Haunted demographics: Cells and church towers

Down in Southern cities — small and large — the local folks call them the “high-steeple churches.”

I am referring, of course, to the churches of the old, declining world of liberal mainline Protestantism — the denominations that historians and sociologists call the “Seven Sisters.” These were the old-money flocks (yes, in some Bible Belt locales there are Baptist churches that fit this description) and it was easy to know where their stone and brick sanctuaries would be located.

There would be one or two franchises for each oldline brand located in downtown. In the big cities, of course, there would be more — since the older neighborhood churches dated back to the days before automobiles. Then you would find the second ring of mainline sanctuaries in a city’s oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods and then, once again, in the hearts of its older suburbs. Think Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas or even Baltimore.

In other words, what we are talking about is lots and lots of prime real estate. We’re talking about this mantra: Location, location, location.

This days, the most of the flocks inside these church buildings are getting smaller and older. The same goes for many, but not all, of the Roman Catholic parishes that fit into these historical niches. The people in the pews are graying and, as a result, the ink in the budgets is turning red.

The Baltimore Sun ran a very interesting story about this phenomenon the other day. The problem, of course, is that the newspaper was — once again — blind to the religious and demographic angles of the story. Here’s the double-decker headline that ran with this A1 business story:

In Baltimore area, churches’ bell towers also cell towers

Wireless carriers increasingly leasing steeple space from churches

Here’s the top of the report:

The stone marker in Catonsville Presbyterian Church’s steeple tower is dated 1921, dedicated “to the Glory of God.”

Next to it is a black ladder with caution signs tied to its rungs, warning of radio frequency fields in the narrow space above. In the steeple overlooking Frederick Road, three cell phone companies have placed antennas, serving a growing demand for smartphones, iPads and other gadgets.

Such leasing arrangements help Catonsville Presbyterian and other Baltimore-area churches raise revenue, while companies get access to neighborhoods where it is difficult to build free-standing cell towers. And though the leases have drawn fire from communities worried about health effects and property values, experts predict such deals will become increasingly common as the need for data speed and capacity grows. …

For Catonsville Presbyterian, the antennas bring a steady stream of income to help cover maintenance costs for the 91-year-old building — freeing up money for feeding the hungry, reaching out to the community and supporting overseas mission work, said church elder Keith Glennan.

These churches are earning, readers are told, about $1,000 a month — per carrier. That’s not a lot of money, but, if you read carefully, it’s clear that these churches — the ones with the prime locations — tend to need the money. It takes money to maintain these beautiful and aging sanctuaries.

The story never addresses the membership trends in these flocks.

Why are certain kinds of churches (a) in the right locations for these deals and (b) willing to alter their facilities in this manner? Why does this kind of financial need tend to exist in these congregations?

The Sun is not interested. However, it is interesting to note that location has something to do with this — naturally. The experts say that these old churches are often located at prime spots in what is called a residential “oasis.” In other words, older churches tend to be located in older, more expensive, yet highly populated, prestigious neighborhoods. It’s hard to find affordable locations to erect this kind of equipment.

That’s the business side. However, it’s also easy to note that the churches mentioned in this news report all fit the oldline Protestant profile. Are churches in other denominations cutting these kinds of deals? It would be really, really interesting to know the answer to that question, which has strong religious overtones. Thus, this question is never asked by the Sun team.

This passage is about as candid as the story gets:

At the Episcopal Church of the Messiah on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, cell equipment is not hidden inside a steeple but mounted on top of the tower, between crosses.

In an era of declining church attendance, money from the leases with AT&T and Clearwire helps the church keep a presence in the Hamilton neighborhood, said the Rev. Timothy Grayson, the church’s rector. “That need and that benefit trumps any considerations about detracting from the aesthetic look of the church tower.”

Location, location, location. Needs, needs, needs.

The religion side of this story is, in my opinion, just as interesting as the business side. What is going to happen to all of this prime real estate? What will become of these flocks?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • The Old Bill

    The description of the cell tower between the crosses grabbed me. God and mammon, my Father’s house a den of thieves, etc. But they need the money and it has to come from somewhere.

    The press loves to do stories about older members of parishes and congregation feeling betrayed when churches are closed, sold and desanctified, but sometimes there’s no other choice. Old churches have been closed and new churches built for millennia.

    What happens to the churches is another matter. I’ve been to many grand old churches and cathedrals in Europe which, sadly, function more as historical artifacts than houses of worship. There are several beautiful stone churches near me that have been desanctified and converted to other use. One, a lovely Episcopal church is an architectural furnishings store. The owner said he respected what the building was and has carefully refurbished it. Better than letting it crumble. Though no longer a church, it is a reminder.

    I understand that churches can’t be built fast enough in southern Africa. That, too, is location, location, location.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    And some would say doctrine, doctrine, doctrine.

    Or at least, evangelism, evangelism, evangelism.

    Birth rate, birth rate, birthrate?

    Like I said, there are stories on the religion side of this.

  • dalea

    Hmmm….with an older graying population one would expect households to be disolved at a fairly regular rate as people pass or go to assisted living. The homes they occupied would be sold, probably to younger people. Are the new residents not joining these churches? If not, why not? Are the new residients joining other types of churches? Or just not joining churches at all?

    This would strike me as the heart of the story. Why do these churches sit in prime locations but can not persuade new residents to join? Has there been any coverage of this issue?

  • dalea

    It would be interesting to see a religion geneology of these older graying mainliners. What religious choices, if any, have their children and grandchildren made. That would make a great feature story. Has this sort of reporting been done?

  • Bill


    Agreed, agreed, agreed. The question I have is why Africa’s fields are so fertile when the West seems to be letting its well tended fields revert to the wild.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    This is to some degree a very old story. Motorola was renting out space on the top of the National Cathedral back in the early ’90s at least, if not well into the ’80s. The cathedral of course could use the money, but it was Motorola which needed the highest point in town. It isn’t as though, in those days, they were concerned about the decline we now see.

    I don’t see this article as bad. Tmatt, it looks to me as though you want there to be a story here when there may be nothing to find. Two churches out of six in a county where there may well be six hundred churches is not much to make a trend out of. The one tower on church property near us is hidden in an outside flagpole at a Free Methodist church. I would imagine that a nice flat-topped English Gothic tower makes for easier mounting than a towerless megachurch barn, but that’s just a guess. At any rate it’s entirely possible the reason why there isn’t more of a report on the religion angle is tha there isn’t anything to report.

  • Marie

    I have a friend who used to work for a company that contracted for and built cell towers in California. He told us about using churches as prime locations in heavily populated areas. In his experience the choice of church had little to do with denomination or the design of the structure and everything to do with location and willingness. I didn’t get the churches were necessarily hard up for funds but rather were happy to lease space on their property. He mentioned one church that used their cell tower money to fund their Boy Scout troop. A church with a healthy Boy Scout troop doesn’t really sound like a geriatric congregation. I think to determine a religion angle the reporter would need a much larger sampling. After all the article is more about why these churches make good locations than why churches might want the extra funds.

  • http://www.ericcshafer.blogspot.com Eric Shafer

    A related story that I found more to be a new look at the church steeple/cell tower story – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/nyregion/cellphone-proposal-for-southampton-clock-tower-provokes-dispute.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all