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What to Do With Empty Churches

2/1/19
from The Wall Street Journal,
1/31/19:

A small and shrinking congregation often has the most beautiful religious architecture.

Wander any large U.S. city and you’ll spot a serious mismatch. Majestic old houses of worship have only vestigial congregations. Without their endowments these cathedrals, chapels and synagogues couldn’t keep the lights on. Meanwhile, those same cities have booming evangelical fellowships, traditional Catholic gatherings, Korean congregations, Spanish-language flocks and swelling numbers of Lubavitch Jews. These and other rising groups are too young to enjoy the inherited resources of shrunken assemblies. Instead they meet in auditoriums, theaters or strip malls. Some worship on Saturdays or at night, in sanctuaries rented from mainline churches. In New York, Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church has congregations worshiping in a converted underground garage, a Salvation Army center, a college auditorium and other improvised locations.

People of religious faith—whether in the new, energetic congregations or the waning ones—should be concerned. Even nonbelievers have a stake in resolving these physical incongruities. Older houses of worship are often grand architectural, cultural and social assets for a city. Yet when a church becomes a burden on a dwindling fellowship, moldering deterioration and demolition often result. Other fading parishes sell once-beautiful churches to be remade into condos, restaurants, theaters, even bars. Such conversions tripled nationwide between 2010 and 2015, according to the real-estate tracker CoStar Group.

Once a church is lost, that neighborhood seldom regains a public space offering services like day care, schools and free or below-market space for local groups, arts events, Boy Scout troops and sports teams, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and more.

Everyone gains from the humanitarian behaviors of religious people. Yet the proportion of adults who attend religious services weekly is now down to 36%, according to the Pew Research Center. Young people in particular are falling away.

A classic 1986 study by Harvard economist James Freeman, subsequently confirmed by other scholars, found that black males living in inner-city poverty tracts were far less likely to engage in crime and drug use if they attended church. Church attendance also was associated with better academic performance and more success in holding jobs, and helped counterbalance threats to child success like parental absence, low school quality, drug traffic and local crime. Among Americans who attend services weekly, 45% do volunteer work, compared with 27% for the entire population, according to 2016 Pew data.

If U.S. religiosity continues to decline, there will be serious tears in the fabric of American society. That makes undergirding urban churches a worthy public goal.

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