Report: Houses of Worship Declining Across U.S.

The Atlantic reports that the number of houses of worship in the United States is declining, and there is one salient reason why: the poor economy of the country since late 2008. 

The article tries to assert that attendance has been plunging for decades, noting that Roman Catholic weekly attendance plunged from 75% in 1955 to 45% in the mid-2000s, while Evangelical and Southern Baptist churches have also featured big drops in numbers.

Yet the article admits Pentecostal numbers have risen, attributing the growth to the Latino community leaving Catholicism for Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

But the central reason for the sale of church buildings is purported to be an economic one. The Atlantic quotes Mary Raphael, who sells religious properties with her husband Dave in southern California. She claims that sales of churches rose when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Raphael explained:

So many people were losing their jobs and churches can’t continue for years on their reserves. Tithings to churches had declined so much for such a long period that a number of churches used up reserves and refinanced properties. We had foreclosures on churches.

The Atlantic confirmed that supposition, pointing out Giving USA reported that donations to smaller churches were down 10% in the past 12 months and were still lagging behind pre-recession era donation rates.

Raphael also noted that churches are viewed warily by banks because the banks are concerned potential customers who are of a different faith or are unaffiliated might object to the bank dealing with the church. She said, “It makes it very difficult. It’s hard to document income for churches since they keep their own records, and [finances] must be verified by an outsider. Lenders avoid [churches] since it’s bad PR.”

Raphael pointed out the dilemma of churches running short of cash but wanting to stay open, especially because they are nonprofits and have stringent rules. She added:

You have to verify with the Secretary of State in southern California that the church is capable of holding a title, is a legal entity, and is incorporated as a nonprofit. Otherwise, you can’t get a title insurance, and you can’t do the transaction by the laws and articles of incorporation. Then you have to adopt a resolution. … Some of these groups have their own financials. Some are ready with a 30 to 40 percent down payment, but it’s hard for groups to have that in cash. Different religious groups also have credit unions.

She confessed, “The first 32 years or so, we never thought about asking if your loan is current or in default. Now if a church calls, that’s the first thing we ask.”

Ellen Levitt, author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, spoke of the migration of Jews from urban areas to the suburbs as a reason for the sale of older synagogues: 

After World War II, certain neighborhoods became less desirable for Jews. They [Jews] would move [to the suburbs]. "I want a house, I don’t want to live in a tiny apartment in the city anymore." In the early 1950s, it escalated. Some synagogues in Brooklyn held out 'til the ‘80s, but most of them moved to neighborhoods. You know Flatbush? It’s all trendy now, but there aren’t many Jews left in Flatbush anymore.

Raphael echoed the notion that ethnic groups’ migration was common. She said of southern California:

Neighborhoods have changed quite a bit. There are certain cultures, groups of people that live in certain areas. Koreans now want to be in Orange County, and Indians want to be in the LA County area. They used to have churches there that are moving out.

Raphael concluded:

We have lots of people who want to rent or share buildings. They allow someone to use it Sunday afternoon when they’re not using it, or weekdays or evenings. They might also rent out to AA groups or counseling groups. A lot of these [declining or smaller] groups are merging their buildings. The style of building is also changing. Chapel groups generally don’t want kitchens but they want to be close to the freeway so people can come in, go to service, grab a coffee, and leave. For other types of congregations, kitchens and fellowships are really important, so you need fully equipped kitchens and halls.


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