Without Their Buildings, Churches Find Other Ways to Minister In Effort to Renew Their Purpose

Volunteer David Randolph distributes food to clients Thursday at the monthly food pantry sponsored by Pastor Dai Morgan's Living Spirit Ministry, formerly the Swissvale United Methodist Church. The church operates from empty store fronts in Swissvale after selling its dedicated church building. (Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)
Volunteer David Randolph distributes food to clients Thursday at the monthly food pantry sponsored by Pastor Dai Morgan’s Living Spirit Ministry, formerly the Swissvale United Methodist Church. The church operates from empty store fronts in Swissvale after selling its dedicated church building. (Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)

No longer able to afford their buildings, some congregations take on new missions, from food pantries to addiction recovery, to renew their purpose

Living Spirit Ministry in Swissvale chose to inaugurate its newest worship space today, when most churches celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“It was natural we would start a new endeavor on Easter Sunday,” said its pastor, the Rev. Dai Morgan.

To be sure, it’s a modest space — a new rented storefront in place of its previous one — and the small congregation’s finances are still as marginal as that of many members.

But the church has weathered many changes, so Rev. Morgan plans to preach on new beginnings. “I’m also going to go back to the basic theological point of view that our whole faith is based on the resurrection,” he said.

With Protestant and Catholic churches marking Easter today (with Orthodox churches doing so next week), Living Spirit is just one of several area churches that have an especially compelling reason to celebrate.

That’s because they’ve undergone some resurrecting themselves.

Some churches have literally left the building — bidding farewell to the bricks, mortar and stained-glass windows memorializing their spiritual forebears — and have started new missions. Other congregations are still in the building but would not easily be recognized by their forebears.

“Things are very tight and our future is uncertain, but the thing that is so encouraging is that the congregation refuses to pull over and quit,” said Rev. Morgan. The congregation, traditionally known as Swissvale United Methodist Church, sold its historic building on Braddock Avenue several years ago when its dwindling membership could no longer keep up the building.

It has developed new outreaches such as a food pantry, which draws clients and volunteers from both the church membership and the wider neighborhood.

There are similar stories among churches large and small throughout the region.

A North Side congregation grew tenfold over the decades when it reconnected with its diversifying neighborhood. A dwindling Beaver Falls church reached out to those recovering from addictions. A Duquesne parish grew steadily despite its declining local population and is this week mourning the pastor who led the way.

Local religious leaders say such examples serve as an counter-example to the real-enough cases of congregations in decline.

A newly released survey by the Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research found that while two-thirds of Americans believe church attendance to be admirable, a majority of Americans believe “the church is declining.”

Rock Dillaman, pastor of the 4,000-member Allegheny Center Alliance Church, said the perception of church decline comes at a time when people are jettisoning traditional practices of all kinds.

“You combine that with the fact that there are a lot of congregations that have grown old, lost their momentum, and we look around our city and we see their buildings that they used to meet in used for bars, nightclubs, breweries, warehouses or office buildings.”

But, he added, “there are new churches opening all the time and churches like our own enjoying their best days in their history.”

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SOURCE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Smith

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