Elbrooke United Methodist Church no longer exists, at least not as a community of faith that continues to gather together to worship God and serve others. My internship in seminary was at Eldbrooke UMC, where I watched the church yoke itself to Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church. The following year it was closed. I graduated from seminary and moved to Oklahoma before Eldbrooke was closed, yet I occasionally heard pieces of news as Eldbrooke was closed and then put up for sale. My internship at Eldbrooke was difficult because I came to love the people at the church, yet the church was obviously not moving in a positive direction. Attendance was low, the building was in disrepair, and people seemed to be fighting just to stay above water.
I saw so much potential for the church, as it was located in a growing neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C., within a block of a metro stop. From a strategic standpoint, there seemed to be every reason why the church should be thriving, not dying. Yet, die it did.
I heard that the church would likely ultimately be sold to the highest bidder, which most people thought would mean that the church would be torn down. But due to the church being designated an historical landmark, and other circumstances, it was ultimately sold to another church. And that is how Eldbrooke United Methodist Church became The City Church DC.
I made this discovery when my brother and I walked to Eldbrooke, reminiscing, and noticed that the lights were on and people were in the parking lot. I introduced myself and explained that I had been an intern at this church and was in town for the weekend and asked if there was any way that I could take a quick look around inside. I discovered I was speaking to one of the lead pastors. She seemed genuinely glad to meet me and show me around. She gave me a thorough tour of the church, and introduced me to her husband, the other lead pastor.
I have to say that seeing concrete evidence that a group of people were investing in this church made my heart sing. They have remodeled the sanctuary and the area where we used to have our soup suppers after worship on Sunday morning. And the work continues.
What particularly impressed me was how charitable they were in their discussion of the church. When I introduced myself to the second lead pastor and told him I was currently working on a Ph.D. in church history he immediately responded, “Well, there is a lot of history in this place.” Michael and Heather provided a wonderful example to me of how to work towards unity in the Body of Christ. The City Church DC is nondenominational and, therefore, not United Methodist. But there was not hint of gloating or dismay or judgment of what is, to be honest, a failure of the United Methodist Church. They seemed to see themselves as simply stepping into the history of this church, leading to its next steps of faithfulness and obedience to how they understand God to be at work.
And so Eldbrooke United Methodist Church, which was put to rest a few years ago, was born again. Eldbrooke, which was dead, is now City Church, which is alive and growing. (Michael told me that since they began worshiping in February attendance has grown fro 65 to 130.) I suspect that some United Methodists in the D.C. area may not care much about The City Church DC, but whether United Methodists notice or not, the kingdom is coming. Jesus continues to draw people to himself and he sends them in love to others.
I think this is a great story in and of itself. Yet, it seems to me that there is something in this story that United Methodists can learn from. It should not escape our notice that a church is growing in literally the same location and even in the very same building. In some ways, it seems that the main thing that had to die for the church to live was the United Methodist affiliation of the church. While in some ways that may not be that big of a deal, as the wellness of “the Church” is far more important than the wellness of “The United Methodist Church.” In other ways, Eldbrooke’s legacy may be, more than anything, to question United Methodism. What was it about Eldbrooke UMC, the district that the Church was in, and the Baltimore Washington Conference that made it unable to survive, while it seems to be doing very well with a new start? Was there a failure of the connectional system? Was there a failure of imagination? Of nerve?
Part of Eldbrooke’s legacy may be in the questions that it asks of United Methodists. My sense is that if we are willing to take a hard look at churches like Eldbrooke United Methodist Church, we will find some things that are not easy to acknowledge. We will be led to repent of the ways in which our church has not been faithful to our Lord. Yet, if we are unwilling to acknowledge our mistakes and our sins, how can we expect to move forward? For my part, I lament that United Methodists were not able to resurrect a vibrant ministry in that place, but mostly I praise God that the Church is present and Christ is still being proclaimed at 4100 River Road NW in Washington D.C.