What should we do with dying urban churches?

What should we do with dying urban churches? January 4, 2012

This last week I briefly visited a mainline church in the neighborhood House for All Sinners and Saints would like to move back into.  They have an urban historic building which seats 350-400 people.  There were 18 people at worship. 18.  This is not an unusual situation.

Much has been written about the decline of the Mainline so I’ll not repeat it here.  I suggest you familiarize yourself with the work of Diana Butler Bass if you want to learn more.

House for All Sinners and Saints is looking for a home.  We have been graciously housed for the last 7 months at a profoundly hospitable church in entirely the wrong neighborhood for us.  But we are growing (we have about 135 people and average 85 in worship now.  New people keep finding us all the time).  Previously in the Lutheran church, the majority of new churches were started in new neighborhoods.  Meaning that where a new suburb popped up, the new library (for the readers moving in), school (for the children moving in),  McDonalds franchise (for the fast food junkies moving in) and Lutheran church (for the Lutherans moving in) would soon follow.  And a number of the Lutherans moving in were getting away from the city and thus abandoning the historic urban churches.  This goes for Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and many others as well.

This left dwindling numbers of people in the city churches.  From what I can tell, 3 different things happened. (I’m not a sociologist so this may be innaccurate)

1. The church tried to remain unchanged as everything around them was shifting.

2. The church closed down and sold the building.

3. The church changed and made room for new things.

There are several examples of #1 on my list – places that remain somewhat unchanged while 18 people gather in a space for 400.  And there are many, many examples of #2 on my list.  As a pastor of a growing, lively church looking for an old church building in which to make our home, a little part of me dies every time I drive by old churches that have been made into overpriced condos.  There’s even an Episcopal church building here in Denver that would be perfect, but which is now a night club called “The Church”. *groan*

I am begging people to please consider #3 as a possibility.  Here’s a great example: Grant Avenue Methodist Church.  This historic building still houses it’s small congregation but it also houses a couple other churches, several community bands, dance classes, a Methodist Women’s organization, AA meetings and a harmonica ensemble. The church has become a Community Center.  It’s like a tree trunk that falls down but becomes a host for all kinds of new life within it’s shell.

We all know that historic buildings are expensive to maintain.  But there is something important about preserving the beauty and history of these sacred spaces.  And sharing them as resource for the entire community seems to me to make sense both mission ally and financially.  So let’s use Grant Avenue as a model for how to use what is “ours” to foster new life, enrich our communities and maybe even hold open a space for the unexpected.  The Spirit is surprising and God is pretty well known for pulling new life out of death.  Even if we don’t really believe that can we just pretend for awhile and see what happens?

P.S. – Here’s what we are looking for: good acoustics, not ugly, manipulatable space (no fixed pews), central Denver, handicap accessible, cheap and hopefully not a parking nightmare.


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  • As an addendum, the main thing that keeps church sanctuaries from being more broadly usable is fixed pews. If everything is movable in the sanctuary then the space can be configured in other ways. Kind of a no-brainer but wow…so few churches will consider this change.

  • Reggie

    This sounds great — but I think we’ll still need to close some churches. In my small city there are 5 of these behemoths in a several block radius. I know the stats on one — the electricty bill alone is $2900/month. And there just aren’t enough groups needing space to turn them all into thriving beehives of activity.

    While the examples named sound exciting, we do need to think about cost and calling. Does a church feel called to embrace a particular set of management issues? I can see some saying, “you know, this is not the way we feel called to serve. Property management is not our work (because something else is, or should be!)” The key is to embrace different callings. Some will do this, some won’t. For this reason I want to reframe the sadness we feel when we pass a church that is an apartment building. Maybe we need to think about where that money went. If it went to open a school in Thailand — well, that’s beautiful. If it supports seminarians in Tanzania, or social services for ex-cons, or tutoring programs, job training — all of that might be the work of God, no?

    I wonder if this might help us get serious about our ecumencial identities. We know how hard it is to close churches and merge them, even when they are part of the same denomination. But seeing a Methodist, a Lutheran and a Presbyterian church on opposite corners cling so dearly to their identities that they can’t work together — well again, that may be fading into the past.

    So I see this as a topic for discernment in a local church — but perhaps a level up as well, where judicatories can talk with judicatories, and think about neighborhoods in cities, seeing that each is served.

    Finally, I think our mistake in the past was thinking that “forever” is a worthy goal. We built buildings we thought were to be forever. Perhaps we should have recognized that the Church’s work is provisional. And so it may need to remain lighter on its feet, and capable of changing direction. After all, today’s “thriving” church — which seems so right to us — may seem dated in another generation or two, when God decides to do something else.

  • david hicks

    While joint ventures between denominational churches looks great on paper, few are willing to make the plunge, especially if it means one of the churches giving up their sacred space. And perhaps that sacred space is the actual problem.

    Nadia says she is looking for “good acoustics, not ugly, manipulatable space (no fixed pews), central Denver, handicap accessible, cheap and hopefully not a parking nightmare.” Those elements are exactly the things are beautiful sacred spaces in urban areas lack! Unfortunately, it seems that the places that provide the acoustics, the “manipulatable” space and parking are at the empty shopping plazas, and many of our well heeled liturgical members would not attend a church in a shopping center.

    For me, I do believe the answer is the third option: Change and make room for new things. Use the asset of the building, invite other organizations, even other churches to share the space and cost, open new ministries and center fellowship and friendship making on neighborhood activities. Add to this mix a heavy use of social media aimed at the community the church is centered in. The internet is not just a global phenomenon, it is happening in the area around our churches as well.

    • Dear Nadia,

      We share in your struggle. It is hard to find a good match for our kind of ministry. The new members in your parish and Iglesia San Esteban Martir are not the typical credo lutheran. I believe that a good match for your congregation will be a congregation willing to share the future with your parish. This has been very helpful in our present partnership with Bethelehem Lutheran Church in Elgin. We also are looking up to a strategic planning of 3 to 5 years together. There is a spiritual process to acknowlege the gifts of both congregations, and how they can come together for special occasions and celebration. These events social and liturgical create an organic unity. It is hard to find a right match, it is not like going to match.com or other website. You know that you are in my oraciones.
      Tu hermano,
      Antonio Cabello.

  • From my perspective as a sociologist, both Nadia and Reggie are right, but in different situations.

    Option 1 (pretend as if nothing’s changing) is very rarely helpful. At the very least, an urban church which becomes a commuter church (i.e. the same people come, but now live in suburbs) will have limited effectiveness doing anything but dying unless it radically rethinks its role and becomes a partner with the local community, since it now faces a disjunct with its community.

    There are old behemoths of building that need to close (option 2), especially characterless old churches that were built merely to fit as many people in 1950s-era classrooms as possible.

    The history of worship and beauty that is in many truly historic building however, cannot be underestimated. There is sociological value to that kind of continuity, when a landmark congregation continues to exist, but reimagines itself and welcomes its neighbors to share in its space (and costs).

  • In my synod we’ve closed about 25 congregations and anticipate another 50 or so closing in the years ahead. Two brief thoughts:

    1. While closing a congregation is sad, it may also oddly be a victory. God called a congregation into existence to fulfill a mission. The ministry is now complete; well done good and faithful servants. Something new now springs forth.

    2. The funds released through the sale of a building can create an endowment which supports a new (lighter on its feet) ministry while preserving the asset for future generations.

  • Dear Nadia: I hope your lively congregation finds the perfect old space in which to practice new ways of being church. I call these old holy spaces “architecture of possibility” in my book “Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations that Nurture Young People who Will Change the World.” (Alban, 2010). The book is modeled on Butler-Bass’ research, but focuses on youth, young adults, and the next generation of leaders. I, like you, liken old churches to old growth forests, with nutrients to pass along. I’m sending you a copy and look forward to meeting you at an FTE gathering. Peace, Dori Baker (Scholar-in-Residence, FTE)

  • Nice piece. I hope House for all gets an awesome home!

  • Mark Peterson

    Hi Nadia, I met you at the Bishop’s Convocation in New England, I assisted at the service you preached at.

    As a pastor in a space that is undergoing a great deal of your option three above, I have a pondering about the other side of this issue. As you search for space, how willing are you to join in whatever place you end up partnering with in seeking to one day find unity, even if that means simply trying to grow in how you share the space for a few years?

    I ask, because I think we are called to more than arrangements of mutual need, but to seek unity with other churches and also other faiths to an extent. Sharing spaces may bring about this unity through mere convenience, but how much greater would are witness be if instead of saying we are stuck together, we say will intentionally grow together?


  • I often thought of asking my diocese for the use of one of our many abandoned church buildings as a rehearsal/worship/hospitality space for my church plant.

    Then I decided I should lie down until the feeling went away.

    My church plant thrives. I’m not running around with press releases to denomination organs or trendy book series claiming that I’ve personally invented “ChurchNext” or whatever, as some do. But I’ve visited a lot of those “I’m a priest who’s invented off the top of my head the Next Cool Thing that will attract unchurched people” congregations, and they’re mostly populated by but other longtime Christians who want in on ordination and the Emerging Church industry.

    Not that you’re like that. My impression is that you’re doing some cool stuff. But my advice to you would be to let your congregation take the lead and avoid taking on all of the financial obligations associated with poorly maintained buildings that drove those other congregations to ruin.

  • I’m guessing you may be familiar with this burgeoning example of what to do when huge congregations with huge buildings lose membership and buildings–for your readers: http://www.springhousemn.org/

  • Some very good thinking here; I appreciate Reggie and Nathaniel’s observations, and would caution you also Nadia on making a commitment to space that was a problem for a previous church. I love the church sharing idea at springhouse. I have interviewed a lot of churches going through closures. Every community will find different answers. I am doing research and writing on this topic; anyone interested can visit my blog at http://freelancepastor.wordpress.com Blessings in your ministry Nadia!

  • Chicago reader

    I, too, belong to a dying urban church though it is modest but very old with about 35 members in attendance on Sunday and probably 75 members. We rent our church to a Haitian congregation (French service), an Indo-Pak congregation (Urdo Service), and a Baptist congregation. I do like the idea of using the church as a community center, too. I am passing your thoughts along.

  • James Buccini

    Of course, there is no one right way to do things. There never is! There are so many factors that must go into this: the current economic state of the city, and the surrounding area, the number of shrinking congregations, the number of large vacant buildings… and no simple cost-benefit analysis is going to help us figure things out. The last hundred years saw Christian church building growth that was almost unnatural – and certainly NOT sustainable (in so many ways!) A Church on every corner, and a steeple on every horizon!! And now we’re faced with these shrinking congregations and empty buildings – some worth salvaging, and some worth demolishing.

    Is a building art? Is it a piece of history? Is it worth saving? So many of the buildings I’ve served in were full of multiple levels that made accessibility almost impossible. And then there’s the heating costs, the maintenance, etc. Perhaps we should knock it down and build something eco-friendly? Sustainable? Accessible? Flexible? Appropriate?

    Are these towers of Babel really worth saving?