Almost 30 years ago, Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church followed a path trod by many a congregation, a business and a family — out of Washington and into the suburbs.
Come Saturday nights, you’ll now find members of Reid Temple gathered in a borrowed sanctuary near Logan Circle, singing along with the choir: “We’re glad to be at Reid Temple, where the spirit of the Lord is in control. So glad you’ve decided to join us. . . . Let the word of God renew your soul.”
“I thank God for every church,” the Rev. Russell St. Bernard joked at the pulpit, “but other churches don’t have a theme song.”
This church has the jazzy song and many more efforts to attract the millennials who are responsible for the District’s population boom. Instead of the child-centered programming that attracts hundreds of young families to the suburban campuses, clergy and lay leaders have gathered Reid Temple’s new District churchgoers at urban hangout spots Busboys & Poets, HalfSmoke and the Hamilton.
Instead of competing with the typical urban millennial’s Sunday brunch plans, Reid Temple’s D.C. service is at 6 p.m. on Saturdays, with the expectation that churchgoers will go out on the town afterward. And for college students at Howard University and other D.C. schools, the church will even provide the Lyft ride to get them to and from the service.
“So many churches were leaving the city. But so many new people were coming to the city. There’s a need for a greater Christian witness in D.C.,” said the Rev. Matthew Watley, the church’s executive minister. “Church attendance is very location-driven. We don’t want to ever put ourselves out of position.”
More than a year ago, Reid Temple held its first service in the District since 1990, meeting first in the E Street Cinema, then moving quickly to Howard Theatre, then to New Bethany Baptist Church almost two months ago.
In that time, Watley said, about 250 new members have started attending the D.C. service at least once a month. Eventually, the church would like to own its own building in the District again, as it once did on Michigan Avenue NE from 1964 to 1990.
Reid Temple is just one in a wave of new churches entering the District in the past decade, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. From 1971 to 2000, the number of religious congregations in the District stayed almost static, hovering between 290 and 390 for three decades. During that same time, the number of congregations in the larger D.C. region almost doubled, from 1,671 to 3,015 houses of worship.
Clearly, the growth in congregations was all in the suburbs — and many D.C. churches decamped for Maryland and Virginia, often following their members who had already moved there. Some churches were able to sell their buildings in coveted areas of the city for hefty profits.
But in this century, the growth has been in the District as well as in the suburbs. At last count, the statistical organization reported 609 houses of worship in D.C. — still 13 percent of the greater Washington region’s congregations, the same proportion as in 2000 but a bloom of churches nonetheless. Many are reaching out to millennials, the group pollsters have described as less likely to be religious than the population as a whole. They’ve been adjusting service times, modernizing music and creating new service-oriented ministries, some with surprising success.
At Reid Temple, some who attend the D.C. service had been traveling from their homes in the District for years to attend the megachurch’s suburban main campus, and they appreciate having it close to home now. Or they typically attend in Glenn Dale or Silver Spring on Sundays but sometimes pick the Saturday night service when it’s convenient.
But many are new to Reid Temple.
“We’ve been able to reach a generation of persons who just didn’t have an active church home,” Watley said. He talks to millennials every month who moved to the District for work and hadn’t sought out a church after arriving or hadn’t found quite the right church when they did look.
That was Alex Myrie’s experience. He came from Jamaica to the District to study civil engineering at Howard and started looking for a church in his senior year.
“It was something that I needed to have. I needed to have a church home,” Myrie said. He tried a few churches. Reid Temple was just starting its first D.C. services about that time, and a friend suggested that Myrie try it. As soon as he did, he knew that was the place he wanted to join. The communal vibe felt similar to what he liked most at Howard, he said.
This was a group he wanted to be part of: “It allows me to express the difficulties and triumphs in my life.”
Now he spends Saturday evenings clapping along with the keyboard and drums. Green spotlights shine on the floor, giving this classic sanctuary a modern mood, and Myrie stands swaying in their glow.