The fate of church buildings when thousands of churches cease operating

A new book addresses the fate of church buildings when congregations end:

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Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing Costs,” a new book about how church property can be repurposed, says there are thousands of churches around the country that have closed or will likely close in the years to come. And too often, he said, leaders of those churches put off any discussion about what to do with their building until it’s too late.

“I’ve had situations where buildings are empty and they have no plan at all,” he said.

A 2021 study from Lifeway Research, based on data from three-dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 were started. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that the median worship attendance for churches in the U.S. dropped from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.

Dutra argues that billions of dollars in church property could be put to work for ministry ­— if church leaders become proactive about the future. He has worked with a number of religious groups to do just that.

The numbers cited above are interesting: prior to COVID-19, more churches closed than opened. Additionally, the data from the survey is consistent with the National Congregations Study run over the last two decades regarding the median size of churches.

This is one area that my co-author Robert Brenneman and I did not address as much as we could have in our 2020 book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. One of the later chapters looks at the fate of church buildings in the Chicago area. We found big differences across four denominations and a number of church buildings put to other uses. Church building are used in a variety of ways, including used by new congregations, converted into housing or commercial space, razed, and preserved.

Based on the description of the book in the article above, my guess is the recommendation is that church buildings no longer housing congregations can be put to other faith uses. There is certainly opportunity, ranging from serving new congregations to housing non-profits or parachurch organizations to being home to community centers.

Will there be more empty church buildings in the near future due to COVID-19?

COVID-19 has lowered church attendance and impacted giving. Does this mean there will be more empty church buildings in the next few years? A few hints:

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Biltmore is just one of an untold number of congregations across the country that have struggled to stay afloat financially and minister to their flocks during the pandemic, though others have managed to weather the storm, often with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, and sustained levels of member donations.

The coronavirus hit at a time when already fewer Americans were going to worship services — with at least half of the nearly 15,300 congregations surveyed in a 2020 report by Faith Communities Today reporting weekly attendance of 65 or less — and exacerbated the problems at smaller churches where increasingly lean budgets often hindered them from things like hiring full-time clergy…

After congregants voted last May to put the church property, a two-building campus perched on a verdant knoll just off Interstate 40, on the market, church leaders are still figuring out what comes next, including where the congregation will call home. But they hope to use some of the proceeds from the property sale to support marginalized communities and causes like affordable housing…

When services went virtual, savings on utilities and other costs helped keep the budget balanced. PPP loans of some $290,000 were also key to maintaining employees on the payroll and offsetting lost revenue from renting out space and other services.

COVID-19 has been disruptive for many faith communities. The article notes the fallout in multiple areas and I will add how this might affect buildings.

  1. Disrupted giving. Congregations have to decide what is essential. This might differ across congregations as they consider staffing, programs, and buildings. A congregation with an older but important structure may respond differently than a newer congregation with less attachment to a property.
  2. Decreased attendance. The building has likely experienced less use during COVID-19. Is the same building needed in the future? Is it maintainable given fewer attendees or with modifications that make streaming services and activities possible?
  3. Congregations that were already struggling may have been pushed to the brink. Whereas they may have been able to hold on to a building longer or developed a solution without COVID-19, the pandemic gave a shove to property and building concerns.

Combine these factors with the regular flow of older church buildings and congregations fading away and we may just see more church buildings available for reuse or redevelopment.

See this earlier set of posts (on reusing religious buildings, building maintenance, using space differently, and different building energy) addressing possibilities for religious buildings post-COVID-19.

The role of religious buildings in the decline in religiosity in the US during COVID-19

New data from Pew Research suggests religiosity declined during COVID-19:

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The percentage of Americans who identify as Christians now stands at 63%, down from 65% in 2019 and from 78% in 2007. Meanwhile, 29% of Americans now identify as having no religion, up from 26% in 2019 and 16% in 2007, when Pew began tracking religious identity.

Many places of worship closed during the pandemic—some voluntarily, others as a result of state and local social-distancing rules—and in-person church attendance is roughly 30% to 50% lower than it was before the pandemic, estimates Barna Group, a research firm that studies faith in the U.S. Millions of Americans moved to worshiping online, and questions linger about how many will come back in person.

A previous Pew survey, in January, found that a third of Americans said their faith had grown stronger during the pandemic—the highest share of any developed country. But overall, religious engagement trended downward at roughly the same rate as before the pandemic, according to the new Pew survey.

These findings are likely part of a longer trend away from religion that was already underway before COVID-19 hit. Sociologists and others have noted the rise of “religious nones,” particularly among younger Americans. Religion in the United States can often be individualistic and anchored less in religious traditions or denominations.

Yet, I wonder if COVID-19 presented a unique disruption to religiosity as it limited interaction with religious buildings. Sociologist Robert Brenneman and I discuss the impact of religious buildings on worship and community in Building Faith. We argue that the religious building and the ways that exterior and interior features are designed influence people who interact with them. The buildings do not just reflect religious values or doctrine; they help shape religious experiences.

When COVID-19 stopped people from being in buildings that influenced their faith, did this register as a loss and/or lead to a decline in religious engagement? With today’s technology and the ways that many congregations pivoted to online options, people can still engage with faith communities. Yet, that experience through Zoom or other video options is not the same as being in a physical structure that reinforces faith experiences. Even in congregations that tend to downplay the role of space, they still try to shape the religious building space in ways that encourages particular emotions and experiences.

Can religious faith in the United States survive as an enterprise free from the confines of a religious building? I have my doubts. While buildings themselves are unlikely to reverse the decline in religiosity in the last decade or so, they have a role in shaping communal and individual faith.

Approving a controversial suburban mosque proposal – with conditions

Religious groups can face obstacles when they want to use land and/or buildings for religious purposes. The case of one Muslim group and property in Naperville that I have followed in research and on this blog winds closer to the end but approval might come with a number of conditions:

The city’s planning and zoning commission reviewed the plan over the course of 15 hearings and heard from about 500 speakers. On Wednesday, the panel voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

The proposal now heads to the city council for final approval, although that likely won’t happen until November, according to Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche…

The vote came after three hours of closing statements, and after city staff detailed 12 conditions for the ICN to accept. Eleven were accepted by ICN attorney Len Monson and the wording of a 12th was adjusted before being accepted.

Among the conditions agreed to were the ICN’s responsibility for traffic management during the facility’s busiest times, no construction after the second phase of the project until 248th Avenue is expanded, a school pickup plan for the second phase, splitting the cost with the city for a traffic signal at 248th Avenue and Honey Locust Drive, and no outdoor amplification of sound.

Several points of my research may be relevant here:

  1. Compared to other religious groups, Muslim groups do seem to encounter a lot of opposition when they make proposals.
  2. This proposal is also for a property surrounded by residences. My research suggests such a location near single-family homes can lead to more opposition from neighbors.
  3. Conditions or negotiations between communities and religious groups do happen.
  4. The conditions described above sound like they address some of the concerns raised by neighbors (and community members generally in my research): traffic and the residential/single-family home character of the area.

This particular proposal has received a lot of public comment and if it is approved by the City Council, it would be interesting to follow the neighborhood and community relations between Naperville residentsand ICN at this location and in Naperville more broadly

The consequences of losing the physical dimensions of religious and spiritual rituals

A psychologist encouraging people to adopt religious rituals – though not necessarily the religion associated with them – highlights the physical dimension of these rituals:

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One thing that does worry me is a move toward doing these things online. We had to do it remotely because of covid-19. But these rituals are designed to happen and work best in the presence of other individuals. When we’re together, our heart rate synchronizes our breath. These mechanisms are leveraging our minds and bodies. Why do people kneel in church? There’s research showing that if you show people information on a screen above them, they place more emphasis and believe more on the higher screen because they’re looking up at it. Physiologically, we interpret something higher verticality as more authoritative. If you’re sitting on your computer or watching on your phone, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of the power and majesty of certain rituals because we’re doing them remotely. That’s not how they were designed to work.

It is hard to overstate the communal factor of physical rituals. As sociologist Randall Collins describes in Interaction Ritual Chains, the bodily presence of others enhances the individual and collective experience.

This train of thought is also part of the reason sociologist Robert Brenneman and I wrote Building Faith. A recent trend is that people interested in religion or spirituality do it on their own and in secular settings. But, this is not what numerous religious traditions have highlighted for thousands of years. They have buildings that are intended to enhance the experience of the transcendent as well as enhance fellowship among believers. They may structure this space in different ways – whether to emphasize the preached Word, music, prayer, viewing other attendees, etc. – but they generally agree that buildings shape religious faith. Move those beliefs and practices to other spaces or to no spaces and it is something different.

Could people eventually have a faith or set of spiritual beliefs and practices and no common rituals whatsoever? Remove the physical structures and a group of people around them doing something similar and it is easier to imagine.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: different building energy

As congregations and religious groups look forward to attendance after COVID-19, how the congregation experiences the building and services could change. One religious leader hints at this:

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The All Dulles Area Muslim Society, whose main campus is in Sterling, Virginia, said some of its 11 locations have reopened to worshippers with safety measures.“If COVID is gone 100%, I firmly believe our community would be fully back because people crave … to be together,” said Rizwan Jaka, chair of interfaith and media relations.

This is one way congregations could go: they are excited to fully return and resume activity. The energy a building helps create by fostering community connections and particular worship practices is one that many religious people enjoy. Collective effervescence is an important component of religious congregations as the shared experiences within a confined space provides both collective and individual energy. There is something that happens within that physical space that is difficult to replicate elsewhere, let alone via a streamed service or gathering.

On the other hand, some congregations might find the post-COVID-19 gatherings different in terms of building energy. If you have a large space and it is not as full or if there are noticeable changes to buildings and practices, the collective experience might be something different. Changes take time to adjust to and some buildings may not be as well-suited for the changes COVID-19 wrought.

All of this might be hard to predict after a year-plus of significant time away from a religious building. Do attendees return and remember what made the building important and sacred? Do they come back and experience a letdown with a changed experience and context? As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: using space differently

In thinking about religious services and gathering after the COVID-19 pandemic, how congregations use their physical space may be different. One pastor and lecturer notes what likely helped congregations during COVID-19:

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Those that are successful in reemerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns will likely be those that did a better job adapting to the pandemic, said White-Hammond. Eight in 10 congregants in the U.S. reported that their services were being streamed online, Pew said.

Adaptation comes in multiple forms, including in how congregations use their religious buildings. During COVID-19, buildings may have been empty, changing the regular pattern of use with regular services and meetings. The buildings may have been used but in different ways, perhaps with fewer people attending and/or with spacing to try to cut down on spreading COVID-19.

This could lead to long-term changes to how congregations use their space. Do they need their sanctuary of a particular size? Did they need to make room for a broadcast center (lights, microphones, cameras) to better suit services via Zoom? If congregations are providing food and other things for the community during a time of economic and social trial, do they use kitchens and other spaces more?

The most radical turn might be abandoning larger religious buildings for smaller structures where smaller gatherings can happen and there is all the equipment necessary for permanent streaming capabilities. If attendance goes down and more people are interested in accessing services via the Internet/apps/phones, congregations don’t need the same kind of building. I could even imagine a large congregation moving to an office suite in a building and streaming a full and exciting service from there and having better control over lights, sound, and video.

Congregations will have opportunities to assess their space needs during and after COVID-19. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: building maintenance

As religious groups and congregations ponder attendance post-COVID-19, the condition of their buildings is also important to consider:

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In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but it has struggled mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained-glass windows need to be replaced.

Any building requires regular maintenance in order for it to best meet the needs of its users. Churches and religious buildings are no exception. Roofs, heaters and air conditioners, floors, walls, paint, exteriors, and more need checking, repairs, and replacing on a cycle.

The example above hints at two problems COVID-19 brings for the maintenance of religious buildings. First, many congregations depend on tithes or gifts from people in order to keep their building in order. If attendance is down or people are not in the building, they may not give as much in order to take care of the structure. With less money, there are needs to prioritize and basics of the building might fall outside of this as the congregation tries to get by. Second, building maintenance might be tied to the regular presence of people within the building. If a congregation does not meet in the structure for months at a time and/or the group meets online, the building is out of sight and out of mind. It does not need to be maintained in the same way as a structure that regularly has people in and out throughout the week.

Those who do return to services and gatherings post-COVID-19 might find the building needs some work. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community. Depending on the age of the structure, the funding during COVID-19, and maintenance over the year-plus, the building may need attention or at least to return to its regular maintenance cycle.