This week the New York Times ran an article entitled “New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches.” It described church buildings around the country that were sold by closed congregations and have been repurposed for new uses. Many times when a congregation closes another one buys it, but in a growing number of cases the church building becomes something else entirely. The articled offered these statistics:
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 . . . But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.
These “different congregations” sometimes look very different from a house of worship. An Episcopal church in Denver founded in 1880 became a dance club called “The Church” (real original). In Troy, NY, a former Catholic church was bought by the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. The frat brothers made an agreement with the town when they bought it that they would keep it alcohol-free, but if they’ve done so, then they would be the first college fraternity to do so, well ever. Second Presbyterian Church of Newark, NJ, became the headquarters of Audible, a digital audiobook and podcast provider. While in San Francisco, a Christian Science Church founded in 1923 is now home for an archive of everything ever posted on the internet.
I know a church is the people that make it up and not a building, but it just feels wrong to transform a building dedicated to worshipping God into a building used for such secular purposes. I guess I should keep in mind that in many cases a church might sell its building and use the proceeds for good causes. I’ve known churches that closed and sold their property which gave the money from the sale to start new churches. Also, just because a congregation sells its property doesn’t mean it died. In some of these cases, the neighborhood around the church building changed or its members began moving to other parts of their cities. So they sold their property and built a new building elsewhere. I also know of congregations who couldn’t afford to keep up a big expensive building, so they sold them and used the money to support ministry in a rented property like a storefront.
I first began taking notice of articles describing the fate of sold church buildings a few years ago. The first one I saw was an article in The Atlantic titled “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.” It detailed the decades-long decline in church membership and attendance, as well as demographic shifts in some expensive real estate markets. In places like Brooklyn, NY or around Washington, D.C., historic church buildings were being bought by developers and turned into hipster lofts and condos. Preservationists were aghast and so were many church folks.
My whole career as a minister I’ve been hearing about the decline of denominations and local congregations. There are so many reasons for this, such as generational change, lower commitment to institutions, disillusionment with organized religion and more. Predictions vary, but it is clear that sometime not too far off in the future as churches lose their older members--the most numerous and most committed in churches today--there is going to be a massive sell off of church buildings.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as I’ve said, as a lifelong churchgoer it just feels wrong to me to no longer use a church building for spiritual purposes. On the other hand, the biggest source of conflict and the biggest obstacle to actually doing the ministry of Jesus Christ I’ve seen in the congregations I’ve served has been the church buildings. Again and again, staff, ministries and more essential things have been sacrificed to maintain buildings too large for dwindling congregations to manage. It’s as if church folks felt like they were actually doing the work of the Gospel as long as they kept the roof from caving in. This idolatry of church buildings is pretty sad when one considers Jesus did just fine without his own building. So did the early church; Christianity survived for centuries before the first church buildings were built.
As congregations get smaller and have fewer resources, it is fair to ask whether or not it is good stewardship of God’s money to work so hard at maintaining buildings that stand empty most of the week. I wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place. In no other sector do buildings get so much attention but get used so infrequently.
In this week’s New York Times article, there were some church buildings which had been repurposed for uses that were at least closer to their original purposes. One had been made into a winery and another was made into a restaurant. Hey, Jesus spent a lot of time sitting around tables eating and drinking with people, so much so he was criticized for it. A church building in New Orleans that a congregation couldn’t afford to repair after hurricane Katrina became a recording studio used by local jazz musicians and even stars like Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and Janelle Monae. I’ve certainly had plenty of spiritual moments listening to music and attending concerts, so this doesn’t seem so bad to me.
One church building, however, had been repurposed into something that seemed closer to its original use than the others. A Methodist church in South Charleston, WV has been transformed into Cafe Appalachia. A non-profit group runs the restaurant that serves comfort food and prides itself on being a part of its community. At the heart of Cafe Appalachia are the kitchen workers. They are part of a job training program for women recovering from opioid addiction. West Virginia has the highest rate in the country for opioid deaths and everyone knows someone affected by the crisis. Two quotes about Cafe Appalachia caught my eye:
“There’s sadness when a worshiping space changes, but this is a whole different kind of sanctuary,” said the Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi, the former pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church.
“If Jesus were here now?” said Ronnie Skeens, a regular. “The way my faith works? He’d be back there cooking with them.”
I can’t help but think that if more churches looked and acted like Cafe Appalachia, then there would be a whole lot less church buildings on the market.
PHCC is more fortunate than many churches. Its building costs money to maintain, but it is in good shape compared to the dilapidated shape of many others. Also, PHCC’s building is used, even in the time of COVID-19. Merry Moments continues to provide an excellent preschool education (albeit at smaller numbers). The calendar for the Life Center is full for the next three months due to basketball practice by various community teams. AA groups meet faithfully here, and a few other community groups are now using space too.
Yet, as your interim minister, I can’t help but wonder what other dreams God has that PHCC can be a part of. Once upon a time, SPEAC began in our building thanks to the dedication of some of its members. It’s flourished and now serves hundreds of hungry families in our community each year. I just wonder what might happen if a group of dedicated Christ followers who believe in “Bold Hospitality” began praying for God to show them how to make the most of their building for the Kingdom of God.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851