Texas Bishop’s Article on Focus Leaves Blurry Picture of First Church
This summer a U.S. presidential candidate who’d led the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City flew to London and gamely critiqued the U.K.’s preparations for their Summer Olympics. “It’s hard to tell just how it will turn out,” he told the British press.
Soon newspapers in London were aflame with anger at the visiting dignitary. Even Prime Minister David Cameron climbed aboard: “We are holding the Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
When I read Central Texas Bishop Mike Lowry’s comments after he visited Seattle (“The Challenge of Focus – Don’t Drift From Mission,” United Methodist Reporter, Sept 23, 2012) I felt some of what Cameron and other Brits must’ve felt. Sometime last summer the good bishop stayed briefly in urban Seattle, heard a story about Seattle First UMC told by a local fundamentalist mega-church pastor, briefly reviewed our church’s website to see who we are, wondered aloud if the story was true, shared the story anyway on his blog and in the UMR, used the story to make a point about how not to run a church, and then went on with his business back in Central Texas.
Just like the U.S. presidential candidate, I’m sure Bishop Lowry didn’t intend to damage the object of his analysis. And just like Prime Minister Cameron I’ve wanted over the last days to say something like, “Seattle is a bustling city. It’s a lot easier to run a church in the middle of nowhere.” But that would be cruel to the fine people of Central Texas!
I wish Bishop Lowry had dug a little deeper to learn the truth about our church, or at the very least that he’d left our name out of his article. Bishop Lowry seems bedazzled by the ministry of the fundamentalist pastor, and by Googling — Googling? — our church “carefully and with due honor” reveals a sadly shallow investigation into the pastor’s take on our church’s story. Bishop Lowry then damns us with faint praise: “they appear to have a wonderful ministry” and leaves unchallenged the inaccurate story with a quick, “I don’t know if this was the case.”
Perhaps most subtle and sad is the continual use of “they” to describe our United Methodist congregation. Perhaps I don’t understand our polity as well as Bishop Lowry, but I dearly wish he could have referred to our church with a more connectional, “we.” After all, our bishops are bishops of the whole church, which in a way makes him our bishop, too. Maybe that’s why our church members come away from the article with a puzzled, “What’s with this U.M. bishop who is entranced with the neighboring fundamentalist congregation, who didn’t have time to even stop by?”
If he’d taken the time, Bishop Lowry could have learned that Seattle First UMC is a proud witness to faith and vision, and our continued vitality in ministry is actually a positive example of missional focus in an extraordinarily difficult context.
In 1910 our predecessors built a glorious 1,200 seat, Beaux Arts sanctuary on the outskirts of downtown Seattle. The brick and terra cotta edifice was surrounded by single-family homes and apartment buildings. No thought was given to acquiring land to park cars – those modern gadgets were owned by only a handful of Seattle residents when the church was built.
Over the next decades Seattle grew to a city of international prominence. In the late 1950’s, eight lanes of Interstate 5 were constructed a block away, separating the church building from its parishioners and sending them to live in cheap housing miles away from the downtown site. The congregation blessed them as they left and helped plant new, suburban congregations where they could worship. Yet, in spite of the fact that the nearest residential neighborhood was now miles away, First Church voted in the mid-1960’s to stay downtown and maintain its ministry in the heart of the city.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s four of the city’s tallest commercial skyscrapers – from 50 to 72 stories in height – were built right across the street, leaving the church in a dark canyon with streets deserted of people after business hours.
The City of Seattle, which had noted the loss of some of its oldest buildings, designated First Church’s crumbling building a historic landmark, leaving the congregation to devote itself to preservation of a building rather than its ministry of the Gospel.
Then, in 2001 an earthquake rocked the Seattle area, causing extensive damage to the building that required the congregation to worship elsewhere for the next six months. Structural engineers estimated a $10 million price tag for a full, seismic retrofit. It was clear the edifice had become a millstone that threatened to sink the congregation in a sea of exorbitant utility bills and mind-bending repair and retrofit expenses.
Through it all (and here’s where I hope Bishop Lowry’s ears will perk up) the congregation stayed focused on its mission. It was determined to offer Christ in the heart of the city, not become a preservation society for antiquated buildings.
In 1986 the church won a legal battle in the Washington State Supreme Court against the City of Seattle, which freed the congregation to sell its property to preservationists. The $32 million sale in 2007 gave First Church the resources it needed to build a new building — one fit for ministry in the 21st century.
In 2010, with great joy, the church moved into its new facility (complete with parking garage) located a mile and a half away in a dense, new, residential section of downtown with 10,000 residents in a one-mile radius. The historic, urban church had replanted itself in a new and populous parish.
Today First Church has a modern facility that serves a congregation filled with energy, optimism and vision for the future. We’ve welcomed well over 100 new members since our move, we shelter 60 homeless men each night, our church school wing rings with the sounds of children, and we serve a warm breakfast to hundreds of hungry people each Sunday in our gleaming, new Fellowship Hall. Our apportionments are paid in full each month, and our bishop and annual conference are proud that we’re a magnet for Christ in one of the least-churched cities in America.
Bishop Lowry’s point about mission focus is true enough, but a clear focus on mission must still account for contextual factors like freeway building, flight to the suburbs, earthquakes, and ever-changing demographics. With all due respect, Bishop Lowry’s tired meme about urban churches dying because they didn’t offer Christ is a little too facile to account for the gritty realities of workaday churches like ours who have been faithfully ministering for decades while our parishes changed from tiny villages of dirt roads and wooden houses into bustling cities of steel and glass.
In an odd turn of events, First Church and the fundamentalist church of Bishop Lowry’s story have now switched places. That church recently announced it will be renting our crumbling, old building — and now our church is planted in the populous and fast-growing neighborhood that the fundamentalist church is leaving behind! They will worship in a beautiful but threadbare, old building full of our memories, but time will tell whether even a mega-church can overcome the obstacles to ministry we endured at that site. What we know for ourselves is that First UMC Seattle, the oldest church in this busy city, has a very bright future in its new home.
We welcome United Methodist bishops and other religious dignitaries to Seattle. We ask that they don’t just learn about us by listening to fundamentalist pastors or by briefly scanning our website. They should stop by and hear our story. If they take the time, they’ll discover a dynamic United Methodist church that is making it against great odds, focused and energized to offer Christ in a new way for a new day.