Cities need to prepare for a wave of declining houses of worship. While faith institutions, at least the Christian ones, have been asking WWJD (What would Jesus do?), municipalities need to get them to ask another question: WWJJD (What would Jane Jacobs do?). Doing so might lead to a new model for truly community houses of worship.
In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs noted four attributes especially important in making great cities. Most houses of worship fail at three of the four.
- Mixed uses. City centers “must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two,” according to Jacobs. Houses of worship often are single-use, reserved for religious services and faith education. Some limited related uses are allowed, such as food pantries, clothing closets, self-help groups, and occasionally child-care centers. Other uses—especially profit-making—are rejected, regarded as suspect at worst, annoying at best. Sometimes a graveyard abuts the church, which hardly adds to neighborhood street life.
- Small blocks. Jacobs says: “Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.” Houses of worship often create impenetrable “superblocks” within center cities or neighborhoods, violating Jacobs’ concept of short, walkable blocks and interesting building edges. Huge parking lots remain empty most times of the day and days of the week. Fences around church property and “do not trespass” signs add to the unfriendliness. Houses of worship often allow use of only one of several doors and lock the rest.
- Aged buildings. Great cities need “buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones,” Jacobs says. Houses of worship are often among the oldest buildings in town. Some communities were built with them at the center.
- Density. And great cities need “a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there,” according to Jacobs. Houses of worship are often among the least densely settled structures in town, with influxes of people one morning—sometimes also one evening—a week. Buildings can be virtually empty five or six days out of seven. Sanctuaries, classrooms, and parking lots are far larger than required.
We need a new model, not only so that the houses of worship survive, but so that our communities can prosper as well. Houses of worship fail today for a number of reasons. A primary one? Fewer people are attending worship services: A 2020 Gallup poll showed that, for the first time in the poll’s history, less than half of Americans identify themselves as members of houses of worship. Additionally, real-estate operating costs are climbing for maintenance, utilities, and insurance; and increased transportation mobility and the internet allow worshipers to attend services not only across town but anywhere in the world. And, of course, the pandemic disrupted everything.
The result is a colossal mismatch between the property size (large) and the congregation size (small), and the resulting suffocation of a house of worship’s operating budget.
Many also would stress a disconnect between houses of worship and the communities they allegedly serve. As Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Frank, retired Wake Forest University dean and current principal at Heritage Conservation Carolinas, puts it: “Once upon a time they [churches] could take for granted their community connections, because (so the myth goes) everybody went to church. So they’re simply not prepared to take initiative to build new community relationships. Many congregations, though, have the capacity to shift outlooks before resources run too low.”
Houses of worship too often have become apart from the community, not a part of the community. So what would a new model look like? What sorts of interventions would help houses of worship achieve Jacobs’ four attributes?
Convert faith properties into true mixed-use developments. In addition to hosting initiatives to help provide social services, faith properties should seek out social entrepreneurs and profit-making businesses as partners. Housing is another obvious potential use; affordable housing can help meet a house of worship’s social agenda, while also providing income and activity.
Penetrate the impenetrable fortresses that churches often present. Allow use of the parking lot more than one day a week. Resurface the parking lot to support a playground, picnic area, or labyrinth. Host public markets, art fairs, and music events on it. Build on the parking lot. Tear down unnecessary fences so neighbors can use the church grounds. Turn a graveyard into an educational experience.
Preserve historic properties. Don’t fall behind with maintenance of historic buildings. Tell stories of the history of the church and the community through artwork and interpretive exhibits.
Populate the property with people. Rent the sanctuary out to other congregations, especially growing groups from immigrant communities. Rent out surplus space for meetings, offices, and retail. Redevelop the real estate into mixed use, including housing—especially affordable housing—which will add life 24/7.
City regulations often make these goals difficult to achieve. Over-restrictive zoning can prohibit community development. Over-stringent building codes can make even allowable uses impossible to construct. Overeager property-tax assessors can smother a project with large tax bills before it can even get started.
Why not just close the struggling houses of worship and sell their properties to private developers? Sometimes that may be the best thing to do, but faith institutions add much to many communities. Partners for Sacred Places, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, identified that the average urban congregation creates more than $140,000 per year in value through the contribution of volunteer time, space at below-market rates, and donations to community programs.
We need a new model for houses of worship, one that allows our faith institutions to survive and our communities to prosper. The notion of a single-use, impenetrable, inactive structure needs to be replaced by a Jacobsean model: mixed-use, accessible, high-density. The alternative will be for houses of worship to wither and die, and for communities to lose out in the process.
Here are three examples of the new model:
- Centre St. Jax, Montreal, Quebec, originally an Anglican church, now hosts the original congregation, other church groups, and a number of other organizations, including Action Réfugiés Montréal, an agency serving immigrants; Le Monastère, a circus cabaret; and L’Académie du Monastère, the circus school. The center was developed by Trinity Centres Foundation, which now works with other faith institutions throughout Canada and the U.S.
- Village@West Jefferson, Louisville, Kentucky, formerly the property of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, is a new 30,000-square-foot mixed-use office and retail development in the historic Russell neighborhood. The development hosts tenants who bring vital services and amenities to the underserved neighborhood. The project was developed by the United Church of Christ Church Building & Loan Fund.
- The Cathedral District, Jacksonville, Florida (shown in the featured image), is an entire district set up around five houses of worship, centered by St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. Encompassing 118 acres, it is currently being redeveloped into a leafy, green, vibrant neighborhood where a diverse array of residents can live, work, and play together. The district, the brainchild of a former City Councilmember and an Urban Land Institute technical advisory panel, is governed by a not-for-profit community-development corporation.