By Jacqueline J. Holness
As Christ’s church, Christians recognize that our own bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” as noted in 1 Corinthians 6:19. Yet if statistics are to be believed, church congregations’ buildings are on the decline.
Construction & Arson
According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Ben Leubsdorf, “construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to the lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967. Religious groups will build an estimated 10.3 million square feet this year, down 6 percent from 2013 and 80 percent since construction peaked in 2002, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.” Leubsdorf cites “a drop in formal religious participation, changing donation habits, a shift away from the construction of massive megachurches and, more broadly, a growing taste for alternatives to the traditional house of worship” as reasons for the downturn.
In addition, church buildings also face another obstacle. “Fires caused by arson are far more common at houses of worship than in most other kinds of structures,” according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. “Of the 4,705 reported fire incidents at houses of worship between 1996 and 2015, 2,378, or 51 percent, have been ruled intentional.” Last summer, a rash of fires at black churches in the South rejuvenated scrutiny of church arson statistics. However, as of July 14, 2015, “ATF had ruled 29 of the 79 fires at houses of worship this year to be arson, though some investigations are ongoing.”
Although church building construction is down and arson continues to be a threat, the church itself—the people—are still multiplying. Robb Moll, in another Wall Street Journal article, wrote, “Church congregations are sprouting more rapidly than ever—about 4,000 annually, according to estimates by the nonprofit Leadership Network’s Warren Bird.”
Despite the fact that church congregations are still being constructed, it saddens me nonetheless to realize that church building construction is down. If you are familiar with the phrase, “the bigger the hair, the closer to God,” my take on that phrase is the higher the steeple, the closer to God.
In particular, I love old churches, preferably at least 100 years old, with steeples so tall they make me feel that if I only could stand on their tips I could just reach up and touch God. I love their wooden pews which help me to stay awake, as there is no comfortable space to nestle into to catch a few winks during morning church service. I love the stained glass windows that not only illuminate the sun and the Son but the creativity often lacking in nondescript, corporate church buildings. I love the slightly musty smell of old churches that suggests that many, many people have sought God there before me. I love that old churches also prominently feature the cross in their architecture. Finally, I love the massive altars in the center of old sanctuaries that point to the central reason for being there at all.
But my architectural preferences are a minority opinion. As I highlighted in a previous column, Millennials, the largest generation since the Baby Boomers, are shaping future trends. In 2014, Barna Group researchers concluded that many Millennials “aspire to a more traditional church experience, in a beautiful building steeped in history and religious symbolism, but they are more at ease in a modern space that feels more familiar than mysterious.”
In addition, Moll interviewed Hartford Seminary Professor Scott Thumma, who studies megachurches—he said more churches are becoming “multisite churches, holding multiple smaller services in rented movie theaters and other satellite locations. It is less expensive than a big building and makes for a more inviting worship experience.”
In fact, some church congregations are abandoning their traditional church edifices, launching innovative ministries. In his 2015 Holysoup.com article Thom Schultz, Group Publishing founder, noted that Seattle’s Westminster Community Church opted to leave “their beautiful building,” renting it to area nonprofit groups. The church made this decision due to decreased membership. However, their rental income has been used to fund community dinners, which attract more attendance than their previous membership.
Whatever the architectural style, location, or personal preferences, what has always been most important is that we, the people, make up the church, not the church buildings.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, an online, national news service for attorneys. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).