This one-time farm town of Marysville, Ohio, about 30 miles northwest of Columbus, is booming.
The century-old Marysville Church of Christ is not.
Even before the pandemic, the congregation in central Ohio struggled to increase its flock, much less match the area’s rapid growth.
The past few years only exacerbated the numerical concerns as the congregation — like many churches in the area — grappled with COVID-19 restrictions, George Floyd’s murder and the nation’s political polarization.
“It’s not just the debates that are going on and the differences in opinion,” said Madison Darby, 27, a freelance editor whose husband, Bishop, serves as associate minister. “It’s the emotional tension that seems to be really big in the country as a whole.”
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Minister and elder Jeff Darby, Madison’s father-in-law, feels that tension, too, in this Republican-leaning city of 26,000. Nearly two-thirds of voters supported former President Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020.
“It makes it tough. It really does,” the 50-year-old preacher said of staying focused on kingdom matters. “We really strive not to engage in political things, especially something that is clearly not a Scriptural issue.”
He’d rather focus on his congregation’s mission field — the thousands of new homes and apartments that keep replacing Marysville’s soybean and corn cropland.
“We are seeing astronomical growth,” the Lipscomb University graduate said of the residential construction. “Literally within two miles of our church building is some of the fastest-growing population in the state of Ohio.”
‘Fields are white for harvest’
Marysville is the seat of Union County, Ohio’s second fastest-growing county.
Major employers include a Honda assembly plant and the headquarters of the lawn-and-garden company Scotts Miracle-Gro.
As farmers and factory workers gather for Sunday worship, Darby likes to step down from the pulpit and stand by the tall windows that frame the red-brick church building.
The former middle school biology teacher, who spent over a decade as the Buckeyes for Christ campus minister at Ohio State University, emphasizes the soul-winning opportunities just outside the sunlit glass.
“The fields are white for harvest,” Darby told me, repeating Jesus’ words in John 4:35. “It’s very much a common theme for us.”
But amid the turmoil over societal issues, the church has lost more members than it has gained.
Before the pandemic, weekly attendance averaged about 200. Since then, that count has fallen to about 140 — a 30 percent drop.
“We had a little swell right before COVID where we were really rocking it,” said Darby, who has preached in Marysville since 2013. “Then COVID came and really rocked us, like it did a lot of churches.”
Divided by politics
Darby blames the post-COVID decline on a variety of factors.
For one, the church’s handling of the pandemic — which arrived in the U.S. in early 2020 — impressed some members as “cowardly and unfaithful.”
They did not like that the elders moved services online via Zoom — and then outdoors with social distancing at the Union County fairgrounds.
By the time the congregation resumed normal assemblies, some disgruntled members had found new church homes.
“In the midst of all of this, we had a new idol come out, and I call it political idolatry,” said Melissa Cottrill, 55, whose husband, Scott, serves as one of the church’s five elders. “You had people taking a political view and making that religion . . . They’ll have to give an account to God.”
Equally disruptive, Darby — an adoptive father of three African American children — organized a video dialogue with Black preachers after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020.
A half-dozen families left the church as a result.
“I would say, ‘Help me understand why you’re upset about this. Have I done something wrong? Is there something Scripturally wrong?’” Darby said. “And it really just came down to the fact that they were angry that it was brought up . . . I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘Well, I never owned slaves.’”
Like its surrounding community, the Marysville church is predominantly White.
“Marysville seems to me to be a fairly traditional small rural town in Ohio,” said John Green, director emeritus of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “But that area around it is becoming more urban in that it’s part of this growing Columbus metropolitan area.”
Easiest way to grow
As member Jillian Bryant sees it, the easiest way for the Marysville church to grow would be to embrace partisan politics.
The 35-year-old mother of three likes to listen to Christian podcasts. An idea from a recent one resonated with her: “The quickest way to shrink a church is to stay in the faithful middle with Jesus.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, my word,’” Bryant said.
She still remembers a sermon series Jeff Darby preached at the fairgrounds pavilion in the fall of 2020.
“Basically, I had goosebumps,” she said. “He said, ‘Hey, whoever wins the election doesn’t matter. Jesus is our king. We are ambassadors here on Earth. And our kingdom is heaven.’”
As the YMCA of Central Ohio’s senior vice president for housing and healthy living, Sue Darby — the Marysville preacher’s wife — helps provide places for the homeless to live.
In her view, COVID-19 exposed “the glaring misstep of aligning Christianity with political action.”
“We were so politically driven during COVID — masks, no masks,” Sue Darby said. “Jesus did not come on this earth to die for any kind of earthly kingdom. … And I think COVID really showed that to the churches.”
Member Sarah Showalter, 25, works in agriculture, teaching dairy farmers how to better manage livestock using technology.
The church can’t say “God is love” and then take sides on politics, said Showalter, the niece of elder Maurice Eastridge.
“If we pick a side, if we say, ‘Hey, gun control, this is what we want,’ then the people who don’t believe that . . . we are isolating them,” Showalter said.
What is — and is not — Scriptural
Avoiding politics in the church is not as simple as it might sound.
As Jeff Darby readily acknowledges, “There’s always going to be a disagreement about what is and what is not clearly a Scriptural issue.”
In the case of racial strife after Floyd’s death, he said, “We were very intentional about crafting statements that proposed understanding, reconciliation, forgiveness, compassion, empathy . . . We always made statements that were supportive of the best principles of both sides.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, church leaders did not applaud or condemn the ruling.
“Instead,” Sue Darby said, “the elders were like, ‘OK, that decision was made by the world — by the government. What is the most loving thing we can do right now? What does that mean? Well, that means there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of kids going into the foster system. We’re going to need to do adoption. We’re going to need to help women.’”
Throughout the recent difficulties, the elders have tried to demonstrate unity despite differences, Jeff Darby said.
“I think that’s a big part of what we’ve been seeing God do in our church family,” he said. “Those who have remained are not homogenous . . . Those who have remained are willing to take the lead of the leadership to say, ‘We’re going to be family.’”
The way forward
After years of upheaval, Scott Cottrill, a 56-year-old business consultant, is ready to focus on the future.
While smaller in number, the members who stayed represent a dedicated core, the church elder said.
“We’re friendly. We’re warm. We’re connected,” he said. “And I feel like there is a very strong relationship and base there. The question is, how do we grow from that base?”
Elder Josh Fairchild, a 49-year-old arborist, echoed Cottrill.
“A visitor never comes here without several people welcoming them,” Fairchild said. “It’s just, I still struggle with — I know numbers aren’t everything, but how do we get more in the church?”
From hosting an annual fall festival to organizing food trucks and activities in its parking lot, the church welcomes hundreds of neighbors via community outreach events.
Even though those efforts have not translated into church growth, the elders said they remain committed to sharing the Gospel.
The pandemic reinforced the need to consider less traditional methods, the leaders said, and be willing to engage uncomfortable topics, from women’s roles to gender identity questions.
“We’ll continue to press forward and be a light to this community to bring people to Christ,” said Eastridge, an animal nutrition professor at Ohio State. “How many in number? I don’t know. But we’re seeking, and I think that’s the key thing.”
Laurie Belville, a Marysville member for 27 years, prays the church will remain focused on God — and steer clear of partisanship.
“It goes back to not making it political,” the grandmother of six said. “Jesus paved that path clearly. He said it was about reaching out and serving and loving.”
This story was originally published by The Christian Chronicle.
Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.