Empty Pews May Mean It’s Time To Downsize, Religious Leaders Say

Declining church attendance is forcing some religious leaders to make difficult decisions — namely, what to do with outsized or vacant places of worship.

Many U.S. churches were built decades ago during times of religious growth. In some communities, however, shrinking congregations no longer have the financial resources to maintain these large church properties. Eden Theological Seminary will host a two-day symposium this week focused on ways religious and community leaders can repurpose these buildings.

Many old churches have “substantial value,” said Robert Simons, professor of urban planning at Cleveland State University.

“For the most part, there’s a pretty short list of prohibited uses most faiths subscribe to,” said Simons, who will speak Wednesday at Eden Theological Seminary. “If you decommission the building and take out the sacred objects, it becomes a piece of real estate.”

Developers and private individuals are repurposing old church buildings for a variety of uses, including housing, retail and restaurants. Urban Krag climbing gym in Dayton, Ohio, shown here, is housed in what was once an abandoned church.
Credit Urban Krag

Developers and individual buyers have repurposed churches in Missouri and across the country for new uses, including cultural centers, housing and restaurants.

In St. Louis, a team of skateboarders and engineers converted St. Liborius — a 130-year-old Catholic church — into an indoor skate park.

Jubilee Church in Webster Groves sat vacant for more than 10 years before it became a bed and breakfast in 2016.

Similarly, the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center — now managed by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation as a performing space — was once a First Congregational Church.

Though the age of the church and its condition are important, Simons said, the real estate market is the main factor that affects whether it sells.

“You can have a great building in the wrong location and there’s not much you can do at all,” he explained, adding historic preservation tax credits may provide additional incentive for developers.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Webster Groves church was home to seven different congregations since its original construction in the late 1890s. It sat vacant for more than ten years before it was converted into Tuxedo Park Bed and Breakfast.
Credit Tuxedo Park STL

‘It’s not about closing buildings’

Beyond the logistics, shuttering a church can be an emotional task for parishioners.

Memories “accrete over time” in places of worship, said David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, making it difficult for congregants to let them go.

“People have a loving relationship with these spaces,” Greenhaw said. “They were married there, their children were baptized there, they attended funerals in these spaces.”

But these aging buildings can place a financial burden on congregations, particularly as membership declines.

There’s a psychological aspect as well, said Greenhaw, because overly large churches can “expedite the decline of the congregation itself.”

Eden Theological Seminary is hosting a symposium exploring solutions to empty churches.

“You expect to see a whole lot of people when you enter, and instead it doesn’t have much energy or life,” he said. “It feels half empty, and that leads to it becoming more empty.”

The public symposium at Eden Theological Seminary will feature lectures and discussion groups on a variety of related topics, including how to relocate into a new worship space.

Downsizing to a new space may not be the answer for every church, said Greenhaw.

Instead, some may consider repurposing unused spaces for new community programs. Union Avenue Christian Church, for instance, now houses an opera company, office space for church outreach and an art gallery.

“It’s not about closing buildings; it’s about thinking strategically about how to use them wisely,” Greenhaw said. “How can they be repurposed in meaningful ways to contribute to the community?”

If you go:

Where: Eden Theological Seminary, Press Hall, 475 East Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, Missouri 63119

When: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., April 23 and 24

Cost: Varies, online registration available here

Reprinted from St. Louis Public Radio

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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