One of the best uses of empty church buildings: homes for new religious congregations

A recent piece by Jonathan Merritt suggested there are many empty American churches and communities struggle to know what to do with them:

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…

Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.

While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.

Based on research I have been working on in recent years, I’ll offer a suggestion of what could be done with these buildings that is not covered in the article: repurpose these buildings for other religious groups. I have found a variety of religious congregations that are willing to buy and/or use older religious buildings constructed by others: megachurches that are opening satellite campuses, new congregations that would not have the resources to buy land and construct a whole new building, and minority religious groups or immigrant groups who are new to areas. The biggest stumbling block might be not just the price of the building but also the possible price of renovations. At the same time, a church in decent condition could look very attractive to religious groups with limited budgets or who want a building that already fits in with the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous churches and synagogues in the Chicago area have been reused by different religious groups, particularly as certain groups left urban neighborhoods in white flight or congregations dissipated due to declining attendance.

Are there any religious organizations that try to match buildings with possible congregations? The article discusses a group that works with churches to use less of the building and use of the rest of it for community space. But, how about a directory where a new or growing congregation could go to in order to find a congregation that is trying to leave their building?

Below the surface, one of the issues present in this article is the matter of zoning. It is not necessarily easy to initially get approval to build a religious building in certain locations but it can be even harder to take what was once a religious building and convert it to another use once the neighboring residents get used to the religious building over decades. Residents like the predictability of their surroundings, even if they do not necessarily like the religious building in the first place.

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Study finds college education not related to less religiosity

Adding to several other studies from recent years, a new study suggests education is not a hindrance to religiosity:

His study of 38,251 people found that college-educated folk born after 1960 are no more likely to disaffiliate from their religion than those who have not pursued a higher education.

And those born in the 1970s and ‘80s who have attended college are more likely to claim religious affiliation than their lesser-educated counterparts — thereby completely reversing the trends of education and secularization.

“This study suggests that, at least at an individual level of analysis, it is not the highly educated who are driving this change,” said Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology. “If anything, the growth of the unaffiliated over the last couple of decades is disproportionally among the less educated. … For younger generations, it’s the least-educated Americans who are most likely to disaffiliate from religion or say they have no religious affiliation.”…

“Religion is just a fact of life for a lot of college students. It is not compartmentalized as just Sunday morning (worship),” he said.

Some pockets of both liberals and conservatives may not like this news: conservatives who rail against agnostic and atheist college environments may have to back off while liberals may not like that college and higher levels of learning don’t discourage religion.

Additionally, religious groups and congregations may want to think about what it means if religion is increasingly the domain of the more educated. Marx suggested religion was a tool for dominating the lower classes but recent findings in the United States suggest those with more education favor religion more. Are lower income Americans less interested in religion (and if so, why) or do they find organized religion less appealing (perhaps they have less social capital with which to navigate religious organizations)?

Study suggests US gov’t loses $71 billion a year because of tax exempt religious institutions

A new study suggests tax exemptions for religious institutions cost governments $71 billion a year:

How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.

Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances,” which permit clergy to deduct housing costs…

If history is a guide, the Free Inquiry article and any call for tax reform it may engender are not likely to have much effect. Since the 1950s, there have been several attempts to quantify religious tax exemptions — all of them wildly varied in their conclusions — and only a handful of legal challenges to those exemptions. Most were unsuccessful…

States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.

This seems like a lot of money but here are a few thoughts about this:

1. You would need to put the cost of these exemptions versus other areas of the tax code in order to know how this compares. For example, would repealing the mortgage interest deduction bring in more money? The study itself makes some of these comparisons:

To put this into perspective, the combined total of government subsidies to agriculture in the United States in 2009 was estimated to be $180.8 billion.38 Religions receive at least 40 percent of the subsidy that agriculture does in the United States. Another way to illustrate the size of the subsidy may be to illustrate how much tax revenue would increase at the state level if religious institutions had to pay property taxes. In Florida, where the state government’s budget was $69.1 billion in 2011, the amount of tax revenue lost from subsidizing religious property was $2.2 billion or 3 percent of the state budget. The additional revenue would have mostly prevented the $1.1 billion cut to firefighter and police retirement plans and the $1.3 billion cut to public schools.39

So is this a battle worth fighting instead of fighting agriculture subsidies?

2. I think we may see more calls for things like this during this period of economic troubles. The federal government as well as state and local governments need money so they are looking for ways to find “easy” money.

3. It could be interesting to look at how this affects local municipalities, particularly ones with more religious congregations that consequently don’t get the tax dollars they might if that land was occupied by homeowners or businesses. For example, a community like Wheaton, Illinois has a large number of churches (including a claim that the suburb has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”) and could have more tax revenue if that land was put to other uses.

US mosques increased from 1,209 to 2,106 between 2000 and 2011

A new study shows that the number of mosques in the United States increased 74% between 2000 and 2011:

Researchers conducting the national count found a total of 2,106 Islamic centers, compared to 1,209 in 2000 and 962 in 1994. About one-quarter of the centers were built between 2000-2011, as the community faced intense scrutiny by government officials and a suspicious public. In 2010, protest against an Islamic center near ground zero erupted into a national debate over Islam, extremism and religious freedom. Anti-mosque demonstrations spread to Tennessee, California and other states.

While some are pleased as this suggests Muslims feel comfortable enough in the United States to establish religious congregations, I think there are two other interesting things about these findings:

1. The methodology for counting mosques:

The report released Wednesday, “The American Mosque 2011,” is a tally based on mailing lists, websites and interviews with community leaders, and a survey and interviews with 524 mosque leaders. The research is of special interest given the limited scholarship so far on Muslim houses of worship, which include a wide range of religious traditions, nationalities and languages.

Researchers defined a mosque as a Muslim organization that holds Friday congregational prayers called jumah, conducts other Islamic activities and has operational control of its building. Buildings such as hospitals and schools that have space for Friday prayer were not included. Chapters of the Muslim Student Association at colleges and universities were included only if they had space off-campus or had oversight of the building where prayer was held…

The 2011 mosque study is part of the Faith Communities Today partnership, which researches the more than 300,000 houses of worship in the United States. Among the report’s sponsors are the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the Islamic Society of North America and Islamic Circle of North America.

I wonder if other researchers might disagree with this methodology, particularly with how a mosque was defined. This is a reminder that it can be difficult to track or count religious groups because there are no master lists, not everyone is in the phone book, and not everyone has a web site. Additionally, religious congregations can quickly form and disband.

(I assume the researchers talk about this in their report but could the increase in mosques could be related to doing a more comprehensive search this time around?)

2. It is interesting to note where the mosques are located:

The overwhelming majority of mosques are in cities, but the number located in suburbs rose from 16 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2011. The Northeast once had the largest number of mosques, but Islamic centers are now concentrated in the South and West, the study found. New York still has the greatest number of Islamic centers — 257 — followed by 246 in California and 166 in Texas. Florida is fourth with 118. The shift follows the general pattern of population movement to the South and West.

I am most interested in the figures about the suburban growth as I have tracked several cases of proposals for mosques in the Chicago suburbs. This article doesn’t say but I wonder if the greater number of suburban mosques is because city mosques have moved from city to suburb (which would mirror the movement of Protestant churches out of the city in the post-World War II suburban boom) or because these are new suburban mosques built in response to a growing suburban Muslim population.

 

Differences in political activism in mainline and evangelical pastors

Christianity Today contrasts the political stances and activities of mainline and evangelical pastors. The data is summed up this way:

[A] new study from Calvin College’s Paul B. Henry Institute shows that for the past decade, evangelical pastors have been more likely to take public stances on political issues and candidates than have their mainline cohorts. Overall, some differences between evangelical and mainline clergy are shrinking as mainline pastors become more conservative and evangelical pastors become more socially active.

This is some interesting data: it suggests both mainline and evangelical congregations don’t hear much about politics even as pastors themselves took stands on particular public issues and a sizable minority supported a political candidate.

On the whole, however, it looks like there are not too many differences here between evangelical and mainline churches in these matters. Outside of more mainline pastors being more liberal on political and economic issues than their congregations, about half of evangelical and mainline pastors engaged in some form of political activity in church. Perhaps we would need some more data to find sharper differences (such as about the particular congregations and contexts where these sorts of activities took place – this could be found in the National Congregations Study) or more qualitative data that could provide insights into how politics is acted upon in particular congregations and through particular pastors.