By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 9:31 PM
St. Augustine's was facing a death sentence.
The little Episcopal church on the Southwest Washington waterfront had seen the signs. Since its founders proudly founded St. Augustine's as a racially integrated church in 1961, membership had wilted from 180 to 28. Key members passed away or moved. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Mold grew in the basement. The church couldn't pay its bills.
"It was literally dying," the Rev. Martha Clark said of her parish's state in 2007, when the regional bishop gave St. Augustine's three years to become self-sustaining or be shut down.
That's where Bob Gallagher came in. A former Episcopal priest, the gentle 60-year-old is a professional church-savior, a consultant who travels the country trying to resuscitate houses of worship that are losing people and passion. With large swaths of organized religion in decline across the nation, Gallagher's dance card is full.
His initial meetings at St. Augustine's were emotional. He confronted people who had been focused on paying the mortgage with more wrenching questions: Do you really have a reason to be in this neighborhood, or could you move somewhere cheaper? What does it mean to be an Episcopalian? Could you merge with a church from another denomination? Do you agree on worship styles? Who are you?
"I remember being in tears," said Virginia Mathis, 64, a St. Augustine regular for 30 years. "He's pushy in a gentle way."
Wrestling with dramatic changes in how Americans practice their faith, many clergy members are willing to wait months to get guidance from Gallagher or someone like him. These consultants have become a small industry, roaming the country to challenge the definition of "church."
When they work with congregations, they put everything on the table ¿ including whether the pastor and the church building are even necessary. Perhaps worshippers could meet in a movie theater instead. Or consider sharing a pastor with some other church. Or ditch their Sunday morning services for a time more people would find convenient.
Consultants routinely press their clients to stop being so fixated on their real estate, routines and rules. They argue that there are plenty of people who don't have any interest in sitting in pews and listening to sermons. The challenge is to come up with a way to engage them.
"The role of the church and the clergy is dying, but I think it needs to," says Tom Brackett, another minister-consultant who works on church development for the Episcopal Church. "The church doesn't have a mission. We are part of God's mission."
Some parts of organized religion are struggling more than others. Researchers see steeper declines in religious involvement among white Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-Orthodox Jews. But even in faiths that have been growing in numbers, such as nondenominational Christianity, experts say younger Americans are much more estranged from organized religion than young people were a few decades ago.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argues in a new book, "American Grace," that organized religion is suffering ¿ particularly among people in their 20s and 30s ¿ from being too closely tied to divisive political issues, and that it will take decades for that association to wear off.
"The marketplace for religion has changed very dramatically," he said, "and I don't think new sermons or new hymns or new seating will help until the overall public association between intolerance, as young people see it, and religion fades."
But many churches can't afford to wait decades for people to come back, so they're hiring consultants.
The church-saving industry is a blend of theology, therapy and a whole lot of MBA. Consultants talk about pastors' emotional intelligence and use high-tech demographic profiling to better appeal to ¿ and serve ¿ the neighborhoods that surround churches.
Churches are too focused on how many people are sitting in the pews and not enough on who's outside their doors, the consultants say. They preach getting to know the schools, businesses and community groups and forming partnerships with them.
They point to role models not in other churches but at MIT's business school or in the franchising department at McDonald's. Their manuals are loaded with flowcharts and talk about strategy and "critical mass."
Phyllis Tickle, a grandmotherly former publishing executive, has a 1 ½-year-long waiting list of mostly mainline Protestant seminaries and clergy conferences where packed rooms will hear her rewrite the concept of church.
"Are you willing to unscrew the pews?" she says to crowds like one earlier this month at a Virginia Theological Seminary convocation in Alexandria. "How much riffraff are you willing to allow in here? How much liturgical dancing? How many easels?"
The church-saving business also sells course materials designed to boost church membership, such as Alpha USA. The course is presented to small groups, often in homes, by leaders trained never to press their own theological views or "right answers" on a culture that finds the hard sell to be a turnoff.
"If we talk about the idea of Jesus being a savior, we say, 'How does that make you feel?'?" said Gerard Long, a former banking executive who runs Alpha USA, which is used primarily by evangelical churches.
Long, Tickle and Brackett are stars of the church-saving circuit, trying to rescue organized religion and catch up to a culture where many are dubious about whether God cares about buildings and sermons from a pulpit.
At St. Augustine's, Gallagher refused to rule anything out, including a developer's proposal to turn the church, which was designed to look like the Biblical ark, into a riverside wedding chapel; transforming the basement into studio space for artists; changing seats in the sanctuary from rows to a circle; and scrapping the 8 a.m. Sunday service, which drew eight people a week.
But mostly, he pushed parishioners into a kind of group therapy ¿ weekend meetings in the basement where congregants were told to stand up and write their answers to hard questions on poster board, in front of everyone. Can you survive on your own as a congregation? Why should you?
One exercise revealed that many people knew Muslims' daily practice ("prayer five times a day!" multiple voices shouted out) better than that of their own Episcopal tradition.
One night, Gallagher broke about 20 people into small groups to discuss what fed them spiritually. Being in nature, one young woman said. Intellectual debates about God, her husband added. Coming to church for communion, a retired woman said.
Over several months, a consensus emerged: St. Augustine's members wanted a specifically Episcopal presence on the quickly developing Southwest waterfront. They wanted to be in a church building and be a model of racial diversity.
To reach out to their community, they established monthly arts events and lectures. And they encouraged young new residents who weren't interested in worship services to use the Sunday morning breakfast for the homeless as their own communion time.
Other consultants push for more radical solutions. Tickle says she won't work with any church that isn't open to dismantling itself.
The rejection of institutionalized religion by many Americans is, in her view, evidence of a major upheaval she believes happens in Christianity about twice a millennium. Right now, she says, "church" is a middle-class institution in an economy that's becoming increasingly polarized.
Long works with churches that are growing primarily through home church groups and online worshippers who never set foot in a church building. His Alpha USA curriculum is meant to attract people who want to debate questions such as whether the mere notion of God is delusional.
"When the church is inward-looking, it's dying," Long said. "In the developing world, where it's outward-looking, it's exploding."
St. Augustine's is making progress. Membership is up by a few dozen, the church no longer relies on the diocese to pay its bills, and the congregation is considering development options that could produce a financial cushion.
But old-timers remember their congregation before such strains, and the place where they first worshipped: A seafood restaurant.