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When flames engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral last April, people around the world mourned the destruction of France’s national symbol. The greater tragedy, wrote Pastor René Breuel for The Washington Post, is that a church was on fire. “More than a national icon or a touristic spot, cathedrals such as Notre Dame reveal their soul when they house singing and baptisms, confession and pardon, preaching and prayer,” he said. In America, the most iconic landmark is the Statue of Liberty, not a church. But church buildings have long served as sacred spaces in the country. And America is losing them, one by one.
Real estate developers are snatching up the properties and converting them into luxury condos. The developers often incorporate the church’s features, like the stained glass windows or the bell tower, into the hip new home designs rather than demolishing the structure in favor of cookie-cutter housing. But while the exterior may look the same, the interior differs in form and purpose. Buildings once intended for religious and social benefits (whether a wedding, the Lord’s Supper, or a 12-step meeting) are now limited to private use. It’s happening in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, as well as in smaller towns.
The word church in the Bible refers to a body of believers, not a building, so the church-to-condo movement raises the question: Does it matter when a neighborhood loses the physical space where worshippers gather? Pastor John Slye of Grace Community Church in Arlington, Va., thinks it does: “These are sacred spaces that were prayed over, labored over, and dedicated to the work of Christ in that particular community.”
Although each property has its unique story, churches sometimes decide to sell because of the pressure from the denomination’s governing body that wants the financial benefit. Matthew 21 tells the story of how Jesus cleansed the Temple area in Jerusalem because merchants turned a house of prayer into a robbers’ den (making money the priority). In some parts of the country, megachurches are flourishing, and streaming technology allows people to watch services without even getting out of bed.
Attendance at mainline denominations is on the decline: The 2018 General Social Survey says the trend has been going on for 20 years. A 2015 study by LifeWay Research estimated that 3,700 Protestant churches closed in 2014. But that study also found that new church plants, often Biblically oriented, outpaced the closures: 4,000 opened their doors that same year. New church plants often forgo owning a building and meet in places like schools, movie theaters, and coffee shops.
When Liz Laird moved to Washington in 2005, a city she’d lived in before, she started working for various Christian ministries and became concerned that many of the newer congregations didn’t have a long-term, physical space. She saw them searching for temporary space every few years in a rapidly changing city with rising rents. It ate up resources, exhausted pastors, and saddled churches with a sense of rootlessness.
With so many old beautiful church buildings in prime locations sitting empty much of the week, Laird knew the big gathering places could be put to good use. In 2017, she co-founded Sacred Spaces Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to help congregations with buildings preserve their physical spaces and use them for the good of the city. For example, Laird hopes to pair a Syrian refugee ministry that doesn’t have office space with a mainline congregation that is thinking about renting out its building for financial reasons.
Laird says church buildings could be rented out for all sorts of purposes, religious or non: day care centers, soup kitchens, art and theater programs, and classroom space. A church with a Sunday morning service could share its building with one that worships on Saturdays or Wednesday nights. Sharing a space can be touchy, but it can also bring together people with different backgrounds, economics, and races: “The kingdom of God is actually greatly improved when I’m worshipping with people who don’t look like me and whose life experience isn’t like mine.”