America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches
As donations and attendance decrease, many churches struggle with the cost of maintaining their large physical structures. These churches, Jonathan Merritt writes, face a choice: Sell their buildings or repurpose their space.
Jonathan Merritt brings up an important and often overlooked issue: what to do with church buildings as congregations dwindle. The work of the Missional Wisdom Foundation provides inspiring possibilities for some of these buildings.
For the past decade, I have been researching the emptying churches in the postindustrial city of Utica, N.Y., and found other surprising reuses. Most significantly, old Christian churches are being transformed into mosques and temples to be used by new refugee and immigrant communities.
Utica’s Central United Methodist Church once attracted hundreds of worshippers, but it was sitting empty in the late ’90s. Meanwhile, Muslim Bosnians were fleeing wars in their homeland and needed a mosque for prayers and community gatherings when they arrived in Utica. The city sold the old Methodist church (by then an abandoned building) to them for about $1,000, and they converted it into a stunning space that anchors the Muslim community of the area.
Nearby, the former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church closed its doors late in the 20th century, only to be reopened for Vietnamese Buddhists to bring their praises to the Goddess Quan Am.
While mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are seeing declining numbers, Buddhism, Islam, and various charismatic and Protestant traditions are actually growing, and they need space to gather. I hope they might find sanctuary in these old churches.
S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
The best use for unused churches is to sell them, demolish them, and return them to the tax ledgers as contributing income to the communities that overpaid their taxes to make up for the tax exemption the former churches had.
Framing this issue as an epidemic is an odd choice. Shopping malls are also being emptied and repurposed. Anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s remembers malls as places where we communed with friends and learned about the world, but I don’t see their loss as an epidemic, and I can’t think of anyone who does. And whatever happened to skating rinks?
Personally, I’m thrilled to see a wasteful concept of erecting giant buildings that are used only infrequently come to an end. There’s nothing in the Bible that requires ornate houses of worship. Centuries of church leaders building ornate monuments to ego instead of using the funds to care for the poor are not something to be celebrated. Followers of a man who said to give your second coat to the poor shouldn’t be obsessed with buildings.
For me, while a handful of churches are interesting architecturally, most are boring replicas with very little thought put into them. As for nostalgia, to challenge Merritt’s example, how many Americans even know the church where their mother was baptized? I grew up very religious, but I haven’t the faintest clue about that question.
All that said, I think the solutions Merritt mentions toward the end of the article are outstanding—use that space for things that benefit the community. Churches are dying because they lack relevance for many people. If those around you see that you care about them and want to make the world a better place, your ministry will be far more effective. This is a great way to live the command of Jesus to love your neighbor.
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