American religious buildings continue to change hands as different denominations and groups lose or gain members:
The handover in houses of worship across the country is not a straightforward case of an increase in non-Christian immigrants in the United States. In fact, many church sales can be attributed to shifts among Christian denominations. Roman Catholic weekly service attendance has slid from 75 percent in 1955 to 45 percent in the mid-2000s, while Southern Baptist and Evangelical churches have seen big drops in attendance, partially due to a split within the Protestant church between mainline Protestantism and Evangelicals. Meanwhile, Pentecostal churches have seen spikes in attendance…
Though sales of churches has picked up during the recent recession, it’s not a new phenomenon. Look to synagogues, says Ellen Levitt, author of The Lost Synagogues, a series of books and tours exploring the changing of hands of the Jewish place of worship to churches, community centers, and schools…
It’s not just because of immigration patterns—religions are also changing, creating ripples in the church sales market. Christian Science groups, for example, have reported declining attendance. Korean-based Christian congregations have reported spikes in worshipers, while Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in America.
But finding a new place to worship presents a dual problem: getting a brand new building for many groups is out of reach, while the smaller churches that are being sold are just too small for growing congregations. Most state rules require that a building be established as a church for fire code reasons, which means buying a house and turning it into a church is off. And parking, particularly in space crunched California, is precious.
The real estate market is not one many people might associate with religion but religious groups own a lot of property in the United States. It would be interesting to see some figures how much religious real estate changes hands on a yearly basis. And how many of the non-religious or people outside of the particular group that currently owns and uses the building notices much different?
As the article notes, as some groups decline, particularly older religious groups, newer groups are looking for space. Even as it might be complicated to adapt existing buildings, it might be even harder to construct new buildings, particularly if they are large, because of needing money or building in neighborhoods that don’t want a new religious building. I would guess proponents of reusing buildings and retrofitting – giving old buildings new uses, though this could lead to religious buildings being turned into things like residences – would also like this.
Sociologist Peter Berger offers his take on the news that some atheists are looking to form their own megachurches.
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family. This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety). Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”. This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.
As far as I know, the term “denomination” is an innovation of American English. In classical sociology of religion, in the early 20th-entury writings of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, religious institutions were described as coming in two types: the “church”, a large body open to the society into which an individual is born, and the ”sect”, a smaller group set aside from the society which an individual chooses to join. The historian Richard Niebuhr, in 1929, published a book that has become a classic, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. It is a very rich account of religious history, but among many other contributions, Niebuhr argued that America has produced a third type of religious institutions—the denomination—which has some qualities derived from both the Weber-Troeltsch types: It is a large body not isolated from society, but it is also a voluntary association which individuals chose to join. It can also be described as a church which, in fact if not theologically, accepts the right of other churches to exist. This distinctive institution, I would propose, is the result of a social and a political fact. The denomination is an institutional formation seeking to adapt to pluralism—the largely peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities in the same society. The denomination is protected in a pluralist situation by the political and legal guarantee of religious freedom. Pluralism is the product of powerful forces of modernity—urbanization, migration, mass literacy and education; it can exist without religious freedom, but the latter clearly enhances it. While Niebuhr was right in seeing the denomination as primarily an American invention, it has now become globalized—because pluralism has become a global fact. The worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, which I mentioned before, is a prime example of global pluralism—ever splitting off into an exuberant variety of groupings.
The argument: a pluralistic society, created through a set of legal and social codes, encourages denominations. Thus, if atheists want to be part of an American landscape, they must adapt to the forms that give religious groups the ability to band together and rally to their cause.
I wasn’t sure why atheists would want megachurches when these don’t have the greatest reputations (though they may be popular and influential) but I’m even less sure that atheists would want to be part of denominations. Much of the story of American religion in the last 50 years is the decline of denominations, the trend toward more independent, non-denominational churches that are not constrained by hierarchies. Similarly, individuals have moved from seeking membership in religious organizations to a more individualized form of religious expression, immortalized as “shielaism” in Habits of the Heart and illustrated with the increasing number of “religious nones.” On one hand, denominations allow religious congregations to band together and exert more collective force but Americans also don’t like to be limited by social structures.
Joe Carter at First Things discusses some comments made by sociologist Rodney Stark in a recent interview. Stark suggested that the Mainline denominations, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a few others, are now the periphery while Evangelicals are the core.
No offense to my mainline friends, but I’ve never understood why they continue to be considered mainstream by the the mainstream media. The Southern Baptist Convention has as many members as all mainline denominations combined. Yet the dying denominations get all the attention.
I suspect that within my lifetime the only mainline denominations that will continue to exist will be those that, as Stark notes, are led by clergy who are “generally evangelical in their convictions.”
While Carter may have a point about Mainline denominations receiving an inordinate amount of attention compared to their size, there are still some reasons to consider and track the Mainline:
1. They represent an important historical era of Christianity in the United States and their slow decline is of interest. Once the dominant denominations, they are now in a different position. How their theological beliefs have changed over time is fascinating. Tracing these changes is useful just as tracking how Evangelicalism has changed and will change over time is also useful.
2. Mainline denominations have historically had middle-class and upper-class adherents as opposed to more conservative denominations which had less education and lower incomes. While this gap has narrowed today, these denominations still often represent money, tradition, and influence. These are interesting qualities that are attractive to journalists and others.