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?

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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