Brethren have been hung up on numbers lately. Fewer people in the pews, decreased giving. It’s common to hear people talk about the church and be distressed or dismayed. To some, these numbers signal fading hope for our denomination. But what if small is actually powerful? What if small can be mighty? For Washington City Church of the Brethren, smallness can cause worry and doubt—but it also has provided a path to new life and renewal.
Washington City is a small but growing congregation on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. It’s a body of Jesus followers committed to exploring what radical discipleship looks like in the 21st century, and what community, simplicity, and peacemaking look like in the nation’s capital.
For the other Stories from the Cities projects, I’ve visited city churches across the country. This story, however, takes place at my home church in Washington, D.C. While I initially hesitated to include Washington City in this project, after being encouraged by many people to do so, I approached the church’s administrative council. They agreed to participate and recruit interviewees. Interpreting others’ stories is often challenging, but navigating my home environment and my role as a minister required additional intentionality on my part.
During my interviews with fellow members, what I heard most often is that small is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, although they said that they would like to grow, and that being small does bring challenges, they viewed Washington City’s smallness in a positive light.
Sally Clark, a young adult who grew up in the congregation, said that its small size is actually one of the church’s current assets. “There’s a strength in the attitude that we may be small but we are mighty.”
For this church, smallness has brought openness to change. It has created a willingness to explore and experiment with new models of ministry and styles of worship. Smallness has also provided the space to build relationships and learn how to cultivate intimate relationships in a caring community.
Anya Zook began attending late last year. She said she found Washington City’s smallness to be an asset: “I saw how easy it was, when I first started coming, to meet everyone really quickly.”
Rebound and renew
Both long-term and new members and attendees were asked to describe the church in a word or a short phrase. For Micah Bales, who has been attending Washington City for only two months, the words “rebound” and “recovery” came to mind. A longer-term member said he saw “a church in transition . . . rising from a low place and re-growing; rediscovering themselves, now with a number of young people.” At Washington City, both newer and longerterm members sense that the church has experienced challenging times, but there is good reason to hope.
It’s hard to sum up more than 120 years of history, which include Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) projects, witness to conscientious objection to military service, participation in the March on Washington, advocacy at the Capitol, participating in Christian Citizenship Seminars, service in work camps or at the Brethren Nutrition Program, and Washington City’s soup kitchen. Many Brethren from across the country have been shaped by the Washington City congregation in some way. The church has a long heritage of ministry, and many people have fond memories of its vitality. Fewer people are as familiar with the struggles in recent years, or the rebound and renewal that is occurring today.
The 45-year-long tenure of pastor Duane Ramsey (1953-1997) was followed by pastor Alice Martin-Adkins (1998-2005), and then by a glaring gap in pastoral leadership for many years. From 2005 to 2013, the church had intermittent pastoral resources—two stints of short-term interim pastors and a one year pastoral placement that did not continue. During this time, the congregation dwindled and the facility aged. The Brethren Nutrition Program declined and eventually went on a one-year hiatus.
Some stepped up to help the church continue. Jeff Davidson preached two Sundays a month for many years. A few core families committed themselves to keeping the building open, the lawn mowed, and worship services running. They felt a call to continue the church’s heritage, although it was difficult to see what its future might hold.
Holy nudges and creative calls
Before my husband, Nathan, and I left Nigeria in 2011 after spending two years of peace-building work there, someone planted a seed in our minds about Washington City. We were told, “The Washington City congregation could probably use two energetic young people.” Upon moving to DC at the end of February 2012, we began attending, adding two persons to the average 8 to 12 who were coming on a Sunday. We committed to being a part of Washington City—both because of and in spite of its struggles and decline. The church quickly began to utilize our gifts, first asking us to preach and fill some gaps in the pulpit schedule, then calling me as a community outreach coordinator in August 2012.
After struggling for so long, Washington City became open to new ministry styles and to using the gifts of people willing to serve. After Nate, Jeff, and I were rotating through the pulpit for several months, we began to prayerfully discern what each of our roles were in the church. Nate and I had previously worshiped at a “free ministry” or plural, nonsalaried congregation. We saw the potential of adapting the model to Washington City. The three of us proposed it to the administrative council, and the church affirmed a ministry team model in July 2013.
Several members said that the ministry team model came at the right time to help re-energize and provide direction for the church’s ministry. Bryan Hanger worshiped with Washington City while serving in BVS through the Office of Public Witness (2012-2015). He sees the model shaping the “ethic” of the church, creating an “openness to the fact that many people have things to teach the church.” Bryan described how, because of small numbers, and this ethic, the congregation has been nudging people into roles they might not have pursued. For him, the request to preach several times—and the congregation’s response—became an affirmation of his gifts and interests. He is now enrolled at Bethany Theological Seminary.