Here's the church, here's the steeple. Open the doors, and see all... the luxury condos?

It’s hard to walk around Washington, DC, these days without finding a church that has been or is in the process of being converted into luxury condos. In a city struggling to provide enough affordable housing and other services to keep its lower income residents, the idea of community institutions being turned into housing for the wealthy can be discouraging, to say the least. And DC is not alone. According to this recent article from The Atlantic about the choices dying congregations make regarding their buildings, 6,000 to 10,000 churches close each year in the U.S. As memberships wane, or as members are gentrified out of the surrounding communities, congregations face tough decisions about their properties. And communities may face the loss of neighborhood institutions and the social capital they create.

A church building is more than just walls and windows; it is also a sacred vessel that stores generations of religious memories. Even for those who do not regularly practice a religion, sacred images and structures operate as powerful community symbols. When a hallowed building is resurrected as something else, those who feel a connection to that symbol may experience a sense of loss or even righteous anger.
— Jonathan Merritt, America's Epidemic of Empty Churches, The Atlantic

Fortunately, various groups are emerging to re-imagine the problem and find solutions. In a previous post, we shared how some congregations are using their properties to develop affordable housing. Others are finding alternative or additional uses for their buildings. The Atlantic article mentions the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which helps churches think about alternative forms of Christian community and alternative uses of their space. Additionally, Partners for Sacred Places is a national organization that helps houses of worship of different faith traditions to remain vital community institutions, in part by rethinking their role in the community. In Washington, DC, the Sacred Spaces Conservancy similarly works to find creative and collaborative solutions to maintain houses of worship as community institutions. They were recently featured in this Washington Post article about the economic and spiritual trends behind the rapid loss of congregation-owned buildings in the city.

Because of more public skepticism about institutions and a falling away from religion, churches and other houses of worship need to again demonstrate their value to society, clergy said.
— Michelle Boorstein, Does a religious community need its own building to flourish?, Washington Post

It’s becoming clear to many that current faith trends in the U.S. require a re-imagining of the role of religion and its institutions. Perhaps we start with our buildings.

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash