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Op-Ed: The church I lead was struggling — then the pandemic hit. How we’re trying to survive

Los Angeles Times, Lisa Williams

March 13, 2022, 3:02 AM PT

During World War II, sailors departing ships for shore leave would follow a beacon of light emanating from the steeple of San Pedro United Methodist Church. Upon arriving, they could take a shower, eat a meal prepared in our kitchen, maybe write a letter home.

History is never far away when the church you lead, and worship in, was built in 1923. It’s a grand three-story structure with beautiful stained-glass windows and a sanctuary with an open-beam vaulted ceiling that can seat 350. It’s a big church, and over time we have become a small congregation.

Decades ago, when we were the only Protestant church in town, the sanctuary filled up for both weekly services. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we averaged about 52 people on Sunday mornings. Today about 25 parishioners gather in person, and another 100 from around the country join us online.

Since the pandemic, it has become vital for us to find ways to reinvent our ministry, to think outside the box.

Our decline in church membership mirrors a national trend. For decades, about 70% of the U.S. population belonged to a religious congregation, but a steady decline began around the beginning of the 21st century. Last year, U.S. membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time since Gallup began measuring it in 1937.

And for the first time in decades, the big red double doors in front of our church would not open for worship. We realized that our church life as we knew it would change. We could stay stagnant, and possibly slowly disappear, or change with the times.


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