The Atlantic: Three blocks from my Brooklyn apartment, a large brick structure stretches toward heaven. Tourists recognize it as a church—the building’s bell tower and stained-glass windows give it away—but worshippers haven’t gathered here in years.
The 19th-century building was once known as St. Vincent De Paul Church and housed a vibrant congregation for more than a century. But attendance dwindled and coffers ran dry by the early 2000s. Rain leaked through holes left by missing shingles, a tree sprouted in the bell tower, and the Brooklyn diocese decided to sell the building to developers. Today, the Spire Lofts boasts 40 luxury apartments, with one-bedroom units renting for as much as $4,812 per month. It takes serious cash to make God’s house your own, apparently.
Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population.
Any minister can tell you that the two best predictors of a congregation’s survival are “budgets and butts,” and American churches are struggling by both metrics. As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are in use only a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends shows signs of slowing, so the United States’ struggling congregations face a choice: Start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat.
“Years ago, the neighborhood church was the place many in America got together and, along with local schools, was where they got to know their neighbors,” Duggins told me. “But this model is no longer relevant for many people, so churches have to think creatively about how to help people encounter others and God in their everyday lives.”
To test their idea, Duggins and Heath approached the pastor of White Rock United Methodist Church in Dallas about collaborating. Half a century ago, it was a massive congregation with robust weekly programming, a strong reputation in the community, and a 60,000-square-foot building. But the neighborhood’s demographics shifted in recent years, and church membership waned. Its combination of sprawling space and shrinking attendance made White Rock the perfect guinea pig for Duggins and Heath’s experiments.
Missional Wisdom moved into the bottom 15,000 square feet of White Rock’s building and got to work. It converted the fellowship hall into a co-working space and transformed Sunday school rooms into a workshop for local artisans, including a florist and a stained-glass-window artist. It formed an economic empowerment center, where the group teaches a local population of African refugees language and business skills. And it finished out the space with a yoga studio and a community dance studio. Today, the church building is bustling most days, and the congregation is both covering expenses and generating revenue from its profit-sharing agreement with Missional Wisdom.
Next, the Missional Wisdom team partnered with Bethesda United Methodist Church in Asheville, North Carolina—a congregation with challenges similar to White Rock’s. Together, they created a community center called Haw Creek Commons. In addition to co-working 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.
Duggins said that the goal of these two experiments was simply to create opportunities and space for the community to gather and connect with one another. But as with White Rock, Haw Creek Commons has had residual positive effects on its host congregation.
“We wanted to transform the church into a place that would draw people who might not otherwise come, and in Asheville, we’ve seen it break down stereotypes of what the church is,” Duggins said. “At Bethesda, there were less than 10 people in the church on a given Sunday, but now there are more than 50.” Multipurpose spaces lower the barriers to entry. When someone using a co-working space experiences a personal crisis, they have a comfortable place to turn to.
“Post-Modern people are more secular than ever. They tend to avoid church and Christianity. They have not seen the true power of Christianity to change lives into godly examples of faith. Church is more like entertainment. They hear preaching, but it doesn’t motivate godliness.
This sign of the times fulfills the words of Jesus who said of the end times, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” Matthew 24:12.