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NEW YORK—The Church of the Intercession is a beautiful stone building constructed in 1915, with vaulted ceilings, large stained glass windows, and a nave that could seat several hundred. It now needs $1 million in repairs, and its members face difficult choices.
Outside this Episcopal church in Harlem is its sweeping cemetery that includes the grave of naturalist John Audubon. Inside on a Sunday only 42 worshippers, including the choir, were present. Almost everyone was elderly. There were three canes, one walker, and one child.
Those 42 seemed a megachurch in comparison with the congregation across the street in North Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). In its historic stone building Pastor Carmen Mason-Browne preached to an audience of six women in a room with space for several hundred. The women weren’t even sitting together, but spaced like strangers on an empty train.
Over clanking radiators Browne preached on the television show Call the Midwife and how it revealed the importance of women. The sanctuary had beautiful stained glass windows and sweeping wooden pews and a balcony; but paint peeled off the walls, and duct tape covered frayed patches on the carpet. The church, like its Episcopal neighbor, had a thermometer poster in the back to raise money for building repairs. The church was shooting for $20,000 and had raised $3,000 so far.
Overall the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shed about 90,000 members, or 5 percent of its membership, in 2013 according to its latest report. The denomination’s membership has fallen 27 percent over the last decade.
Other mainline denominations, including The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church, are also seeing decades-long declines in attendance and membership.
With dwindling and aging congregants, many mainline churches, often with high-value historic properties, are becoming real estate holders. When they struggle to finance their massive, empty historic buildings they often sell them off, and usually to developers instead of other churches.
THE AMERICAN CHURCH OVERALL IS NOT BOOMING. The percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian is declining, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, down 7 points from the last survey in 2007. But the American church is becoming more evangelical, according to the survey.
In cities like New York, evangelical churches without their own properties are multiplying. The fastest-growing churches in New York are young, evangelical, and meeting in places like school gyms and the Best Buy Theater in Times Square. Evangelical leaders say the disconcerting Pew survey shows a more theologically committed church as people shed the denominations they were merely born into.
“What’s disappearing is cultural Christianity,” said Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about the Pew survey. That interpretation is supported by Pew’s surveys: Weekly church attendance has held mostly steady over the last decade.
As mainline churches shed parishioners, they are shedding church buildings. In September, the Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church in downtown Brooklyn, sold for $20 million to a real estate developer.
Lawrence Provenzano, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, which owned the building, explained the decision: “It became clear in a short time there were no realistic prospects for a large increase in donations or in members that could have covered immediate and ongoing expenses.”
The historic church, which has a mosaic in the walls of the subway station there, sits in one of the priciest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The developer will likely raze the building.
The story repeats all over the city. Christ Lutheran Church in Manhattan sold to a real estate developer, and a new seven-story condo building will open in its place this winter. St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn also sold to a developer: It will be a building with 99 apartments.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) is working on handling its assets more as investments when a congregation disappears. Bishop Stacy Sauls, the chief operating officer of The Episcopal Church, said he thinks it is “unwise” for churches simply to liquidate their real estate to pay expenses. The denomination will be offering more financial advice for churches to handle their assets like investments.
Sauls says they should be keeping the real estate to generate revenue for the church, like leasing property. Most churches rely on their members when making real estate decisions, Sauls said, and “complex real estate deals” are often beyond the expertise of members. The denomination hopes to offer that expertise.
“We’re just beginning to work on that,” he said. “I think we can be much smarter.”
The denomination doesn’t pay for buildings if congregations can’t support them, and it also doesn’t necessarily benefit from these church sales.
Episcopal dioceses typically donate about 20 percent of donations to the larger denomination, and that would likely include revenue from property sales. But people who have observed Episcopal finances closely, like Allan Haley who has served as an attorney for departing dioceses in these property disputes, don’t think the denomination at large is seeing big benefits from property sales.
“They evidence a failing institution,” said Haley.
Selling buildings is “something we wouldn’t like to see,” said Sauls.
Under Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, TEC has also spent tens of millions on litigation over the properties, Haley has estimated. This June, Schori is stepping down after a decade characterized by thousands of churches, and in some cases entire dioceses, leaving the denomination over its embrace of theological liberalism. The congregations, even if they had the means to buy their buildings, in most cases had to leave their properties with the diocese of the denomination.
Schori has said in the past, in regard to departing congregations, that she doesn’t want TEC to “be in the business of setting up competitors.” Sauls said TEC would sell property to departing congregations if they didn’t associate themselves with “another Anglican bishop.” He added that TEC would happily sell to other churches from other denominations, although that has happened rarely. The church has sold property to a few departing congregations that join the Anglican Ordinariate in the Roman Catholic Church or turn nondenominational.
The newly formed American Anglican Council (the “competitors”) now advises churches leaving TEC to let their property go. Courts have almost never sided with individual Anglican congregations in these property battles.
“There’s a benefit to not fighting,” said Robert Lundy, spokesman for the American Anglican Council. “Those who left the keys on the table avoided a lot of the difficulty of going through protracted legal disputes.”
Other mainline denominations are going through the same demographic shifts as The Episcopal Church. One Methodist church in Queens is fighting the aging, theologically liberal trend.
Glendale United Methodist Church is a collection of other mainline congregations that have merged into one. Most of the congregants are elderly. One member fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Twelve-year-old Zara counted those in the youth group on her hand: one, two, three, four, five. Five.
“When I was growing up, it was a lot of kids, teenagers,” said Lorraine Miller, a longtime lay leader at the church. “Generally speaking, there are not as many young people coming to church as there used to be. My grandkids aren’t coming to church anymore. They went to college and they didn’t come back.”
At Glendale’s lively service one Sunday, after Pastor Phil Hardt preached his sermon, he asked his congregation: “Who can you call this week? Who’s been away from the church?”
Hardt is working on a turnaround. He heads up the Wesley Fellowship, a group of theologically conservative pastors within the New York conference of the UMC. He is working to revitalize his church first, and he hopes, the conference and the denomination with the work of the other pastors in his group. The church has rented its space to other non-English-speaking evangelical churches.
“People in the conference kind of know where I stand,” he said. “It’s viewed as an evangelical church. … The idea is to be a seed for renewal, to stay no matter what—pretty much no matter what.”
Meanwhile, other evangelical churches are blooming in New York.
Demographic researcher Tony Carnes, who has tracked religious trends in New York for decades, unofficially listed the Protestant churches he thought might be growing the fastest: New Life Fellowship in Queens, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Trinity Grace Church, Church of Grace to the Fujianese People (a Chinese church), First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem, and Hillsong Church NYC. Trinity Grace and Hillsong are the newest churches on the list.
Hillsong, a plant of the Australian megachurch, has exploded since its start in 2010. About 7,000 young people attend weekly services. Both Hillsong and Trinity Grace have very young congregations. The first few years Hillsong met in New York, the church moved from building to building, and at one location attendees had to climb many flights of stairs.
A Hillsong service is the opposite in every way of the dusty, empty mainline services I attended. After passing through security and about 30 greeters, young people in tight jeans and fedoras packed into a service in a theater in Times Square. Hillsong has five services on Sundays in that location, and another five at a theater downtown. As the Times Square service let out that Sunday, people were in a line around the block waiting for the next service that was still 45 minutes away.
Hillsong lacks the meaty liturgy of, say, The Episcopal Church. The sermon from Pastor John Termini had self-help overtones (“Thinking inside the box will keep your outcome inside the box”), although the pastors repeatedly emphasize the importance of God’s Word and that salvation comes only through knowing Jesus.
“Maybe you don’t know why you stumbled in here, but maybe it’s just to hear this one thing: Jesus died on the cross for you and rose from the dead for you,” said Pastor Joel Houston, opening the service.
After the service people snapped pictures in front of the church’s LCD sign that said, “Welcome Home.” Instead of the fusty church “information table,” Hillsong has an “info bar,” where people wanting to be baptized can enter their information on iPads. In a packed “welcome lounge” off the theater, volunteers serve strawberry-infused water to visitors. The church has a coat check.
Another nondenominational evangelical church is booming in New York. Trinity Grace Church started in 2006 and now has 12 churches around the city, some with multiple services. The congregants are young, and they pack out rented spaces from schools to other churches. Despite its size, Trinity Grace has no real estate. Some of Trinity Grace’s parishes rent from historic churches, like St. Paul’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded in 1861, in Chelsea. One parish rents from a Seventh-day Adventist church, a convenient option for churches who need space on Sundays. And Redeemer rented space for its service in the evenings from First Baptist Church on the Upper West Side, until Redeemer completed constructing a building of its own.
Redeemer is one relatively new evangelical church that has its own real estate for its Upper West Side congregation, a 45,000-square-foot space it bought and retrofitted for $52.5 million. New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera said he could not recall another church that had built a building in Manhattan in the last decade or two.
—with reporting from Daniel James Devine