What should we do with all of those empty churches?

Thousands of churches are left behind every year in America.

Abandoned church Italy
Interior view of an abandoned church in Italy. (Photo by: Arcaid/UIG via Getty Images)
  • With many churches only being operational for a few hours each week, thousands of churches are shutting down.
  • Church attendance is down nationwide, adding to the problem of what to do with so much real estate.
  • Inventive uses for abandoned churches include co-working spaces, Airbnbs, and bookstores.

Earlier this year I was amazed walking around the 110 acres that is Vatican City while visiting Rome for the first time. I'm not especially "touristy", yet as a former student of religion it was one landmark I had to witness. I suppose I just needed to know if Jude Law's voice could really emit such gravity.

The sheer size of that property is dwarfed by the Catholic Church's total real estate holdings, which comes in at 177 million acres worldwide. Only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and British Royalty own more land. The Pope might never control as much land as the Queen, but still, not shabby.

That doesn't mean all is well in religious real estate. Several thousand churches are abandoned every single year in America. Citylab explains:

As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are only in use a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends show signs of slowing, so the United States's struggling congregations face a choice: start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat.

Though churches have great financial (e.g. tax-free) perks, operational costs can be taxing. Strangely, some take issue with converting these properties into multi-use spaces. One of the best ideas is to host multi-religious gatherings: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism—all religions congregate in one form or another. Even atheists congregate. Plus, as one Atlantic reader notes, maybe the religious shouldn't think so highly of their constructions:

There's nothing in the Bible that requires ornate houses of worship. Centuries of church leaders building ornate monuments to ego instead of using the funds to care for the poor are not something to be celebrated. Followers of a man who said to give your second coat to the poor shouldn't be obsessed with buildings.

Yet churches are beautiful; even an atheist like myself can love gorgeous architecture. Regardless of your feelings on religion, anyone can appreciate what humans build in attempts of servicing higher ideals. Certain businesses are hip to this fact. Some churches are being sold to become hotels and Airbnbs. One Roman Catholic church in Troy, New York became a fraternity, which might seem a strange transubstantiation at first, though the Greeks are known for rituals as well.

One Methodist location in Dallas decided to open up their doors as a creative co-working space, which I find to be a perfect repurposing of space. Numerous artisans now work out of the location, including a florist and stained-glass-window artist, as well as a group teaching African refugees language and business skills. Even a yoga and community dance center was added. If Saddleback can have a coffee shop and mall on its campus, why not?

Another Methodist location in North Carolina worked in conjunction with that Dallas church to greatly expand their offerings:

In addition to coworking space, they retrofitted the building with a textile and woodworking shop, meeting rooms that are used by local business and AA groups, a retreat space that can sleep up to nine, and a commercial kitchen in the basement for local bakers and chefs. Outside, Missional Wisdom constructed a community garden, food forest, beehives for the Haw Creek Bee Club, a greenhouse, and a playground for the children who attend the school next door.

These ideas are more in the spirit of church architecture (and mission) than selling off the land for a luxury hotel to be installed. Not that all capitalist endeavors are bad. An epic Catholic Church in the Netherlands was shuttered by Napoleon in 1794; today it is an incredible bookstore. And it would be hard to get tired of an alien nativity scene housed in an old Portland church, complete with a "shaman Santa Claus".

Perhaps the greatest use case is in Atlanta, where a 140-year-old Baptist Church was saved by the Atlanta Freethought Society. As the chairman of the AFS activism task force describes the group:

Freethinker is kind of the broadest most general term. There are people who would never call themselves atheists, but they call themselves Freethinkers. To an Orthodox Christian they will appear to be atheists because they live without a belief, don't act on any belief in God.

But really, isn't the "church within" the point anyway? Real estate is just space; its value depends on a confluence of details. Wineries, pubs, skateparks—the list of uses for churches is endless. I'm just glad the Laser Tag Park in a former Harrisburg church didn't make it either. Bad ideas are simply that.

Or perhaps local governments can move and repurpose the space for public good. The previous landowners were beneficiaries of old and outdated tax laws that often only helped those in specific groups. Expanding that outward to help the community-at-large might be the greatest potential use. Imagine that, using our tax dollars for something that helps everyone?

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Designer uses AI to bring 54 Roman emperors to life

It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.

Meet Emperors Augustus, left, and Maximinus Thrax, right

Credit: Daniel Voshart
Technology & Innovation
  • A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
  • A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
  • It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
Keep reading Show less

Archaeologists figure out contents of ancient Mayan drug containers

Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.

A Muna-type paneled flask with distinctive serrated-edge decoration from AD 750-900.

Credit: WSU
Surprising Science
  • Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
  • They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
  • The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Keep reading Show less

Ten “keys to reality” from a Nobel-winning physicist

To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.

Photo by Andy HYD on Unsplash
Surprising Science
In the spring of 1970, colleges across the country erupted with student protests in response to the Vietnam War and the National Guard's shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

This is your brain on political arguments

Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast