Brooklyn’s Los Sures Churches Adapt to Neighborhood Change

A portrait of Lady of Guadalupe in the prayer space of St. Paul's Lutheran Church.

A portrait of Lady of Guadalupe in the prayer space of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

At the entrance of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Ricardo Rubinos, an elderly gentleman, passed out bibles, hymn books and programs to every worshiper at the door as he exuded a warm smile that seemed to have set the mood for a liberating church service for about 40 congregants.

The scene was uplifting, but the task before Pastor Benjamin McKelahan of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was anything but. He is faced with not only a shrinking congregation, but a church struggling to adapt to the sudden changes transforming Brooklyn’s Los Sures neighborhood, in the south side of Williamsburg.

“For this church, there is now a pondering of serving the needs of the Spanish speaking community and all of God’s children,” he said. “If we find that we need to structure ourselves differently to proclaim Jesus Christ’s message, we’ll structure ourselves differently.”

St. Paul’s Church is large enough to hold over 100 worshipers, but it is drastically losing members and adjusting to the social needs of the neighborhood surrounding it. Last week, the church service consisted of one person per pew, with as many as four on a single pew. The ambiance was very intimate, as Pastor Benjamin stepped off the pulpit and into the house projecting his voice loudly and clearly.

As experts and community leaders say, many churches are being effected partially due to the redevelopment, which has swept over Brooklyn within the last two decades. The displacement of congregants resulted in a crisis amongst worship services. For instance, if churchgoers are subjected to rising rents in their neighborhood, they move out, and for some, are not able to attend the church they grew to love. The commute will force them to find another church, resulting in a smaller congregation for churches like St. Paul’s Church. Other reasons why congregations dwindle in size, include suburbanization, culture barriers and the lack of interest people have in religion. Many churches like St. Paul’s Lutheran Church are reinventing themselves to remain relevant to its new neighbors. Some churches rise above the challenge, while others fall short of reaching the glory.

Neighborhood change is good according to Professor Kimberly Johnson, Director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College. She says that churches must be willing to make necessary changes that will cater to the needs of the people of the neighborhood in order to attract and keep new members coming back.

“Churches go through cycles and that’s kind of a healthy thing,” she said. “But, what might attract you as a 30-year-old twenty years ago might not attract 30-year-olds today. The congregation may be shrinking because it is getting older.”

A good current example of how churches have evolved over time is, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, located on 334 S. 5th Street, which was founded in 1852. It is a congregation of mostly Spanish speakers from countries throughout the Americas, but it wasn’t always this way. According to Pastor McKelahan, after WWII, German immigrants moved away from the community and were replaced by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The newcomers to the neighborhood surrounding the church called for a new congregation. In response, the church underwent a total transformation. Now, the church is once again faced with the same kind of challenge, of trying to find ways to appeal to English speakers in a rapidly changing neighborhood.

Churches adapt to changing demographics all the time. In order to survive, it is essential for churches to create programs catering to new neighbors, offer two services if there is a language barrier or change the face of its entire congregation according to Dale Jones, Director of Research Services at Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center.

“If your perspective is to keep an institution on this corner, then I don’t think you will be very successful,” he said. “One must adapt and the easiest way to incorporate new people is to have a new organization for them. The purpose of the church is to serve the communities they find themselves in.”

At St. Paul’s Church, adaptation has been hindered by the language skills of recent pastors. Although the church is not large enough to hold two services (one in Spanish and one in English) said the pastor, he still tries to throw in English in the middle of his Spanish services, because some of his younger congregants are bilingual.

Over the years, a decrease in the congregation was partly due to a language barrier between the pastor and the congregants. According to Pastor McKelahan, the pastor before him gave church services in English to mostly Spanish speakers.

Pastor McKelahan has been preaching for two years at St. Paul’s and said he has seen a spike in members since his arrival. The church went from having 15 active members in 2012 to nearly 40 active members every Sunday. Forty years ago, the church had as many as 100 congregants most Sundays.

What is St. Paul’s Lutheran Church doing to attract English speakers? One word, Parables.

Parables, which is a worship community, is geared to an English-speaking audience. Through storytelling and making art, members try to build a loving relationship by “re-imaging scripture and symbols of the Christian tradition.” according to the website at Everyone is welcome to join, including those without any religious affiliation. Members meet in the bell tower of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church every first and third Sunday of each month. Pastor McKelahan says that there are now eight active members since its start in 2012. The goal is to offer a judgment-free zone for people throughout the community. There is no particular target audience in mind, just people who are truly in need.

According to Lauren Henderson, Music Coordinator of Parables, people are pulling away from churches because they may feel like they don’t fit in and will be judged. The purpose of Parables is to appeal to a broader demographic. Whether you are gay, you have a certain political stance or you’re an atheist, all are welcome. She also says that everyone should enter the open discussion with an open mind and an open heart in order to listen and relate.

The church has found another way to get involved with its community by donating space in exchange for free services for congregants or other community members. Whenever the community needs tangible help, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church will volunteer their services. For instance, the Workers Justice Project, a non-profit organization that addresses the racial and economic injustice that low-wage immigrant workers face, hosts meetings in one of the churches classrooms. They offer worker health and safety trainings.

“A gentrified neighborhood presents a unique opportunity for churches to open up their doors to welcome new members who might be from a different ethnic background, racial background, socioeconomic background or sexual orientation,” said Van C. Tran, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. “I think every institution in our society should strive to be as inclusive as possible. That will be one way in which they can continue their influence and their service to the community.”

One church that is being inclusive and is in the process of developing a new mission that will focus on outreach programs within the community is Brooklyn’s First Spanish Presbyterian Church located on 157 S. 3rd Street.

First Spanish Presbyterian Church was founded in 1925 and has a large population of worshipers who are of Puerto Rican descent. The founder’s children and grandchildren are active members of the church.

With the church’s English and Spanish speaking services combined, there are 60 congregants in total, the majority of whom are in their seventies. The church is catering to the changing community by implementing more youth programs and English speaking services.

Also, by having prayer tents, Friday Night Youth Programs and Vacation Bible School, the church is implementing creative ways to get the community involved with the church. According to the pastor, ministering to the community is of great importance.

When asked if First Spanish Presbyterian Church was relevant in the community, Pastor Rosario answered, “Yes” and, “No.” When examining the church as an institution, the church is not relevant according to her because “the role of religion lost its relevance in Christianity.” When examining the Gospel, the church will always be relevant, she said, if it gives to and cares for the community.

“When a church is struggling, it focuses from within and that’s not the mission of the church,” said Reverend Carmen Rosario. “If a church stays in that survival mode, it’s doing nothing with the community because it’s concentrating on solving its own problems that it doesn’t reach out.”