The story of the First Free Methodist Church of Pasadena began in 1888. What originally started as a tent revival on the streets of Pasadena, California, under the call of the Rev. C.B. Ebey, flourished into a lively local church for several family generations. In fact, the church lasted for 120 years until the Free Methodist Church in Southern California closed the church building’s doors in 2008. The church experienced a rich history like the city in which it resides, but the congregation simply couldn’t keep up with societal changes.
Recent Barna Group statistics indicate that, in the past decade, “the number of adults who are unchurched has increased by more than 30 percent. This is an increase of 38 million individuals — that’s more people than live in Canada or Australia.” (fmchr.ch/bgunchurch). With such a staggering decline in church attendance, especially in Pacific Coast states “where residents comprise 20 percent of the nation’s unchurched,” there’s no surprise the First Free Methodist Church of Pasadena struggled like many other local churches.
According to sociologists such as Robert Putnam and Marc Dunkelman, the fabric that held the local church together is vanishing. In “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Dunkelman concludes that the disappearance of “middle-ring” relationships — the core relationships of the neighborhood — is the reason for such drastic societal changes. He writes, “Adults today tend to prize different kinds of connections than their grandparents: more of our time and attention today is spent on more intimate contacts and the most casual acquaintances. We’ve abandoned the relationships in between — what I define as ‘middle-ring’ ties. And that shift, made as the result of millions of individual decisions across the whole of society, has quietly spurred the second transformation of American community and left us with the impression that the future is bleak.”
Dunkelman brings to our attention what Putnam pointed to years ago in his book, “Bowling Alone.” The essence of American society formed around townships and Alexis de Tocqueville’s democratic institutions has been replaced by the individual power to choose the relationships we want.
The result has redefined the neighborhood. We simply don’t know the neighbors next to us anymore, and the truth is we don’t need to. Our phones let us filter calls to speak mainly with family and close friends. Our laptops help us stay in touch with longtime friends from high school who live in another state. Our cars let us travel to any place of our choice. Our apps connect us to anyone and anything instantly. There’s really little left in life that’s beyond our own choices. When left to our own choices, we choose what we like. So why choose to support the local church?
When I responded to a call in 2011 to restart the First Free Methodist Church of Pasadena, now called Rose City Church, I honestly had no clue either. To find out why our neighbors would choose the local church, we spent three years forming a community ready to serve the neighborhood. In that time, we realized two important lessons. First, it became clear that the local church is no longer at the center of community. We are just one community group among many in our area. Second, we learned that many of the organizations serving the city did so really well — better than we could ever hope with our limited resources. This meant our future did not rest in gathering people to us so we could take over the city. Our future rests in preparing our people to go out and support the good work already taking place. To find out whom to support and in what ways, we spent nine months in a listening campaign.
When our listening campaign revealed the vast network in which Rose City existed, we began to see how drastically the neighborhood had changed. Dunkelman was right. People exercised the power of choice to participate in all sorts of relationships as they saw best. But this wasn’t a bad thing. We learned to make sure we did only one thing really well and not many things poorly.
Instead of attempting to be a church to all people by trying to meet all needs all the time, we made the change to focus on only doing one thing well: discipleship. We decided to focus on offering the one thing that no other secular community group can offer: an opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ within the life of the church.
This singular focus meant we had to make major changes to our ministries. We had to hand over our student outreach at the local community college to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We had to transition Rose City Coffee, our coffee training program for homeless youth, into a small business like any other local coffee shop. This shift meant that the future of our ministries rested in the hands of strangers who would one day become our partners.
A simple vision of discipleship and partnership has provided us with a bright future as a local neighborhood church. Within a year of these changes, our impact in the city increased drastically. We partnered with numerous community groups. We organized community events. We were invited to chair city committees. We led the way in community development. We became a voice at the table with a strong reputation in our network. Best of all, we became friends with our neighbors.
Yes, the culture surrounding the local church has changed, but the future is far from bleak. We now know our place in the city and our neighbors do too. They join us for discipleship, and we join them for partnership. By God’s grace, we look forward to another 120 years as a local church.
Dan Davidson is the lead pastor of Rose City Church in Pasadena, California. He also chairs the Faith Community Committee of the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness.