of new housing in the Denny Regrade, South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, First Hill, and the International District — and more to come.

    Often the new urban populations are younger, which means that churches that are geared for people in their twenties and thirties may benefit most. But that’s not the whole story. Some of the urban residents are the “young elderly” or newly retired. They turn to a church for a community and an anchor in their new setting, as well as a place to be involved. Higher gas prices may be a factor, too, causing people to be less willing to make long drives, as well as improved urban public transit.

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    Posted Fri, Aug 10, 7:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    Not so fast Tony......


    Posted Fri, Aug 10, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good article, Tony, as always.

    It'll be interesting to see if the same issues we Methodists faced at Fifth and Marion will face Mars Hill at that same site: lack of parking, ADA inaccessibility, sparse residences in the neighborhood, seismic issues in the building, inflexibility of worship space, etc. Those in addition to the fact that the building now has official landmark status, which means it can't be changed without City of Seattle approval (not sure if that's just for the outside or the inside, too). MH has great resources at its disposal, though, and if anyone can overcome those issues it will be MH.

    Thanks for a good read.

    Posted Mon, Aug 13, 2:28 p.m. Inappropriate

    Mars Hill has great resources??? This is so insulting. They enjoy huge tax breaks and are making use of infrastructure paid for by normal citizens. Mars Hill has paid nothing for this infrastructure.

    We cannot allow this to continue.


    Posted Mon, Aug 13, 5:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    All incorporated non-profits in Washington State receive a property tax exemption. Do you really want to put the state in charge of determining which non-profits should and shouldn't get the exemption? BTW all non-profits do pay sales tax in Washington State.

    The "great resources" I mentioned are the contributions that come from Mars Hill's own supporters which have allowed them to build quite an infrastructure. What's insulting about that?

    Posted Tue, Aug 14, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes I do think non-profits should be held to high standard in order to receive tax breaks. For instance, Mars Hill says this in their annual report:

    "Elders are the male leaders of the church. By male we mean not just anatomically male, but manly men."

    As far as I can tell, it is against the law to discriminate based on sex. Why should I be forced to support a law breaking cult such as this. Do you, Sandy, as a christian, support this kind of misogynistic crap? I find it astounding that so-called "mainline" Christians tolerate this. Do you think Jesus would stand passively by and let these goons take over? You basically end up being apologists for these extreme hate groups. Insulting--definitely.


    Posted Fri, Aug 10, 9:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    I am grateful to Kevin Daniels for rescuing the handsome old church from demolition, but also sympathetic with his plight about what to do with it. It has good musical acoustics, but there's probably not room for another such hall, competing with Town Hall and Meany Hall, in the town, and it was going to cost millions of unrecoupable dollars to bring it up to code. To his credit, developer Daniels did not want to make life more difficult for these fine existing halls. But then what? House of Blues? (odd location) Microsoft store? (too far from other retail) Grand lobby for a hotel? Council chambers for King County Council? Downtown public school?

    The difficulty lies in the location, adjacent to the government center and a few office buildings, and all the difficulties of modifying extensively a historically protected building. All things considered, Mars Hill, little as it will do for the area, may have been the least-bad option.

    Posted Mon, Aug 13, 5:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Downtown living breeds churches"
    Gee, I wonder what their offspring will look like.


    Posted Mon, Aug 13, 2:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    There is an Elephant in the room that no one is talking about. Mars Hill. This "church" has been allowed to thrive in our midst all the while reaping huge tax breaks and subsidies. Now, like a cancer, they are expanding into our downtown, taking valuable real estate off the tax roles while spewing forth misogynistic and anti-gay sermons.

    Tony, you have committed a sin of omission by not calling this out. Why not? Is any church a good church? Do we need to tolerate hate speech just because it is religion?


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