Churches Go Secular: No Place for God?
Buildings are created by people. Over time the lives of those people change, and the buildings they use evolve with them. Sometimes this also means abandoning structures, even tearing them down. I live in New England, a region, like many others, where factories arose, thrived, struggled, and then, eventually, failed. Surrounding farms suffered similar fates of erasure, abandonment, or reuse.
Today we’re witnessing the death struggles of the shopping mall and the transformation of suburban life. But there’s another building type suffering the same woes: churches. We’ve seen this in Europe since World War II. A vast majority of the population has stopped attending church, so many of these buildings have become museums, theaters, restaurants, or secular destination venues.
New England is also littered with closed churches. Some are ornate, some humble, and, increasingly, they’re abandoned and ripe for redevelopment. The website Patheos estimates that as many as 10,000 churches close in America each year. Over the past 15 years, the number of Episcopial churchgoers has dropped 40%, and it continues to shrink. Two years ago, the Hartford Archdiocese announced that its 212 Catholic parishes in Connecticut would be consolidated into 127.
This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been converting religious buildings for decades. What’s new these days is the sheer volume. The migration away from rural areas has combined with the decline in church attendance to produce wholesale deconsecrations. I don’t believe that our culture knows what the implications of this shift are.
Religious buildings are unique. The act of worshipping together created the need for an architecture that participated in allusion, ritual, storytelling—an almost physical yearning. So these buildings often employ extraordinary craftsmanship, remarkable detail, and exquisite material use. Places of worship produce nothing; they exist to facilitate a connection to a reality greater than the world they’re part of, a daunting task. This aspirational basis is why any change in use can have an undertone of sadness, no matter what that change might be. As a believer in both God and architecture, I understand and feel this dilemma.
If the need for churches is waning, how is human spirituality changing? Are we finding God irrelevant, or is culture evolving away from any architectural embrace of spirituality?
Recently, I went to a conference in New York entitled “The Burning of Notre Dame: A Symposium on Sacred Architecture and the Theology of Beauty” A history professor, an architect, and an architecture professor delved into the motivations of why we have places of worship, and why the potential loss of Notre Dame brought out a desire for faith in architecture, even among agnostics and atheists. Rather than note the pain evoked by the fire in perhaps the most secular city on earth, Margaret Hughes, a history professor at Thomas Aquinas College, offered the insight that “modernity rejects mystery,” adding that humans persist in their search for beauty because they perceive it, every day. Hughes noted that our desire to create a “union with God” is not so much religious as it is essentially human. As such, the buildings that express this fundamental desire can also facilitate its expression. “Church is a meeting place for man and God, so there is no distraction,” she said. When those buildings are lost, where do we go to connect to something beyond ourselves?
The underlying reason for these efforts is simple, said architect Steve Schloeder: Faith-based buildings are “a machine for taking us out of ourselves.”
Steve Schloeder, an architect at Liturgical Environs, explored why churches are different from other buildings. The deeply grounded theological and philosophical underpinnings of ecclesiastic design creates a depth of design criteria and breadth of intended spiritual evocations that is unique among buildings. The underlying reason for these efforts is simple, said Schloeder: Faith-based buildings are “a machine for taking us out of ourselves.”
If that function is becoming obsolete, what does that say about our culture? Philip Bess, an architecture professor from Notre Dame University, had a contemporary take on the immediate reaction of architects to the fire at the cathedral. Those tone-deaf proposals came from the “world of Global Modernism, where the morality and rationalism of traditional Modernism is gone.” To Bess, what’s left is the worship of profit, a secular imperative that lives in full denial of anything greater than itself.
While all of these insights are important to understand, the impact of the collapse of church attendance and the abandonment of so many buildings in a short time is a body blow to something else: the very idea of social cohesion and context. These houses of worship—even if you didn’t attend them or believe the messages imparted inside—were often the physical, social, and spiritual cores of their communities.
The practical realities of this change are obvious. Churches are usually well located, so their sites have value. And in an age of green sensibilities, the embodied energy of these abandoned buildings takes on an importance beyond the economic. But aside from the deeply desired sustainability of salvaged edifices, we can learn from how we treat places that once were built in the worship of God.
While factories are easily recast into storage facilities, housing units, or commercial offices, the revisioning of buildings once created to the glory of the divine is more complicated. Houses of worship are not just history, they’re the embodiment of their builder’s spiritual essence. As we see in Europe, their spaces may make great theaters, condos, or sexy restaurants, but the absence of their original use says more about their meaning than does the success of their reuse.
I am actively involved in designing more than a dozen religious buildings, almost all of which are renovations, that are evolving their spiritual focus. Each one is fraught with fear and hope. They derive from individual conditions, but they all manifest a desire that transcends religious belief and embrace how humans address God in the here and now.
As Hughes and Schloeder clearly conveyed in New York, how we build to worship God puts architecture at the front lines of cultural evolution. And, as Bess concluded, living without faith—religious or otherwise—calls into question our values. Absent a belief in a greater good, what’s the purpose of architecture?
Feature image: The former St. Stephen’s Church, in Sandy Hook, CT, will be converted to a pizzeria. Both photos by the author.