church conversion

Sacred Architecture Isn’t Disappearing—It’s Changing

This time of the year prompts many to think about religious beliefs and how they are expressed, particularly by Christians and Jews, who celebrate important holy days in December. Architecture is often used as an indicator of the health of religion, and the current decline in traditional, mainline church attendance has been interpreted by some as the death knell of religious architecture. Certainly, many churches have closed, their properties converted into bars or theaters or sold off to make way for new construction. But it’s a mistake to think this means the end of sacred space. What is actually happening is the emergence of new ways of thinking about how people express faith, and the role architecture plays in it. 

This is happening on two fronts. The first is how congregations that occupy mainline religious buildings are coping with declines in attendance. Many are finding ways to avoid becoming condos. Partners for Sacred Places, a not-for-profit based in Philadelphia, researched the influence of faith communities as important economic anchors in urban neighborhoods. Its 2016 study, “The Economic Halo Effect,” drew an important conclusion: The economic health of a neighborhood is tied to its religious buildings. According to the study, the financial impact on the surrounding community of a functioning sacred place averages $1.7 million annually in terms of social services, outreach, and helping local businesses remain vital. Programs offered by these congregations benefit mostly people who are not part of the congregation (90 percent), and visits to these religious buildings are for non-worship activities (89 percent).

Converted into condos or clubs, this impact diminishes. The best alternative to secular use is to keep sacred places economically sustainable and operating.

Converted into condos or clubs, this impact diminishes. The best alternative to secular use is to keep sacred places economically sustainable and operating. Over the past few years, Partners has developed databases of religious buildings with space to share in cities around the country and with nonprofit groups looking for affordable facilities (such as galleries, drama groups, and dance companies). Programs pair up declining congregations with nonprofit groups searching for affordable space. It’s like a dating service, and it has helped sacred places remain economically viable neighborhood anchors.

A second front is reinventing what a faith community is, and what kind of sacred space it needs. The most creative are known as “divergent” churches, which respond to congregations looking for creative, fresh expressions of core Christian beliefs and practices. According to Tim Shapiro and Karen Faris in their book, Divergent Church, these congregations typically have a focus beyond just gathering for weekly worship services. They might be involved in growing and serving food, providing resources for musical and theatrical performances, making art, attending to the homeless. These ancillary activities are a shared value by congregation members, ways that they express their beliefs in community at a local level. The authors describe it as “church plus another essential element of life” that most matter to church members. Congregations that meet in a pub or a coffee shop are an example, as are those who focus on gathering to share a meal as part of their expression of a community of belief. 

In a divergent church, the emphasis is often less on the church as an institution (with a costly building to maintain) and more on life and what makes it meaningful.

Why have divergent churches emerged? Partly it’s a desire to be creative and risk something new: How do you demonstrate your faith or spirituality within the context of contemporary society in a way that speaks to core religious beliefs, relation to the Divine, connection to other human beings? In a divergent church, the emphasis is often less on the church as an institution (with a costly building to maintain) and more on life and what makes it meaningful. Frequently, the building is secondary; some divergent churches don’t even have facilities.

Most divergent churches find space in existing religious facilities, such as a basement. One of the first divergent churches, founded more than a decade ago by Rev. Emily Scott, is St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, New York, whose form of Evangelical Lutheran and Episcopal worship includes making and sharing a meal. As St. Lydia’s grew, it sought to create an innovative sacred space suited to its mission. Architect Sheryl Jordan designed St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in a storefront in an industrial neighborhood. Jordan was surprised by the 30-odd congregation’s diversity: young, old, disabled, homeless, gay, creative; not the typical hipster profile you might expect. Just inside the storefront, Jordan created a transition space—a contemporary narthex—where people arrive, socialize, and ready themselves for the dinner service. Jordan designed a space that reflects the intimacy of the service, which starts with people sitting around oval tables. As they share the meal, they listen to readings and reflections by a clergy member, and share their own perceptions. Congregants form a circle and pass a loaf of freshly baked bread around for communion. The service ends with hymns and social time. “It’s casual, but it has a structure,” says Jordan, who likens the atmosphere to worship gatherings in people’s homes in the early days of Christianity. St. Lydia’s architectural detailing is simple and unfussy, with a handmade quality (the architect looked at Shaker design for inspiration). A local craftsman constructed the church’s wood cabinetry.

Old churches—which might be viewed as “museums” of religion—will continue to close. Others will pass from shrinking congregations to new faith communities: churches transformed into mosques, for example. New churches designed along traditional ways of thinking about what a religious building should be will be constructed. But in places where we might least expect, new ideas about what it means to be spiritual will blossom, and new forms of sacred space will appear and flourish.

Featured image: St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn, New York. Architect: Sheryl Jordan. Photo courtesy of the architect.


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