Home Christian News Thousands of Churches Close Every Year. What Will Happen to Their Buildings?

Thousands of Churches Close Every Year. What Will Happen to Their Buildings?

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The former Oakland Bayview Fellowship Church of the Nazarene was sold by the denomination. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — When he was named a district superintendent for the Church of the Nazarene, the Rev. Albert Hung found himself facing the same problem many denominational leaders face.

Too many churches.

Not enough people.

Of the 90 or so congregations in the Northern California district Hung leads, few have more than 100 people, with most drawing around 40 people to worship services in buildings designed to seat far more. Their long-term, viable future is questionable — as those congregations are aging, shrinking and often disconnected from their neighbors. A number of churches in the district have already decided to close, leaving empty pews in shuttered buildings.

But an empty church building is not just an asset to be liquidated, said Hung, who insists these are still sacred spaces that God can use even if the churches that once worshipped in them no longer exist. That belief led Hung to look for creative ways to use empty church buildings.

In Santa Cruz, the Nazarenes have teamed up with a nondenominational congregation to turn a shuttered church building into a community center that will house a number of nonprofits.

For years, the building was home to First Church of the Nazarene in Santa Cruz, a small congregation that shut down after its longtime pastor retired. The church also rented space to Faith Community Church of Santa Cruz, a nondenominational church that runs several community ministries.

The decision to close down First Church of the Nazarene was worrying to Andy Lewis, pastor of Faith Community. The church had struggled to find a place to worship before renting space from the Nazarenes — and Lewis feared the church would have to leave the space.

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In this new arrangement, Faith Community — which is nondenominational — gets to stay as one of several community partners sharing the space. The idea is to use the space for the benefit not just of the church but the entire neighborhood, he said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Faith Community has used the space to run a food ministry and to host mobile medical clinics and a vaccination site in the parking lot.

“We have to rethink how we use physical spaces so we can be a presence of love in the community,” said Lewis.

Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing Costs,” a new book about how church property can be repurposed, says there are thousands of churches around the country that have closed or will likely close in the years to come. And too often, he said, leaders of those churches put off any discussion about what to do with their building until it’s too late.

“I’ve had situations where buildings are empty and they have no plan at all,” he said.

A 2021 study from Lifeway Research, based on data from three-dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 were started. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that the median worship attendance for churches in the U.S. dropped from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.

Dutra argues that billions of dollars in church property could be put to work for ministry ­— if church leaders become proactive about the future. He has worked with a number of religious groups to do just that.