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.
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.
Closure and adaptive reuse often seems like the simplest and most responsible path. Many houses of worship sit on prime real estate, often in the center of towns or cities, where inventory is low. Selling the property to the highest bidder is a quick and effective way to cut losses and settle debts. But repurposing a sacred space for secular use has a number of drawbacks. There are zoning issues, price negotiations, and sometimes fierce pushback from the surrounding community and the parish’s former members.
A church building is more than just walls and windows; it is also a sacred vessel that stores generations of religious memories. Even for those who do not regularly practice a religion, sacred images and structures operate as powerful community symbols. When a hallowed building is resurrected as something else, those who feel a connection to that symbol may experience a sense of loss or even righteous anger.
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