Radnor United Methodist eyes an uncertain future

By Linda Stein, lstein@21st-centurymedia.com, Jul 29, 2019 

Read the original story at mainlinemedianews.com

RADNOR — The oldest Methodist church in Delaware County and the third-oldest in the Philadelphia area — Radnor United Methodist — may be merging with another Methodist church or sold to another denomination. However, its board and parishioners would oppose it being sold to a developer for housing, as has happened to some other churches in the area, Pastor Lemuel “Jack” Ross Jr. said in a recent interview.

Talks about the future of the church building are in the preliminary stages and the church, on Conestoga Road in Rosemont, has enough funding in its capital account to continue for the time being.

Ross said the church now has around 20 members, down from about 300 in the 1950s and reduced from about 50 congregants when he came to the pulpit in 2011. Most Sundays only about six to 12 people attend services. Many of the older members have died, moved away or no longer drive.

He also attributed the declining membership to the demographics of the immediate neighborhood. Most of the residents in the area, 90 percent, are either Catholic or “none,” meaning not religious, he said. That leaves 10 percent belonging to other religions from various Protestant denominations, including Methodists, or Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.

“It’s a tough neighborhood,” said Ross. “Almost 30 percent of the population has no interest in belonging or participating in any religious activity. And another 60 or some percent are at least nominally Catholic … It’s part of a nationwide trend. I think part of it is there is just so much going on. We’re probably in our third generation of people who don’t have any real exposure to religious experience or faith formation.”

A 2014 Pew Research study found that 33 percent of mainstream Protestants attend church services once a week; 43 percent attend occasionally and 24 percent seldom attend services.

“We’ve reached out to the community,” Ross said. “We are considered a community center for a lot of groups. That has not converted into participation (in the church itself).”

A large annex built in the 1950s that has a meeting room with a stage and various classrooms, is attached to the old stone church building.

The Rev. Richard Allen, a former slave who came north and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preached at the church, Ross said. A picture of Allen hangs in the large meeting room.

And the graveyard includes graves of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers, along with veterans of later wars. Any sale would require the Methodist Conference to maintain the cemetery, he said.

The Methodist church in Radnor was founded in 1778 when members met the home of Evan and Margaret James. Congregants built a log cabin church and the stone church now in existence was constructed in 1833. Just after that, the Radnor circuit riding Methodist ministers served 35 churches so every month a pastor would be at one of the churches, said Ross. In 1876, the Radnor church became the mother church to St. Luke Methodist Episcopal in Bryn Mawr. The church took the name Radnor United Methodist when the Methodists merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968.

At one time the Methodists were the largest denomination in the U.S., he said.

Meanwhile, Ross explained that while the local congregation owns the church, a trust clause says the actual control of the building is held by the Annual Conference, which is comprised of the eastern Pennsylvania Methodist churches and led by a bishop.

Ross said it was discouraging to have so few congregants.

“It’s tough,” he said. “When we’re appointed to a church, we’re appointed to serve a community, as well as the people who are actually in the church. It’s been difficult. I’ve walked the neighborhood a number of times in the past eight years and invited people. We’ve advertised different activities, although we’ve been able to do less and less as we’ve had fewer and fewer people. In the past we’ve had flea markets, strawberry festivals. We still have an Easter egg hunt. We have a blue grass band that uses one of the rooms for practice and every once in a while we’ll have a potluck dinner and they’ll play.

Private groups who use the facility pay rent but community groups do not. However, those groups do give a voluntary offering, he said. Some of the groups who use the church annex are the Radnor Historical Society, the Garrett hill coalition, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Radnor Township. The Radnor Memorial Library had activities for kids, he said. And a theater group used the stage as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.