David Hartman and Brooke Christensen of the More Than This podcast recently talked with sociologist Robert Brenneman and me about our new book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. If you are interested in religious buildings and architecture, you will want to listen.
But not every flock-less church faces an afterlife as living spaces stuffed full of “exceptional quirks around every corner” for hipsters. Many have become different kinds of creative spaces and communal gathering spots, often providing what might be considered “secular ministry.”
It is unclear how many religious buildings are repurposed. Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s 350,000 congregations — or 3,500 — close each year, based on an analysis from Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.
The eight subsequent profiles of transformed religious spaces are indeed interesting. And this follows a pattern of news reporting on these conversions: look what cool spaces can be created from church buildings! (See earlier blog posts on converting churches to residences here and here.)
Yet, the paragraphs cited above from the beginning of the story note the need to study the full story of religious buildings. What happens to all the buildings associated with congregations that close? A few guesses based on the research Robert Brenneman and I did in our book Building Faith:
- Many of these buildings are reused by other religious groups. These can sometimes be groups in the same religious traditions and other times not. A number of congregations are willing to use an existing religious building and then modify it to their own purposes. This might provide a unique opportunity to acquire a building or location for a cheaper price and/or borrow the tradition in an older structure.
- Some religious buildings are converted into other uses. I would guess that the percent of all sold or abandoned religious buildings converted into cool uses – ones that become architectural marvels for other uses or feature the kind of activity to be featured in a newspaper – is relatively low.
- Some of these church buildings are eventually torn down. It can be expensive to maintain aging structures. It can be costly to convert old structures. The land may be too valuable to be taken up by a religious building. The building might be in a neighborhood or community with limited resources or declining fortunes.
If the buildings are indeed repurposed, the new owners may or may not keep some of the original features. It is hard to tell exactly from the images with the New York Times story but it looks most of these conversions tried to keep some of the church-specific features like stained glass windows, organs, lighting, and ceilings. This may not be desirable for all uses or even for religious groups reusing the building.
A look at the spread of the same architecture around the world – “glass-and-steel” – leaves out religious architecture:
Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.
The primary focus of this article appears to be architectural wonders in business districts. These buildings both reflect the primary values of today’s world – capitalism, finance, power – and dominate modern skylines. They promote a particular global order.
In contrast, religious buildings often refer to other values: transcendence, community, beauty or sacredness. They can be part of hegemony or empire or the spread of a global order. But, they can also signal space that resists oppression or injustice. And, religious buildings can both reflect international styles and/or local religious interpretations.
In the book Building Faith Bob Brenneman and I wrote, we tackle some of these issues. There are modernist religious buildings. There are international structures influenced by the architecture of Las Vegas or glitzy cities. But, there are also small congregations building humble structures, others mixing indigenous architecture and common forms of architecture in particular religious traditions, others converting one kind of structure to another, and others worshiping in more secular structures. Many of these buildings are the opposite of these international symbols of affluence and starchitects. At least in form, they present an alternative vision and with the actions of the congregation within, may actively counter hegemonic order.
Some of the issue may be that the stature of religious buildings have diminished in the center of many global cities. Whereas once religious structures sat at the middle of the city, office buildings and structures devoted came to dominate the central spaces. In Chicago, the central churches moved to quieter neighborhoods near residents and where property values were lower as business came to dominate the Loop. Even the tallest religious buildings are no match for the biggest office buildings or residential structures.
When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:
One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.
All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.
Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.
The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within
Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.
Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.
Sociologist Bob Brenneman and I are a few weeks away from the release of our book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. Here is the description of the book from the Oxford University Press website:
The social sciences have mostly ignored the role of physical buildings in shaping the social fabric of communities and groups. Although the emerging field of the sociology of architecture has started to pay attention to physical structures, Brenneman and Miller are the first to combine the light of sociological theory and the empirical method in order to understand the impact of physical structures on religious groups that build, transform, and maintain them. Religious buildings not only reflect the groups that build them or use them; these physical structures actually shape and change those who gather and worship there.
Religious buildings are all around us. From Wall Street to Main Street, from sublime and historic cathedrals to humble converted storefronts, these buildings shape the global religious landscape, Building Faith explores the social impact of religious buildings in places as diverse as a Chicago suburb and a Guatemalan indigenous Mayan village, all the while asking the questions, “How does space shape community?” and “How do communities shape the spaces that speak for them?”
This project began with fruitful lunch conversation which led to the publishing of a co-authored 2017 article in Sociology of Religion titled “When Bricks Matter: Four Sociological Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings.” A book proposal, research on several different fronts, and many revisions led up to the book which examines how religious buildings shape and are shaped by those who gather there as well as others around the building.
I have tracked the fate of religious buildings both professionally and on this blog (such as conversions to residential units). I have also asked: just how many conversions of religious buildings to residences are taking place?
Some hard numbers to start answer this question recently arrived:
More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.
Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop.
And some helpful context for these numbers:
“The buildings we have that were built in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are not really functional for today’s perspective,” said Simons, author of Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America’s Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools. “Too many classrooms, a little bit too big.”
These large religious buildings can fall into disrepair, placing a financial burden on shrinking congregations. The process is a “vicious circle,” said Simons, because congregations in deteriorating buildings may have trouble attracting new members, which in turn reduces donations.
The numbers are helpful: out of roughly 300,000 religious congregations in the United States, roughly 1,350 religious buildings a year are sold. Alas, we do not get more data on what happens to those structures. The rest of this news story follows a format similar to earlier stories: religious buildings can be turned into all sorts of things! This is true – there are lots of possibilities. How many are demolished? Converted into businesses or residences? Made into schools, community centers, or homes for non-profit groups? And while the angle of a religious buildings becoming a secular structure is interesting, the number of times one religious group sells to another – a fairly common occurrence and often a very helpful option for the purchasing congregation – is ignored.
Going further, the numbers on sales only tell so much when the range of costs to rehab or reuse the building could be high. The suggestion from the story above is that a number of the buildings need significant work. Selling a building may often be a last resort of a congregation, meaning the group may not have had the resources to take proactively keep up the building for a while. The sale of the building might just be the first step in a much longer process of transforming the building (which my research suggests could then lead to issues in the community regarding making changes to an established structure).
If churches and other religious buildings present attractive opportunities for redevelopment in urban neighborhoods, how often does this happen?
I hope someone is tracking all of these switches from religious structures to residences. The impetus to collect this data could come from multiple sources. An organization might want to look at changes in a neighborhood or geographic area. An organization of developers or architects might see this as a business opportunity. A researcher could be interested in housing changes, particularly from an unusual source like unused religious buildings. Presumably, this kind of housing does not go for cheap and could exacerbate existing issues in urban areas. Communities themselves might want to know how many religious buildings are being converted. This could affect tax rolls – moving property from non-taxpaying religious groups to residents brings in more tax money – and nearby residents could be affected.
From what I can gather, these conversions are happening at a regular pace. Yet, it is hard to track the scale from the occasional article. My own research on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago area did not find many churches that became residences. Indeed, former churches could fill a range of uses: the most common was a religious buildings for another religious group but churches could also be reused as daycare facilities, community centers, and offices.
Based on this, I would guess there are not that many churches being turned into residences in terms of sheer numbers. At the same time, of the religious buildings that are sold, I would guess a good number are converted into residences when located in more desirable neighborhoods (though I am sure some buildings are also demolished to make way for new residential buildings).
The conversion of religious buildings into residences continues in many American cities. This is the result of at least three larger forces:
- The decline of numerous religious groups which means religious buildings are no longer used for worship. This decline has been going on for decades in a number of denominations, freeing up numerous churches and other structures.
- The demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. While the converted residences are not often cheap, they are often in desirable neighborhoods and locations. The same reasons religious groups chose particular locations also can make them attractive for residents. (The flip side is that religious buildings in less desirable neighborhoods can languish.)
- The unique architectural features a religious building can provide including tall vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and brick and stone work. These features can be incorporated into new dwellings and provide very different options compared to new construction.
For example, a recent Chicago Tribune piece about a former church in Logan Square highlights these issues:
The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.
In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety…
All nine apartments in the converted church are one of a kind and configured with either two or three bedrooms. Three apartments are on the main level of the church, and three apartments are on the garden level. Three more are stacked within the former attached rectory behind the church. The first residents arrived in April…
“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.
A recently closed church and sold building plus a desirable neighborhood plus interesting building details equals a redevelopment opportunity.
But, just how many of these conversions of religious buildings are taking place? This is the subject of tomorrow’s post.
The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.
Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.
After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.
Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…
Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.
Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.
It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.
I saw this list of 25 stunning churches, mosques, and temples around the world and wondered: how do people decide on a list like this? Even the introduction of the article seems to recognize this:
The architecture of houses of worship varies according to time and place, ranging from hilltop chapels built in the 10th century to geometric modernist designs of glass and steel…
A tour around the world in search of the most beautiful houses of worship shows that despite the immense differences in architecture, the ability of humans to create beautiful, holy places transcends geographical and sectarian boundaries. Behold, 25 of the world’s prettiest churches, mosques, and temples.
I would be interested in reading more about how each of these buildings lead visitors to feelings of beauty and holiness. Is it because of the exterior? (Clearly marked as a religious building, difference from or convergence with the surrounding landscape, it took a long time to build.) Is it because of the interior? (A number of these captions mention that the buildings invoke certain feelings inside.) It is because it is old and/or cultural important? Ultimately: is there a common feature across religious buildings of different faiths and times that generally moves humans toward feelings of transcendence?
(This isn’t exactly what my coauthor Bob Brenneman and I were getting at in a recent Sociology of Religion article titled “When Bricks Matter: Fourt Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings” but this would be interesting to consider alongside our thesis that we should pay more attention to how religious buildings affect the people within.)