The Future of Churches

The Future of Churches June 26, 2013

IO9 had a post focused on images of church buildings which have been repurposed for secular use. I will share some select examples below, but click through for many more.

Churches can react to this with fear, or treat them as inspiration. In some instances, it might make more sense to the life of Christian communities to cease to have their meeting places designed for sitting facing one direction to be spoken at, and reenvisaged as pubs, restaurants, play areas, and social space where families can come to learn and fellowship, for use in these ways as part of the life and outreach of the Christian communities themselves. But if Christian communities do not take the initiative to reinvent meeting spaces, others may do so for them, when their communities eventually are forced to sell the buildings.

As I have mentioned before, I have a strong recollection of going to the Beamish open air museum in England, and visiting homes, a store, and many aspects of a village as it would have been in centuries past – and a church which was also unchanged, but could well have been in current use in precisely the same form. It is not a given, or should not be, that church meeting spaces and activities remain static down the centuries.



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  • erikcampano

    These are beautiful, but honestly, why not repackage them as orphanges and homeless shelters?

    • It is a good question. All of these photos are of what was done with church buildings when they were sold to individuals, companies, and developers. They are not photos of what churches did to repurpose their buildings while retaining their connection with a congregation. And so your suggestion is one of the ways that churches themselves might say “This building would be better used to meet the needs of people in our community, even if it means it becomes less useful as a means for an antiquated form of unidirectional communication from a minister to parishioners.

      • erikcampano

        It raises the question about who makes the decision to sell church property, and whether that decision has to comply with the mission statement of the church, to a greater or lesser extent. Does that vary much?

        • J

          In my experience, it’s usually a case where the congregation has dwindled to like 10-20 people and they’re all 60+ years old. Or maybe the congregation still exists but has mostly moved 50 miles away and wants the money to build a new church, somewhere closer to them.

          “Compliance with mission statement” . . . yeah, first off understand that we have had about 10-15 years of mission statements in the western world–they are of exceedingly recent vintage and mostly serve as a feel-good exercise. They are in no way legally binding things. Usually, when it comes down to it, churches get sold to people who can afford to buy them, mission statement or no.

          There’s one example near me of the way it usually works out:

          1.) Mainline Protestant church in semi-urban area, built in the 40’s

          2.) By 60’s and 70’s congregation begins to leave due to white flight. Congregation overall ages

          3.) By late 1990s, about 15-20 people left, all retiree-age

          4.) Sale to English-language evangelical church

          5.) Two years later: Resale to another evangelical church

          6.) Two years later: Resale to another evangelical church

          7.) Two years later: Resale to a Spanish-speaking penetcostal church

          8.) Two years later: Receivership.

          9.) Two years later: Tax sale. Purchased and refurbished into something non-church-related like senior living condos or a restaurant.

          • J

            I’ll add: It’s that last step–conversion into something non-church–that actually signals that a neighborhood is turning around. The former church is now both A.) working on a more-solid economic basis than “Now we will pass the collection plate…” and also B.) back on the tax rolls of the town. It’s like a layabout person who finally showers, shaves, puts on a clean shirt and gets a job.

          • erikcampano


            Interesting. I suppose one way of preventing this kind of church –> condo progression is for the original mainline owners to sell or donate directly to a charity. Otherwise, where does the money go? Back into the denominational coffers? (Is that a better use of it? Raising the question — not rhetorical.)

          • J

            *Interesting. I suppose one way of preventing this kind of church –>
            condo progression is for the original mainline owners to sell or donate
            directly to a charity.*

            That’s sort of what they’re doing in the case of selling to evangelical/pentecostal churches.

            Beyond that, there aren’t a really unlimited or even a very large number of charities looking for old church buildings. Especially since such buildings are often expensive to maintain and heat.

            Honestly, if there isn’t a vibrant and growing congregation, then the pretty much best socioeconomic use to put a church to is some sort of moneymaking venture. I have no doubt that a certain portion of one of those short-lived evangelical congregations would have secretly loved for that building to have instead turned into a business with a ‘Now Hiring’ sign out front.

            *Otherwise, where does the money go? Back into the
            denominational coffers?*

            Dunno. Churches generally aren’t denominational property: They’re owned by the congregation and governed by a board of trustees. What happens to the proceeds-of-sale is anyone’s guess.

          • J

            Meant to add: And when a church gets sold, it often isn’t a high-dollar transaction. The market for churches–even fabulous Beaux Arts masterpieces–is rather less liquid than you might think. As I said, these things are a hot nightmare to maintain, heat/cool, and/or re-zone for alternate use. It’s very much a buyer’s market and most buyers (viz. fly-by-night evangelical congregations) have very little money to hand. The question of “Who gets the money?” is often nearly moot. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them change hands for a dollar.

          • J

            Sorry to keep serial-posting: My own favorite abandoned church is the Christian Science Church on the far South Side of Chicago:


            Ten years after they locked the doors, it’s still for sale if you’re interested. In Hyde Park near the University of Chicago so probably will be converted into VERY pricey condos soon.

            I think it’s especially interesting as an ‘Ozymandias’ example: It’s hard for us to understand but Christian Science was THE gangbusters megachurch of the late 19th century. Had *major* sway among very influential people of the time and huge monetary resources. Now? I’m 30 and it’s likely I’ll be alive to see the end of CS as anything but a total fringe.

          • No need to apologize for serial posting – especially when it is relevant to the topic of the blog post you’re doing it on! 🙂

          • erikcampano

            It is very interesting that churches are, as you seem to put it, sort of unwanted properties. I suppose the kind of churches that I’m hoping will be put to more socially beneficial use than a bar would be in places like here, Manhattan. Some churches have clergy residences with incredibly beautiful apartments, which would convert very nicely into shelters or soup kitchens (for which we never have a lack of need). These churches take up prime, prime real estate and it’s kind of sad to think they’d be bought by moguls and turned into luxury condos, when the space was originally designated for non-profit use.

            Is it very hard to retrofit the interiors of churches to have multiple floors?

            In Europe, where I used to live, there were a number of inner-city churches which had been converted into multiple-storey buildings.

          • Jon Hendry

            I suspect even if the church were given to a shelter or soup kitchen organization, that organization would prefer to sell it on to developers, using the proceeds to buy something more modern, with lower remodeling and upkeep costs. A shelter doesn’t really want to be spending money maintaining a slate roof or unique architectural details, or dealing with 90 year old plumbing, etc.

            A non-profit would be better off looking for a more modern building, such as vacant retail space. Not much help in the middle of a big city, but vacant old malls and strip malls may be situated on bus lines. An old K-Mart would be much easier to subdivide than a church, rooms could be bigger, and there would probably be room for a classroom or other facility for providing additional services.

            As for Manhattan, I’d think it likely that a vacant church would just get demolished in order to build a more valuable/marketable building. The land is just too valuable. Unless the church is protected as a historic site, and perhaps even then, it’s going to get bulldozed.

          • J

            * These churches take up prime, prime real estate and it’s kind of sad to
            think they’d be bought by moguls and turned into luxury condos, when
            the space was originally designated for non-profit use.*

            I suppose. I think about it this way: If a church gets converted to luxury condos, said luxury condos then probably add hugely to the tax base. That means more money for social welfare programs of the sort you’re interested in.

    • Amber Smith

      I don’t know about other countries, but in the US, orphanages have been phased out in favor of foster care. And since these buildings were never designed for occupation in the first place, it’s probably much easier/cheaper to sell them off to someone else willing to deal with them than to try to retrofit them to meet legal housing standards. Money from the sale can then be used to benefit the homeless, orphans, etc.

      • erikcampano

        That’s a good point. I just hope that there is money from the sale — as J has suggested, sometimes the churches are unwanted properties and go for a dollar.