What do American Christian churches and shopping malls have in common?
Both are going belly-up at alarming rates and being creatively repurposed.
And, ironically, closed Christian churches are sometimes repurposed into sanctuaries of worship for other faiths, like Islam, which, unlike Christianity, is growing in the U.S.
Welcome to the 21st century’s brave new world of brick-and-mortar retailing of God and mammon.
Regarding church closures, even Pope Francis I is alarmed. A recent Associated Press article titled “Pope urges charity when churches are sold, reused” reports that the Pope pointedly recommended at a bishops conference in Rome that closed churches be refashioned to “retain their cultural heritage and serve the good of the community, not commerce.” Suggested uses: “a museum, a library or conference hall, a food bank for the poor or charity center.”
However, commerce being what it is, capitalists tend to view such vacant spaces for the money they can make, not the nobility they can impart, which is why some former churches have been repurposed into such non-spiritual venues as discos and bars. Nonetheless, avid dancers might disagree that a disco doesn’t speak to them spiritually.
Closed and abandoned malls, on the other hand, have acquired a creepy kind of cultural cache as what a Buzzfeed article refers to as “ruin porn.” It’s ghost-town chic with its own devoted following and even a Facebook page: Dead Malls Enthusiasts, whose catchphrase is “A Decade of Decay.”
The rather alarming photos on the Dead Malls Enthusiasts page are a visual metaphor not only for the rapid and crushing decline of what might be called America’s public shopping culture but also of traditional American Christian life.
In his Buzzfeed article, writer Matt Stopero introduces a series of photos of bombed-out-looking and seemingly forgotten malls with this ominous sentence:
“What you are about to see is what happens when malls are abandoned. It’s apocalyptic and really, really creepy.”
No exaggeration. In a subliminal way, these pictures are almost frightening, like the imagined hollowed-out remains of civilization after a nuclear holocaust.
But back to church closures, it’s a mixed reality. My extended family here in the rural, farm-country Midwest is mainly populated, as is the surrounding countryside, by devout Christians who still go to church weekly if not daily. So, as they have watched their congregations evaporate to a handful of gray and graying congregants in the past few decades, they experience it as a sad, disorienting, worrisome decline. On the other hand, nonreligious people — atheists, agnostics, and the religiously apathetic and uninvolved — see this trend as encouraging, a hopeful sign that Americans are becoming more rational, less superstitious, in tandem with their even-less-religious brethren throughout Western Europe.
I am one of the latter, though I have great compassion for the deep insecurity the relentless shuttering of churches inflicts on very good people who have warmly embraced the rituals and doctrines of religion their entire lives. For those susceptible to its charms and comforts — they still make up a majority of the U.S. population — religion is forever.
What will the future look like?
So, as churches continue to close, Americans are forced to consider what life may be like if they eventually disappeared altogether. Just as Americans now must contemplate how national public life might transform if malls seemingly on every other street corner fade into oblivion, and shopping will more and more become a private, online experience. Meanwhile, people continue to retreat further and further into the virtual realities within their “smart” phones.
As with all fundamental change, there’s good, bad and ugly.
But, clearly, apprehension is in the air, particularly for the religious. The Associated Press article noted the pope’s “glass half-full” approach to the crisis of spiritual decay:
“Francis said the fact that churches today are no longer necessary “should be welcomed not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt.’”
He is right to prepare. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, and signs are multiplying rapidly that the prophesy of religious decline is being realized.
For example, as reported in an interesting story last month in The Atlantic, a 19th-century building in Brooklyn, New York, that housed St. Vincent De Paul Church until its “coffers ran dry” in the early 2000s has since transformed into luxury lofts renting for up to $4,812 a month.
“It takes serious cash to make God’s house your own, apparently,” the Atlantic article whimsically suggested.
A relentless trend
It’s part of what appears to be an unstoppable pattern, the article notes:
“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.”
It’s all about the math, or, as the article puts it, “budgets and butts.”
“As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are in use only a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends shows signs of slowing, so the United States’ struggling congregations face a choice: Start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat.”
Still, most of the populace self-identifies as Christian, and most of those fervently believe in the invisible, unreachable beings of monotheism. So, the decline of religion is wrenching for many Americans, as it is in varying degrees for people elsewhere in the West.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And as churches and malls become unaffordable for their proprietors and close their doors, clergy and merchants will just find new ways to accommodate fewer worshippers and more online shoppers.
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