Around 10,000 churches in the U.S. die each year thanks to low attendance and high property costs. Many of have are now being repurposed into bars, wineries, and living spaces. In other words, places people actually want to be inside.
The phenomenon is not new, but the massive rise of the “Nones” — people who don’t have any affiliation with organized religion — has caused an explosion in recycled churches. A recent article by Jonathan Merritt in the Atlantic describes the huge number of empty churches as an American “epidemic.”
Three blocks from my Brooklyn apartment, a large brick structure stretches toward heaven. Tourists recognize it as a church — the building’s bell tower and stained-glass windows give it away — but worshippers haven’t gathered here in years.
The 19th-century building was once known as St. Vincent De Paul Church and housed a vibrant congregation for more than a century. But attendance dwindled and coffers ran dry by the early 2000s. Rain leaked through holes left by missing shingles, a tree sprouted in the bell tower, and the Brooklyn diocese decided to sell the building to developers. Today, the Spire Lofts boasts 40 luxury apartments, with one-bedroom units renting for as much as $4,812 per month. It takes serious cash to make God’s house your own, apparently.
Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures — 6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America — and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population.
That intersection of religion’s self-inflicted wounds along with a growing number of Americans who find all the benefits of church (minus the irrational religious beliefs) in plenty of other places has led to these religious ghost towns.
Just add churches to the list of things Millennials have killed off, I suppose.
Merritt also points out that churches often sit on prime real estate — it’s why they were planted there — so their disuse is even more troubling for the owners.
Any minister can tell you that the two best predictors of a congregation’s survival are “budgets and butts,” and American churches are struggling by both metrics. As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are in use only a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends shows signs of slowing, so the United States’ struggling congregations face a choice: Start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat.
Pastors may be better off learning how to mix a drink for the other days of the week. Or they can sell the buildings and rent space at public schools on weekends (as many churches do). Or they can merge with other existing churches (a decision that could lead to other problems).
They’ll get pushback from some parishioners, but unless the congregation has the money to hold on to the building, this decision doesn’t require much debate.
In a sense, many churches failed to adapt and evolve with the times. Now they’re succumbing to a theological “survival of the fittest.” How’s that for irony?
(Image via Shutterstock)