Thousands of churches close every year. What will happen to their buildings?
(RNS) – When he was appointed district superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene, the Reverend Albert Hung found himself facing the same problem as many confessional leaders face.
Too many churches.
Not enough people.
Of the roughly 90 congregations in Northern California’s Hung Leads District, few number more than 100 people, with most attracting around 40 people to worship services in buildings designed to accommodate many more. Their long-term viability the future is questionable — as these congregations age, shrink, and are often disconnected from their neighbors. A number of churches in the neighborhood have already decided to close, leaving empty pews in shuttered buildings.
But an empty church building isn’t just an asset to be liquidated, said Hung, who insists they are still sacred spaces for God to use even if the churches that once worshiped there no longer exist. This belief led Hung to search for creative ways to use empty church buildings.
In Santa Cruz, Nazarenes have partnered with a non-denominational congregation to transform a closed church into a community center that will house a number of nonprofit organizations.
For years, the building housed the First Church of the Nazarene in Santa Cruz, a small congregation that closed after the retirement of its longtime pastor. The church has also rented space for Faith Community Church of Santa Cruz, a non-denominational church that operates several community ministries.
The decision to close the First Church of the Nazarene worried Andy Lewis, pastor of Faith Community. The church had struggled to find a place to worship before renting space to Nazarenes – and Lewis feared the church would have to vacate the space.
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In this new arrangement, Faith Community – which is non-denominational – remains one of many community partners sharing the space. The idea is to use the space to benefit not just the church but the whole neighborhood, he said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Faith Community used the space to run a food ministry and to house mobile medical clinics and a vaccination site in the parking lot.
“We need to rethink how we use physical spaces so we can be a loving presence in the community,” Lewis said.
Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing costs,” a new book on how church assets can be repurposed, says there are thousands of churches across the country that have closed or will likely close in the coming years. And too often, he says, the leaders of these churches put off any discussion of what to do with their building until it’s too late.
“I’ve had situations where the buildings are empty and they don’t have any plans at all,” he said.
A 2021 study from Lifeway Research, based on data from three dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 opened. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that median worship presence for churches in the United States fall from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.
Dutra argues that billions of dollars in church property could be put to work for the ministry – if church leaders become proactive about the future. He worked with a number of religious groups to achieve this.