The Atlantic had an interesting article a while ago about closed and abandoned churches. At the time, their writer asserted that 6,000-10,000 churches a year go abandoned. That’s not in total. That’s every year. One of the most visible signs of Christianity’s decline is its rash of abandoned churches. And they’re proving to be a problem! Today, Lord Snow Presides over fast-emptying churches.
And by the way, that 6000-10000/year figure is not a typo. I double-checked it because it sounded ludicrously high. Nope. 6000-10000/year. If distributed evenly through the United States (which it almost certainly is not), that’d be up to 200 churches per state per year, and if distributed evenly through the year (which, again, it probably isn’t), it means almost 200 close each week. The figure seems to come ultimately from Thom Rainer, so it might not be accurate; he rarely shares his information sources or his methodology. Nor do I know if his figure counts home churches and storefronts, which don’t meet in their own freestanding buildings. still, nobody’s disputing it that I can see.
If it’s an accurate figure, then by the time you finally go to bed tonight, another 27 or so churches, statistically, will have closed and locked their doors forever. Today, we look at what that figure means for the communities around those churches.
An American “Epidemic.”
Thanks to generous tax perks and a population that considered church membership an essential element of being a responsible adult and good citizen, churches dotted the landscape. In the tiny town in Kansas that I lived in toward the end of the 1990s, we had no mall–but we had a bazillion churches. Only the number of bars came close to rivaling them.
At least, that’s how it used to be.
I knew a lot of people there, but not one of them attended any church. Some considered themselves nominally Christian–but their affiliation ended with the label. When I looked at all those churches, I wondered who attended them–and how they paid their bills and kept their lights on. None of their parking lots exactly overflowed on Sunday mornings.
It turns out that the answer to that question was “not enough people.”
Single-Use Gadgets, Single-Use Churches.
People who like cooking shows know that Alton Brown, the guru of deliciousness and “Thyme Lord,” stands firmly against single-use kitchen gadgets. He prefers tools that cooks can use for many different purposes, such as good knives and muffin pans.
In similar fashion, most of these abandoned churches have proven difficult to repurpose. Like the vast shopping malls of the 1980s and 1990s that got built everywhere that even halfway seemed good, churches blossomed everywhere in an America wedded to Christianity. But this proliferation couldn’t last. Both types of building turned out to depend mightily on market forces that have changed dramatically in recent years.
Either way, malls and churches have both turned out to be pretty single-use.
Now someone must figure out what to do with all of these church buildings. (Or not, and allow them to stay abandoned forever.) A bunch of studies offer both predictions for what might happen if the buildings aren’t repurposed and ideas for the repurposing.
Beyond the obvious problems with some of the more outlandish architecture involved, some churches function as landmarks and cultural artifacts.
Suddenly, the Community Remembers They Had a Church There Once.
Some developers would vastly prefer simply demolishing these single-use buildings. But that’s turned out to be a problem with churches. Tons of them are on the market, and some for very reasonable prices. But I doubt their owners see many inquiries.
In a lot of these areas, especially ones formerly dominated by Christianity, like Boston, local communities express outrage over the notion of a once-treasured place being turned into convenience stores, or residences. People might feel nostalgic over their memories of shopping mall excursions in the 1990s, but very few people turn up wielding signs and chanting to demonstrate when one must be closed or demolished. It happens, sure, but usually the problem isn’t so much nostalgia for the mall as concerns about how the new proposed use of its land will affect the community around it.
Welcome to my adolescence.
Churches, though, often arouse a fierce protectiveness in their communities. The people there might not feel so protective that they’re willing to start bankrolling the long-defunct Jesus Clubhouse again, but they don’t necessarily want it to turn into a gym.
We see that protectiveness in the case of Notre Dame des Canadiens Church in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. In its heyday, it was a grand old church with magnificent arches and
laser turrets towers. For years, the church’s membership declined. The Catholic diocese that owned the building closed it ten years ago. In 2010, an insurance company bought it. A couple of years later, the new owners announced that it would be demolished to reuse the land under it for a development project.
Immediately, a group called Save Notre Dame Alliance rose up to ask the owners to renovate the structure instead of demolishing it. They wrote letters, held protests and vigils, filed legal challenges, attended planning meetings, even tied notes and ribbons to the fence around the church.
None of it changed the owners’ minds because none of it gave them a real reason to save the building that outweighed whatever profit they saw coming from the demolition.
And ya know, I get it. Some of these old churches, like that one in Worcester, represent advances or achievements in architecture. They also represent a good look at how people created and used their buildings in the past. There’s a good reason why we try to preserve architecture. But profits–the bottom line–drive so many decisions now. That motivation vies with nostalgia, and usually wins the scuffle.
One of the leaders of that Save Notre Dame Alliance, Ted Conna, spoke with regret about how Worcester’s community might have been able to win against the bottom line:
“In my mind, with what I think, the block of time between 2013 and 2016, there’s three whole years where the benefit of hindsight, there would have been a collaborative process,” Conna said. “After Hanover figures out this isn’t going to work as a private development project, if they really wanted to save the church, what they should have done is they should have come forward and said OK. . . we all want to save this. If you want to do that we’re going to have to pull together and do a Hanover Theatre or Mechanics Hall style job on it.”
However, not enough people felt that way–or else they got caught up in less-effective tactics. A couple of months ago, demolition began in earnest.
Not In My Wallet.
The company that owns Notre Dame now did preserve the bell from it. They donated the bell to the city of Worcester. If the city’s residents choose to do so, they can use it to create a memorial of the onetime church. (Similarly, churches sometimes succeed in selling their old pipe organs.)
However, memorials cost money. Doesn’t everything? If “we all” want to save any building, “we’re all going to have to pull together” to do it.
And also welcome to my adolescence.
Maybe the real lesson here is that the people who feel so passionately about these churches want them preserved, but not if they have to pay for the preservation themselves.
Remember NIMBY? Not In My Back Yard? The acronym means people who want something done in their community, as long as they don’t have to engage directly with it or live near it. It applies to affordable housing, nuclear power plants, recycling facilities, and more.
Something similar may be operating for church preservation. If all those people in Worcester felt that way about Notre Dame, they didn’t allow their feelings to extend to purchasing the building.
That same sentiment seems to apply to all the other thousands of churches now rotting and abandoned in the United States.
The New Awakening.
The Atlantic called this rash of empty churches “America’s epidemic.” But it’s not, not really. If anything, the title more rightly belongs to the rate of disaffiliation from religion. And that’s not an epidemic. It’s a healing, much like how one wakes up after a long illness–completely drenched in sweat and feeling curiously clear-headed for the first time in days.
If active churches can’t figure out how to pay their bills in this growing tide of secularism, then they will close–just like malls are closing. Once they close, people will figure out new uses for the buildings, or else they will raze them.
If that reality bugs Christians, then they need to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” instead of trying to strong-arm their nostalgia into becoming everyone else’s problem.
Another Lesson, Ignored by Christians.
Ultimately, the lesson here–for Christians, anyway–stands out quite clearly. The time for wringing their hands and pointing fingers over their decline has passed. If their congregations wish to preserve their buildings, then the time to start working that question out is well before they begin to hold their last farewell services.
We’ll be talking soon about how prosperity gospel figures in to why so many Christians still have so much trouble engaging with their decline. For now, I mention the story to give you good news. The decline is happening, and the ripples of the decline have begun to impact many other groups and industries. Christians not only have trouble working out how to make their clubhouses relevant to their overall surrounding communities in their most active and popular phases, but they fail epically at doing so after that phase is long gone.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over another sign that Christianity’s decline is in full swing–and as we’ll see soon, Christians still have no idea in the world how to respond.
NEXT UP: Weird miracles–see you tomorrow!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.