On the first day of school, Rev. Robert Preece was standing on the curb, waiting to shake the hands of parents dropping off their children at Zion Lutheran.

“Welcome to Zion! We’re glad to have you,” Preece said, welcoming 2-year-olds all the way up to eighth-graders. In greeting their parents, he seized the opportunity to ask if they had a place to take their children not only Monday through Friday, but Sunday, too.

“If you have a church, go to it,” Preece told them. “If you don’t, come join us.”

Though 60 percent of the students who attend Zion Lutheran aren’t Lutheran, the school is still one of the major reasons people attend the same-named church, Preece says. The school cements the church’s presence in the neighborhood, he says, and this may be one of the reasons Zion Lutheran’s congregation has grown in the nearly 20 years since Preece assumed the senior
pastor post.

It hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds — the church has roughly 100 more people on its membership roster now than it did in 1990 — but any attendance growth is better than decline, which is what many area churches are experiencing.

Most churches in our neighborhood have been around for at least 50 years, and a few are going on a century or more. Some of the older churches are on their second or even third incarnation as they have moved farther away from the city center, usually as a survival mechanism.

Though neighborhood churches are at different places in their lifecycles, they often are finding themselves in similar situations. The people who started them or who have sustained them are aging, and the reasons each church had for coming into existence may no longer be good enough to keep them afloat.

As a glance around our neighborhood tells us, churches that don’t reinvent themselves will eventually die or cease being relevant.

Of course, what’s a few less churches lining our streets? The idiom that Dallas has a church on every corner is no less true here. If churches wind up closing their doors, likely the only people who will mourn them are the ones currently sitting in the pews, holding on for dear life.

And that’s exactly what our neighborhood churches are coming to grips with. Gone are the days that a congregation can expect people in the surrounding community to darken its doors each Sunday. Even some people who call themselves “religious” are staying at home because they simply don’t see the point.

Any church that wants to live to see the future will have to learn what some neighborhood congregations already are discovering: The difference between death and life is the difference between a church simply taking up space and a church actually looking beyond its walls and trying to make a difference for the people on the outside — the ones who don’t have any reason to walk in.

They’re not coming anymore

After World War II and into the ’60s, Dallas experienced rapid growth, especially northward from the city center. As a result, houses began sprouting in the undeveloped portions of our neighborhood, and churches grew along with them. Some were strategically planted by denominations so that people moving to newer areas of the city wouldn’t have to travel more than a few miles to attend worship services; others were churches originally built closer to downtown that wanted to follow the growth trends.

Probably 100 or so congregations grew in Dallas along with their neighborhoods, says Robin Lovin, Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University and former Perkins School of Theology dean. Now, he says, these congregations are finding themselves in the midst of generational transition.

Simultaneously, neighborhood religious leaders say they are witnessing a major shift in America in which people are losing interest and attendance is declining — even in the buckle of the Bible belt.

“We don’t live in a time when people will walk through the door and explore this for themselves,” Lovin says. “There are so many things competing for attention in society that a church has got to identify itself in some distinct way. It has got to give people a reason to want to come, and it has got to make that identity known in a public way.

“You can’t just sit there on the corner and hope that people will walk in, and hope if they do walk in, they will find something that they like.”

De-cloning churches

Next year, Zion Lutheran will celebrate its 130th anniversary. The congregation began as a church and school for German Lutheran immigrants, meeting first downtown and then on Swiss Avenue before moving to the current site on Skillman and Lovers in 1957.

Even today, longtime church members might walk into Preece’s study and begin jabbering in German, he says, and the seasoned Lutheran minister is able to respond in kind. But anyone who glances at the communion rail on Sundays would see that Zion’s international identity now extends far beyond its German founders, Preece says.

“There are enough Hispanic folks in the pews that I use a Spanish phrase every now and then,” Preece says. “I call it my salt, pepper and cinnamon church — about 20 percent of the people come from Taiwan, Ethiopia, Mexico …”

Zion is also a very ecumenical Lutheran church, Preece says, estimating that at least half of the congregation wasn’t born Lutheran. For those who prefer a more contemporary style of worship, the church holds a praise Eucharist Sunday evenings “to meet the holy market,” Preece says, but the vast majority attend the more traditional services Sunday mornings because “people are looking for the reserve of solemnity and silence,” he says.

However a church distinguishes itself, Lovin says, it’s crucial that such an identity grows out of the congregation already in place. The mistake many churches make is trying to mimic the strategies of other churches experiencing growth. Instead, Lovin says, any church that wants to survive a generational transition must find a mission unique to its own makeup and surroundings. What’s clear, he says, is that a one-model-fits-all approach won’t work.

“People keep holding up models and saying, ‘Be like this, and you’ll succeed.’ That’s the problem. You don’t want to say, ‘Be like this other church down the block.’ It’s being something different and distinctive that gives you a chance of having a future.”

In the case of Zion Lutheran, “there’s a 500-year history of liturgy and music and a sense of ‘pastor’s in his study,’” Preece says, and the church has persisted by building on that tradition. The sanctuary acoustics are ideal for the church to host groups such as the Orpheus Chamber Singers and Camarata Winds. Each year these concerts attract roughly 3,000 people who would not enter Zion otherwise, Preece says.

“This is artsy Dallas, and that is a critical community,” Preece says. “Some people even come back on Sunday morning for the liturgical service.”

The visitors sometimes ask about the school, too, and because it’s populated with children from both the congregation and the wider community, the school “keeps us from being parochial, just all us Lutherans down on the corner,” Preece says.

Change vs. continuity

The problems plaguing 50- to 100-year-old Protestant churches in Dallas also are impacting the city’s Jewish synagogues. A congregation like Temple Emanu-El, with 2,600 regular attendees and 7,500 people who affiliate themselves with the congregation, isn’t in any imminent danger, of course, but a recent demographic survey revealed that the temple is struggling to retain its young couples and singles.

Unlike Christians, Jews do not actively seek converts, so their future rests heavily on younger generations. Temple leaders decided to approach the problem in two ways: first, by offering reduced annual temple dues for 20- and 30-somethings, and second, by hiring a young adult — Mimi Zimmerman, daughter-in-law of former Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman — to create programs and activities specifically geared for that age group, such as an Asian Shabbat dinner or a Rosh Hashanah martini reception.

Conversely, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches may be the exception to the rule as far as lifecycles in Dallas are concerned. Whereas mainline Protestant churches need to create a new identity in order to survive, Lovin says, in Catholic and Orthodox churches, “the continuity of style of worship is very important for the identity of the community.”

St. Thomas Aquinas is unique in that the school begot the church, instead of the other way around. In the late ’40s, Sacred Heart School downtown was overflowing, so the Dallas diocese made the decision to find a second location. The new school on Skillman was named for the patron saint of education, and once it opened, it drove development in the surrounding neighborhood, says Joyce Limber, development director for St. Thomas Aquinas Church and School.

“There were some homes in Lakewood, but the Bob-o-Link golf course homes weren’t there, and people just kept building up around this area,” Limber says. “Then, of course, the natural flow was for them to congregate to celebrate mass together.”

Even today, Limber says, if you look at members’ zip codes, they live mostly in neighborhoods right around the campus, and many of them are third and even fourth generations of the families who built the church. In 20 years, St. Thomas Aquinas’ population has grown from 2,700 households to more than 4,000, and the church now holds seven masses each weekend to accommodate its members.

“People come back because they are very rooted,” Limber says, “and even if you are new, you become rooted very quickly. “Christianity has not changed. It doesn’t get a new tweak on it every 50 years. It’s a constant, and our Catholicism reflects that.”

The decline of brand loyalty

If you’ve never driven by St. John’s Episcopal Church or Northridge Presbyterian Church, that’s because the two congregations have something in common: They are nestled deep inside their respective neighborhoods — Lakewood in Northridge’s case and Old Lake Highlands in St. John’s — and unless you’re trying to find them, chances are you won’t.

Except, of course, if you’re the parents of one of St. John’s Episcopal School’s 500 preschoolers through eighth-graders, but even parents, if they aren’t already part of the congregation, probably wouldn’t know about the school if it weren’t for word of mouth.

“We hear that all the time. People don’t know we’re here,” says David Houk, rector of St. John’s. “The institutional crowd, they sort of love that. It’s our little secret oasis — but you know we’re not called to be a secret oasis.”

By institutional, he means a mindset common among the World War II Builder and the Baby Boomer generations, so that “I’m a citizen of this country, I belong to this golf club, this is my church,” Houk says. Episcopalians tend to be more traditional and institutional in their thinking, but “the world has changed,” he says.

“People grow up outside of the church, people switch churches, people drop out of church because they don’t have that institutional mindset,” Houk says. “They don’t have that brand loyalty.”

It’s one of the reasons churches can no longer survive by using the same strategies they have in the past, Lovin says. The decline of denominational loyalty means that if people find an attractive church in a different denomination than the one in which they grew up, they’re likely to join, he says.

Or for some Generation X-ers and younger, they may give up on the church altogether. This poses a problem for mainline denominations that for years have operated under the assumption that their pews will automatically fill up.

What’s happening for the most part, Lovin says, is that our communities are changing, and our congregations are not.

“A congregation that really wants to stay the same will eventually die,” Lovin says. “The same people will continue to do the things they’ve done until they die, and then the congregation will die.

“Where change will happen is when you’ve got a core group of people in a congregation who are excited enough about the experience they’ve had that they want to share it and make sure it survives for another generation.”

Statistics show that an Episcopalian invites someone to church only once every 28 years, Houk says.

“For anyone to talk about one’s faith, to invite someone to church takes a little bit of chutzpah, to use a word from another tradition,” Houk says.

That will be imperative, however, if St. John’s wants to have a future, he says. The congregation is aging, and when Houk arrived two years ago, its attendance was in decline. For that reason, the church wanted a young pastor, and Houk is intent on helping the congregation get its well-kept secret out in the open.

Small town church in a big city

Despite visibility issues, there is something to be said for a church being tucked away in a neighborhood — especially in our neighborhood.

Houk and Rev. Roger Quillin of Northridge Presbyterian say that at least three-fourths of their members live within a couple miles of their churches, and though part of that has to do with convenience, it’s also a result of people wanting to attend “the neighborhood church”.

“It’s a neighborhood-y character that you might not have in other places, a distinctiveness — people who want to live in East Dallas, who want to go to church in East Dallas, want to be a member of the Arboretum …” Houk says.

Likewise, Quillin says, many families in his congregation have children who attend Lakewood Elementary, J.L. Long Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School together. Their kids play baseball and soccer in the same leagues, and they run into each other at Lakewood Country Club. In many ways, he says, “Lakewood functions almost like a small town.”

Northridge is a 103-year-old congregation that once occupied a building at Swiss and Carroll. As the neighborhood began changing in the ’40s, the pastors and board made a decision to move to the current site on Bob-o-Link, which was “in a sense, an escape from a declining neighborhood,” Quillin says.

The neighborhood right around Northridge has remained fairly stable since the move, surrounded by affluent people with nice homes, nice cars, some with children in private school, and others who could afford it but choose neighborhood public schools instead, Quillin says. The biggest change in his 31 years as Northridge’s pastor has been the demographics of the neighborhood, as original homeowners became empty nesters and retirees, and eventually homes began turning over to young couples and families. The congregation continued to reflect these changes, and in the ’90s, the church began to outgrow its space.

“We didn’t build the new building so they would come; we had to build it because they had already come,” Quillin says of the new sanctuary and fellowship hall. “And we couldn’t get everyone in the door of the new building.”

The attraction of running in the same social and education circles as fellow parishioners can be a boon for churches with a strong neighborhood identity, but it can also be tempting for these churches to become insular. Quillin says this would be easy to do in Northridge’s setting, and one of the church’s challenges is to continue to turn its focus outward. To fight the inward pull, the congregation gives roughly 20 percent of its income to places beyond the church walls, he says.

And in an attempt to be a good neighbor, Northridge opens its property to virtually anyone wanting to use it, such as the athletic field in back used by neighborhood teams, and the new playground equipment surrounded by a fence with no lock.

However a church distinguishes itself — perhaps a unique style of worship, relevant educational programs, or tight-knit small groups — “you want it to be a purpose that is outward-looking and relates to the wider world, and isn’t just inviting someone in,” Lovin says.

“You want to tell the difference from a church seeking to grow as opposed to a social club seeking to grow, but there are lot of ways to do that.”

Market-driven churches

The image of a social club church catering to the needs of its congregants, or “customers”, is one that disheartens Rev. George Mason of Wilshire Baptist. Instead of attracting people on the basis of an outward mission or purpose, churches are often guilty of employing sales techniques to get people in the door, he says.

The problem for many churches isn’t only that they have ceased being relevant; it’s that they confuse relevance with niche marketing. As a result, churches have sold the outside world, and sometimes even their own members, on the concept that religion really is all about them.

“The church has to make a case for them on the basis of what they want,” Mason says, “and once they become the ultimate customer, then they are really in charge, and the church becomes the servant of its own members instead of a servant of God.”

Mason recalls that a longtime member of Wilshire’s congregation one day told Mason’s wife that she was planning to switch churches. When his wife, a friend of the woman’s, told the friend she was hurt by the decision, the congregant was surprised. She had a dress shop and said that when her friends chose to shop at different stores, it didn’t hurt her feelings — it’s business.

“What’s amazing in this case is she grew up in the church,” Mason says. “What it seems to indicate is the degree to which the consumer culture has conflicted us.”

Mason is the first to admit that his congregation is guilty of giving into some of these temptations. However, Wilshire also has a history of trying to be faithful to an outward mission.

In 1951, when Wilshire was founded, young families and new homes and businesses helped the church grow over the next few decades. By the late ’80s, however, as our neighborhood was growing more diverse both racially and socioeconomically, Wilshire had an aging congregation considering whether it was time to move from its spot on Skillman near Mockingbird. Mason, who became pastor in 1989, led the congregation in the decision that Wilshire could serve the neighborhood best by staying put.

Simultaneously, Wilshire was struggling with its larger denominational community, and found itself at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention on issues such as the role of women in church leadership. It broke from the convention in 1990 and charted a new course, inviting women to be both deacons and clergy.

Both decisions gave Wilshire newfound purpose and breathed life into the congregation, and as the neighborhood began regenerating with younger couples and families living closer to the city center, Wilshire saw its congregation revive as well.

An uncertain future

The closer a church is to downtown, the more likely it is to have gone through at least one major transition and been drawn by a new identity and mission, Lovin says.

“The other thing to remember is, by definition, the ones that we know about are the ones who made this transition successfully,” he says.

Some didn’t, and they have disappeared from the landscape.

It should encourage neighborhood religious leaders that population trends are in their favor, Lovin says. Unlike in Chicago or St. Louis, where some religious institutions will die because there are simply fewer people to fill their sanctuaries, “there’s no reason that a congregation in Dallas has to die. People are moving into the city; the overall population is growing,” Lovin says.

Even so, these leaders know that urban renewal doesn’t automatically translate to rising attendance in their congregations. Beyond the mid-life crisis many neighborhood churches are experiencing, religious institutions throughout the country are in the beginning stages of a major shift, pastors say, one so immense that the implications aren’t yet clear.

A few decades from now, some neighborhood pastors believe, the landscape may look very different from the sanctuaries and steeples that have dotted our neighborhood for the last 50 to 100 years.

“We may have to see a kind of exhaustion of the consumer church before we see widespread evidence of the church returning to its roots — emphasizing its mission to the world over pandering to prospects,” Mason says.

When churches simply “identify the demographic of target audiences and what their felt needs are, and then shape the corporate mission to connecting with them, where is the spiritual depth to that?” Mason asks.

“Does that really get people more in touch with God, or does it get them committed to their self interest?”

The most recent Gallup poll on church attendance found that roughly half of Americans attend a worship service at a church or synagogue at least once a month. Of those who seldom or never attend, only about a quarter of them cited reasons that had to do with laziness or not having enough time, while fully half referenced some sort of grievance with the church — they don’t believe in organized religion, they don’t believe in what churches teach, they don’t believe in going to church, or they don’t believe in God.

Those statistics seem to indicate that churches have to be more than simply places that cater to people’s desires — top-notch childcare, gourmet coffee, CD-worthy music, full-court gymnasiums — in order to coax them inside.

At the end of the day, neighbors can grab a cup of joe somewhere else, play a game of pick-up at Tietze Park, drop off their kids at a non-church daycare, and listen to their iPods if they want to hear good music.

If a church is going to be true to its mission, it must address life on a level that neighborhood PTAs or service clubs can’t, Mason says, because social organizations can go only so deep. Houk echoes those thoughts, saying that a church should be a place where people “meet God” and “connect to truth.”

“If we don’t offer that to people,” Houk says, “why wouldn’t you just stay at home and watch Oprah?”