For 63 years, the low-slung, brick church on Twinbrook Parkway has proudly advertised its liberal values. Its logo incorporates rainbow colors. Its members march in Pride parades. A sign formerly on the front lawn declared, “All Are Welcome. Really.”
Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., has long been a powerful advocate for a wide range of marginalized groups — from children with autism to students with lunch-money debt to LGBTQ Christians seeking a safe place to worship.
So when declining membership forces Twinbrook’s ministry to end in August, the Rev. Jill McCrory says, she’ll rest easy knowing that her congregation will build on its legacy by selling the church and donating $1 million of the proceeds.
“I’m proud of them for doing that this way,” McCrory said in an interview. “Many churches wait until the last minute, and they just dwindle and dwindle and dwindle.”
Across denominations, congregations are shrinking as Americans increasingly separate from organized religion. Fourteen percent of Americans identified as unaffiliated in 2000, while 25 percent labeled themselves that way in 2016, according to a report from the Public Religion Research Institute.
As a result, many congregations disband or adopt a more financially sustainable model, said the Rev. Elizabeth Lott, pastor at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, who writes about the challenges facing contemporary churches.
Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., sold its brick-and-mortar space to do more work in the community. St. John’s Catholic Church in Virginia, Minn., demolished its building to save money to accommodate the growth of the community’s only remaining Catholic congregation and its school. Fifteen nonprofits operate out of Lott’s own church, she said, while only about 80 people fill the pews on Sundays.
“There are churches that are not in denial, that are facing their grief head-on and that are trying to do this well,” Lott said. “I think the way to do it is to find out, what’s the real impact we can have?"
For Twinbrook, that impact involves selling the building to the Pentecostal church Centro Cristiano Peniel for less than the market rate. The Spanish-speaking congregation had shared Twinbrook’s space for 14 years, McCrory said, and Twinbrook officials wanted to enable the purchase. She declined to specify the sale price.
“For us, it’s just a miracle,” said Angel Chavez, associate pastor at Centro Cristiano Peniel. “Now we can worship (for) as many hours as we want, and we’ll try to invite the community.”
Twinbrook plans to donate more than $1 million of the building’s proceeds to 35 local organizations for school lunch programs, medical clinics, LGBTQ youth programs and other community initiatives, McCrory said. During its last weekend of ministry on Aug. 17, the church will present the monetary gifts to Nourish Now, the Arc Maryland and Comfort Cases, among other groups.
The congregation, which consists of about 50 active members, chose to donate to organizations that share its values, McCrory said. It asked groups it previously worked with to submit proposals explaining what they would do if they received a portion of the funds. The congregation then selected causes that would receive donations ranging from $2,000 to $250,000.
Community Reach of Montgomery County, which provides housing, health care and other services for people in need, plans to use its $250,000 to open a diabetic center at its health clinic for low-income and uninsured adults, executive director Agnes Saenz said. The organization also expects the money to subsidize patients’ radiology and laboratory work.
“It’s the best legacy that Twinbrook Baptist can leave to our patients,” Saenz said.
Two years ago, church leaders said, Twinbrook’s congregation realized its numbers were falling and its days as a full-time ministry were probably limited. People were moving out of the area, and older members were dying, making it hard to afford the maintenance on the decades-old church building.
Members considered switching to a part-time pastor or putting more energy into outreach ministries, among other options. Ultimately, the congregation didn’t want to survive as if it were in hospice care.
Shutting down, McCrory said, allowed the church to close with dignity because it had a choice in the matter. So did deciding to distribute the proceeds from the building.
“We’re not just going to close the doors and turn off the lights and say, ‘Rockville, do whatever,’ ” said Regina Gaither, chair of the church council. “We wanted to be able to give back to the community that this church was founded upon.”
Although Twinbrook has declared this period of time to be about “leaving a legacy,” the church appears already to have left a mark on its community. Since it opened its doors as a neighborhood church in 1956, Twinbrook has earned a reputation for welcoming all people in what Gaither called a “wide spectrum of unity.” The church belongs to the Alliance of Baptists, a group of liberal congregations.
Among their other ministries, Twinbrook and its pastor have been on the front lines of local and national LGBTQ advocacy — counterprotesting the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, helping to form the outreach group Montgomery County Pride Center and joining an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule that federal law prohibits job discrimination against gay and transgender employees.
Twinbrook’s welcome of LGBTQ people mirrors its inclusion of African Americans in the mid-20th century, said Paula Dempsey, director of partnership relations at the Alliance of Baptists. While some clergy were losing their jobs for welcoming black people into their congregations, Dempsey said, Twinbrook defined itself as a safe place for people of color.
“This church is a model for how other churches that are seeing decline can … (pay) it forward — and instead of just spending out and spending out until they have nothing else, actually making a difference in ministry and their communities,” Dempsey said.
To Gaither, Twinbrook is defined by both its welcoming ministry and her family’s long history in the congregation. Gaither said her parents were among the church’s first black couples and her father became a deacon there.
Two years after her father died in 1991, Gaither said, the church dedicated to him a stained-glass window in its north annex with a verse from the Gospel of Matthew about serving the marginalized. As long as that window continues to let light into Twinbrook, Gaither said, the church will always be a part of her, and she of it.
“The name may change,” she said, “but that’s my family there.”