On Sunday, February 14th, temperatures hovered around 23 degrees. Ice covered everything in Waco. Streets were empty but for a few unfortunate souls trekking who knows where. It was an inauspicious morning for churchgoers.
Yet, over at Christ Church Anglican—one of the newest churches in Waco, parishioners streamed in as usual for Sunday Mass (and a glorious baptism). The weather didn’t seem to deter them much, though some opted to tune in remotely.
Something similar happened at Harris Creek Baptist in McGregor. Congregants just streamed on in—fewer, no doubt, than under favorable conditions, but they came nevertheless.
These churches differ in many ways—one new, one old; one Anglican, one Baptist. But they have something remarkable in common, which is that they both have managed to defy, somehow, the plummeting national trend of “trust in religious institutions.”
According to Gallup, this declining trend is decades old. In 1975, 68% of Americans had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion.” That number now stands around 36%.
Scholars struggle to understand this decline. Sexual scandals, financial impropriety, and secularization are among the most frequently cited causes. But the trend itself is unmistakable.
How have churches such as Christ Church and Harris Creek managed to defy it?
Harris Creek is 145 years old—it has deep institutional roots. Yet deep roots have done little to spare similar churches across the nation from ruin. The answer must lie elsewhere. According Harris Creek’s current head pastor, Johnathan Pokluda (“J.P.”), the answer lies in “authenticity and transparency,” two qualities that many contemporary churches lack.
Authenticity for Pokluda means focusing on making disciples instead of “offering entertainment.” He points out that the Christian walk is challenging and that his church is honest about this, as well as about the need for grace.
According to Bill Neilson, an Elder at Harris Creek, authenticity also means staying true to what the early church was doing some two-thousand years ago: empowering individuals through grace to live like Jesus, resulting especially in outreach to the broader community.
Transparency factors in as well. According to Pokluda, long-term trust depends on focusing consistently and transparently on the mission. For Harris Creek, that mission is much the same today as it was when the church was founded: “to help everyone follow Jesus by engaging the lost, equipping the saints, and empowering members for service.”
The case of Christ Church Anglican seems to confirm all this. Christ Church, while part of a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, has no deep roots in Waco. Rather, the church was chartered in 2009 and met only once a month until 2013. Even then, the church had no permanent location.
Yet, according to its rector, Fr. Lee Nelson, those humble beginnings were exciting. “We were nomads,” he remarks, tending to “the building of a community and not a building.” And the Christ Church Community exhibits similar qualities to Harris Creek: transparency and authenticity with respect to its mission. According to Jeff Wallace, one of the founders of the church: In creating Christ Church, “we [weren’t just trying] to found a pretty church for our daughters to get married in. The goal was to make disciples, to build people up, to have a strong local parish that honors scripture, truth, and tradition, sending people out.”
Such a mission seems to have been the perfect recipe for success. Starting with 30 members, Christ Church grew rapidly through 2017, when it was able to purchase a large building (the historic First-Lutheran building on 10th and Jefferson). And today the church runs three separate services for its 280 members.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Christ Church Anglican is that it was created at a time when so many American churches were closing their doors. And it has, to date, survived COVID-19 as well as Waco’s latest February freeze.
Another factor that might contribute to the success of both Harris Creek and Christ Church is an astute eschewal of political partisanship. This is a difficult feat at a time when Americans are becoming ever more polarized, and when politics is insinuating itself into all our cultural institutions from large companies and charities to universities and, yes, even churches.
But by focusing so transparently on making disciples rather than partisans, both churches have been able to steer clear of political fractures. And this is a truly wise move. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 185 years ago, “As long as a religion is sustained by those feelings, propensities, and passions which [occur] at all periods of history, it may defy the efforts of time.” But as soon as “religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of earth.” In other words, when churches align themselves with political movements, they are likely to “share their fortunes and may fall with those transient passions which alone supported them.”
What was true in De Tocqueville’s time is even truer now amid our fierce “cancel culture” and unrelenting institutional decline. The “interests of the world” are being declared unjust and unworthy at a frightening rate, and one wonders where it will all end. But to cling to the eternal—that is the business of the church as it responds to the imperfections of the human condition with the promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
All around us institutions are collapsing, and yet human beings cannot thrive without strong institutions. It is precisely in institutions (traditions, settled practices, moral norms and ways of life) that human beings find orientation and meaning. That is why any form of conservatism that knows what it is about will strive to preserve institutions from the fierce forces of change. “Preservation,” of course, does not mean refusing to reform. But it does mean recognizing that institutions are more than the sum of their parts, and certainly more than a mere catalog of injustices.
Conservatism, understood not so much politically as philosophically, recognizes the need for community and constancy in the individual’s pursuit of happiness. Christ Church and Harris Creek seem to recognize this too. Yet for these institutions, human happiness will, of course, not be found in mere community and constancy but must ultimately be grounded in the truth of the Word of God, authentically delivered and transparently practiced.
Mia Gradick is a Junior from Dallas, TX. Studying Political Science, English, and Philosophy on a Pre-Law track, her interests lie in constitutional law, political philosophy, and her passion: religious liberty. She has interned at First Liberty Institute, the Senate Budget Committee for Senator Graham, and writes for several publications regarding faith and policy's intersection. In her free time, Mia enjoys singing, spending time with the Lord and with her friends, and preparing for her goal to attend law school.