In his 1954 poem “Church Going,” English poet Philip Larkin stops by a church and finds himself wondering:
When churches fall completely out of use
What shall we turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Larkin died in 1985, but his poem lives on. And the question it poses is ever more urgent for congregations across America.
Each year, thousands of churches in the United States close their doors and others begin to move toward that decision. While post-pandemic statistics on church closings are not yet available, 2019 estimates placed church closings between 1% and 2% annually, or between 75 and 150 congregations every week.
Even thriving congregations may struggle to maintain buildings that no longer align well with mission and ministry. Often silently, sometimes aloud, pastors and lay leaders and religious support organizations are asking Larkin’s question: What should become of these buildings — what shall we turn them into?
Yet congregations need not feel alone in this struggle, as hard as the struggle may sometimes be. In fact, the problem of church buildings is generating significant conversation and creativity across the American landscape.
The question of what happens to church buildings means different things, of course, depending on context:
A 700-member church in the heart of a depressed Midwestern city faces the triple challenge of declining membership, a campus reflecting decades of deferred maintenance, and spaces that, while plentiful, do not match the congregation’s needs.
A church in a growing Southern city faces a different dilemma. Its longtime neighborhood has become the “it” spot and is now thriving with restaurants, shops and new residents. But the church building is falling apart to the point of being unsafe. Most members no longer live in the neighborhood and have no resources to bring the building back to a useable condition. A quick sale to eager developers would bring in millions for the denomination but give up a key strategic location where ministry is needed.
A congregation out West with a big campus has a thriving ministry and a constant need for more space. At the same time, members are fervently focused on and engaged in mission and outreach in the surrounding city. This has led to dynamic discussions about how to balance “infrastructure needs” with a strong desire to serve the city and deploy as many resources as possible toward that vision.
A small church in rural Maine watches its congregation shrink each year. There is no booming real estate market out its front door. But several community groups use the fellowship hall for meetings, and most members have someone buried in the churchyard.
A 200-member congregation in a Northern city is challenged by a building that, as one member describes, “works for us if you squint really hard.” The building has more space — and maintenance demands — than the congregation needs. And while financially stable now, the church is faced with a giving base that is aging.
A large church moved farther out into the suburbs from its large city several years ago and built a large, cheaply constructed building. Over the next decade, it will cost at least $5 million just to maintain the parking lot, replace the windows and deal with a leaky roof.
For this multitude of challenging contexts, a multitude of groups and organizations stand ready with suggestions and support.
Who can help?
A growing number of independent organizations offer tailored resources and consulting.
For more than 30 years, Partners for Sacred Places, the longest-standing national nonsectarian organization working in this arena, has been helping congregations better understand the architectural, historic and community value of their buildings in order to preserve and use the property for good.
Newer organizations like RootedGood are crafting cohort experiences and human-centered design tools to guide congregations toward new plans for their properties.
Oikos Institute for Social Impact is helping faith communities of color harness the power of their assets and especially their real estate, often their most valuable tangible asset, for community benefit and economic growth.
The Proximity Project is encouraging congregations to understand the built environment of their properties and neighborhoods as essential to mission, drawing on the insights of urban design, development and placemaking.
Some organizations are geographically focused. Bricks and Mortals (which wins the award for best name in a highly competitive field!) focuses on New York City congregations, connecting faith communities with development experts to find sustainable solutions to property woes.
Good Acres, a project of Mission City Renewal, builds collaboration among real estate professionals, investors, community organizers, and church and denominational leaders in San Antonio to help churches realize the full potential of their underutilized property for community good.
Wesley Community Development partners with faith-based organizations and churches in North Carolina.
And north of the U.S. border, both Parish Properties and Trinity Centres Foundation work with congregations in Canada.
Other organizations approach congregations through a specific social concern that repurposed church assets might help address: affordable housing, food security in Black communities, co-working spaces for change makers, ecological land stewardship or venues for artists, to name just a few.
Meanwhile, denominations continue to provide programs like Project Regeneration (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]), the Episcopal Parish Network (formerly CEEP) and the UCC Church Building & Loan Fund. They also share resources with one another cross-denominationally, and increasingly engage the growing landscape of independent consultants.
Where can you start?
Larkin’s question, once prescient, now presses. What shall we turn them into? And yet, as all these organizations and consultants will tell you, the first step is not to rush toward a solution — even a solution they might advocate and ultimately help support.
The first step is a set of actions that every church can and should take right now:
- Start a conversation in your congregation about how your building is a tool for ministry and mission.
- Build a wider web of relationships in your community, as those will be essential to any future action.
- Expand your ecclesial imagination about possibilities for the future use of your building.
One of the easiest ways to expand ecclesial imagination is to reflect on what other congregations are doing.
Faith & Leadership offers many articles about church buildings that can start the reflection. Drawing together these and other stories, Lake Institute on Faith & Giving has created the Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, stocked with short vignettes of congregations and other religious organizations who have repurposed their buildings, lands and funds in creative ways. A brief discussion guide offers ways to start the conversation.
You’re not alone in your concern about the future of church buildings, whatever your context. There is a shared sense of the challenge and a growing network of groups with poetic names, ready to respond. Together they offer resources that can lead to a much greater good than Larkin’s worried vision of churches “let … rent-free to rain and sheep.”