The Religious Preferences of Our Parish

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I’m still combing through the results of the demographic study provided by MissionInsite for United Methodist churches in the North Texas Conference.

Last week, I wrote about some of the stark numbers and facts about the people living around us. But this week, I would like to muse on what the study discovered about our neighbors’ thoughts about religion and church. (Remember, the study looked at the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of our church.)

Regarding involvement in church, the percentage of people who consider themselves part of a faith community stands at 35.3%, which is higher than I expected. However, that number has dropped over 12 percentage points in the last ten years. That means over 47% of the population were involved in a church in 2007. That’s a huge drop in a short amount of time.

The only two categories of faith community which have grown considerably in those ten years are the “Nones,” or those who say they have no affiliation with any faith community, who make up 27.3% of the population, and those in non-denominational or independent churches, which make up 6.6%. The biggest declines were amassed by the Catholics, who are still the largest single denomination in our area, and the Baptists, the second largest. We United Methodists mostly held our own during this time, declining by only .6% in that time period.

When people who are not part of any church are asked why they don’t participate, here are their top five reasons:
    1. Religious people are too judgmental
    2. Don’t trust organized religion
    3. Religion too focused on money
    4. Disillusionment with religion
    5. Don’t trust religious leaders

Let’s stop right there and think about the implications of these findings. This tells me that there are a lot of people out there who have been hurt by church, who have been abused, manipulated, or denigrated by people claiming to be Christians. Our neighbors have some deeply-felt pain, and much of it is our fault.

As I said several times in my sermon on Sunday, our Bible has been hijacked. It has become a weapon in the hands of some, and the consequences are that some people have been beaten up, wounded, and bruised.

This should be a wake-up call for us. Fifty years ago, the culture around us was sympathetic to the church. Pastors were seen as civic leaders; Sunday mornings were sacred time, as well as Wednesday evenings; and people kept up a veneer of religiosity in the community. But that’s not the way it is anymore.

The study recommended, in a context such as ours, the following top five ministry or program preferences:
    1. Warm and friendly encounters
    2. Quality of sermons
    3. Adult social activities
    4. Opportunities for volunteering in the community
    5. Holiday programs and activities

Another interesting discovery was that traditional worship ranked #7 in this list, higher than contemporary worship, which came in at #17.

Looking carefully at this list, I believe that KPUMC is uniquely positioned to prosper in this community. Though I can’t speak to #2, I think we do quite well on these top five priorities, with the exception of #3. We still lack in the number of quality adult social activities that we offer, but I believe the Vision Task Force has given us a way to improve in this area.

Ultimately, however, the study fails to identify what is most important about a church, and what a church represents. One of the categories ranked “Life Concerns” for people in our community. Answers included such concerns as “losing weight/diet issues,” “day-to-day financial matters,” and “being successful.” Nowhere did I see the choice, “becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

The one thing that KPUMC has to offer that makes us different from other organizations, non-profits, and institutions is that we help people become disciples of Jesus. We are in the business of transformation, of change, of life formation, of training in the art of becoming like Jesus.

Admittedly, not many people out there would articulate this as a life-goal. I would suggest that’s because they don’t know much about Jesus yet. They must not know about Jesus' sacrificial love, his fierce justice, his courageous opposition to the powers-that-be, his compassionate concern for the marginalized.

Let’s change that, shall we?

Getting to Know Our Parish

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Last week in this column, I shared the focus of the 2018 North Texas Annual Conference: “New Faces, New Spaces.”

The conference sparked my own interest in thinking about what it would mean for Kessler Park UMC to intentionally reach out to the new faces around us, and I posed the following questions: “Can we make space for the new faces? Do we need to create new spaces? What do we have to offer the people of Oak Cliff?”

Before we answer these questions, however, it is wise to ask a more basic question: Who are the people who live around us? What do they look like? What do they do? What kind of families are they in? How old are they?

Fortunately, the North Texas Conference makes available (for local churches) free access to the demographic findings of MissionInsite, a group which does extensive analysis of neighborhoods for churches and non-profit organizations. With just a few clicks, I was able to pull incredibly detailed information about the people in our part of town.

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to share some of the findings revealed by MisisonInsite. Before I do, I want to emphasize two things: first, demographic studies are no replacement for the work of spiritual discernment. Looking at numbers on pages does not excuse us from doing the hard work of getting to know real people in our neighborhoods and listening to their concerns. Demographics are nothing but indicators that might guide or point us in the right direction, but they cannot replace relationships and prayer.

Second, demographic projections are simply that — projections. They are not fact. They cannot be relied upon to give us 100% accurate pictures of the future. There are an unknown number of variables that go into the reality of neighborhood development and growth. Just because a report predicts that a particular type of people are going to move into a particular neighborhood in the next five years doesn’t make it so.

Again, I must stress that the usefulness of such numbers is simply limited to helping us orient ourselves to our own context and mission field. I always look for the things that surprise me, rather than the things that confirm my common sense observations. This is where demographic studies can be so helpful and enlightening.

This week, I would like to share some of the things that grabbed my attention upon reviewing basic demographic information about the people who live around Kessler Park UMC. My search area was restricted to a 1.5 mile radius around the church; this extends to Trinity Groves in the north, 12th Street on the south, a few blocks west of Hampton in the west, and just shy of I-35 on the east side.

One of the first things that struck me was the fact that there are at least three very distinct people groups in this radius: we are surrounded by mostly Hispanic neighbors (67% of the population, which is predicted to remain steady over the next five years), but our immediate neighbors are wealthier whites who are either at, or near, retirement. Furthermore, there is a ring of young singles moving into those apartments; they are mostly in their twenties, and they are a highly diverse racial group.

Overall, the population in this area is not projected to grow dramatically: in 2000, 38,600 lived within 1.5 miles of the church. By 2010, this number had dropped to 31,223, and is slowly moving upward since. Currently, 34,214 live here, a number which is only expected to grow 4.8% in the next five years.

Unsurprisingly, the two age groups which are expected to gain the most percentage-wise over the next ten years, are ages 18-24 and people 65 and older.

I realized that the exact location of KPUMC shields us from recognizing the great diversity in our immediate area. We are located in a beautiful, upscale neighborhood with rolling hills and carefully-groomed trees, and homes that are easily worth over half a million dollars. Yet compared to the entire state of Texas, the number of families living in poverty in the search area is significantly higher than the state average!

The estimated current average household income is $74,275, and this is expected to grow almost 14% over the next five years, but the growth appears to extend mostly to white families. In 2017, the median income of white families is $89,285; but for Hispanic families, the median income is $39,267, and only $29,347 for blacks.

Furthermore, the overall educational attainment of adults in this community is lower than the state average.

Remember these numbers apply to the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of the church! This is what our parish looks like. This is the reality of the people whom we have been called to serve, give hope, and inspire.

This is a hard and complex question, but it doesn’t hurt to wrestle with it anyway: why doesn’t our congregation look more like the people in our area? Do we have all three distinct people groups represented in our church? Why not?

I also learned that the level of religiosity is “somewhat low” compared to the state average. But that’s a subject for next week’s column …

New Faces, New Spaces

A country church started a Celebrate Recovery ministry for victims of opioid addiction.

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A county-seat church brought its church bus out of the garage for the first time in two years and started transporting children to Wednesday night events at their church.

A suburban church started a young adult ministry called “GAP” that meets over dinner in restaurants.

A dying church opened its doors to its Korean neighbors and started hosting Korean worship services.

These stories and more were shared at the North Texas Annual Conference over the past few days in celebration of the theme, “New Faces, New Spaces.”

Every year, the annual gathering of local United Methodists focuses on a different theme, and this year’s conference zeroed in on the effort to reach new people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was encouraging to hear how our brothers and sisters have attempted to do exactly that over the past year in a variety of creative ways.

This was at the heart of the work of the Vision Task Force over the last few months; the group was deeply concerned about how to be a vibrant church home for people who are not yet here.

And frankly, this is my own personal passion, too. I want the people of north Oak Cliff to discover the joy and fulfillment of following Jesus, and I want them to join us in our journey. I don’t think I will ever be happy or content to “rest easy” with the status quo.

There will always be room for one more worshipper or one more new member. There will always be a need to feed another homeless person, or to read with an elementary school child. There will always be an injustice to fight, or another wrong to right.

I get really excited when I see people doing creative things for the sake of God’s mission. That’s why Annual Conference is so much fun. We get to hear about the real practical work on the ground in North Texas.

But I think it’s time for us to also think about the meaning of “New Faces, New Spaces.” Because new spaces are springing up all around us. We’ve seen an unprecedented rise in the number of apartment units available in the area — up and down Singleton Ave., Ft Worth Ave., and Davis St, not to mention throughout the Bishop Arts District. The new spaces are already here.

Which means the new faces are on their way. Each new face represents another beloved child of God who is in need of community, friends, support, and inspiration.

Kessler Park UMC exists for each new face. That’s why we’re here. As the body of Christ, we literally represent Jesus to and for them. The stories at Annual Conference reminded me that we need to think seriously about these new faces. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our own spaces.

Can we make space for the new faces?

Do we need to create new spaces?

What do we have to offer the people of Oak Cliff?

Remember, the day that the church stops thinking about how to reach new people is the day that the church starts dying.