A number of America’s churches are facing tough decisions as attendance drops

The West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Barry Williams/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Revelation 2:5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Important Takeaways:

  • How Do You Resurrect an Empty Church?
  • America’s aging houses of worship face a stark choice: sell, redevelop, or pray for a miracle.
  • On June 25, Summerfield Church in Milwaukee held its last Sunday service. The rough-cut sandstone church, with its bright red doors and stained-glass windows, was built in 1904 to house the state’s oldest Methodist congregation, and occupies a prominent corner lot a few blocks north of downtown. By this spring, the congregation had dwindled to just 11 members, none younger than 65, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And the repair bill to get the water-damaged structure shipshape was $1.3 million.
  • It is a story replaying over and over in cities across the United States, where older churches have been hammered by neighborhood change and maintenance costs, coinciding with a national trend of plummeting religious attendance across faiths. Over the past decade, the share of Americans who attend weekly services at a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple has fallen to 30 percent, after hovering for half a century at 40 percent. Overall membership has fallen even more precipitously, and less than half of Americans now say they “belong” to a religious organization. A pair of studies has suggested that thousands of U.S. churches close each year (though a smaller, significant number are founded).
  • And all of this was happening before COVID, which normalized virtual participation and decoupled people from their neighborhood institutions.
  • “Churches have been on the edge of a cliff, and COVID was a blast of air blowing them off,” said Rick Reinhard
  • New Jersey, whose 291-year-old First Presbyterian was among the oldest institutions to close. “There is a great mismatch between small, aging congregations and large, aging properties,” he told me. “What empty department stores were 30 years ago, empty churches are today, but much more difficult to resolve.”
  • Last month, the issue made headlines in New York City, where the dozen-person congregation of West-Park Presbyterian Church is trying to sell its 19th-century building to a developer who will demolish it and build apartments.
  • Tim Keller, the influential evangelical pastor who died this spring, recalled the jarring sight of converted churches in Manhattan, including a beautiful brownstone church in Chelsea that had served Episcopal worshippers since 1844. “Now it was the Limelight, an epicenter of the downtown club scene,” Keller wrote. “Thousands of people a night showed up for drugs and sex and the possibility of close encounters with the famous of the cultural avant garde. It was a vivid symbol of a culture that had rejected Christianity.”

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