Dying Churches, and the Loss of American Identity
The dying church problem.
For most Catholics, Sunday mornings hold a sacred place in their hearts, it’s the day they go to the church. But what happens if you go to the church and see that the doors are locked, there is no singing, and you are told to go elsewhere? What happens when one fine Sunday morning you are told that your church is now closed forever? What happens when you finally realize that the church where you attended weddings and funerals, baptisms, confirmation, and your first communion is now eternally closed? Unfortunately, this is a situation many Americans are facing today.
According to various reports, between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are now dying each year, although some reports have stated the numbers to be even higher. This means that between Christmas and New Year celebration about 200 churches have closed doors. What’s even more worrisome is that the pace at which the churches are closing is accelerating.
Jean Hopfensperger, a Star Tribune reporter describes churches as not just places of worship for attendees, but as the backbone of their communities. Stating the importance of the church and the adverse effect its closing has on people she says that as these churches close, a way of life fades away.
At one time, America was widely considered to be “a Christian nation”, but today’s America is not that country anymore. Gone are those days when attending the church was a societal norm. Though more than 70 percent of Americans still claim to be Christians, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” that they attend church weekly. However, it turns out that less than 20 percent are actually in church.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans who claim to have no particular religious affiliation—nicknamed the “nones”—is growing as a share of the US population. In fact, the “nones” have risen from just 6 percent of the population in 1991 to 25 percent today, making them the single largest ‘religious group’ in the United States.
This is especially true for the younger generation. In 1986, just 10 percent of all young adults claimed to be “religiously unaffiliated”, but that number has now jumped all the way to 39 percent.
All of this is the after-effect of a societal change that we are now witnessing. Societal changes are a constant phenomenon and always happen but now they are happening at a pace that would have been absolutely unthinkable a couple of generations ago.
It is an undeniable truth that all institution needs resources in order to survive and thrive, and churches are not an exception.
With attendance dwindling, donations have gone down too. Today the percentage of charity donations going to religious institutions is at an all-time low, and churches are feeling the burnt.
But why are fewer people visiting the church and why are the churches dying?
- An abundance of choices: The influx of immigrants, who along with all their problems also bring to our country their religion (most often they are not Christians), and the mingling of Americans with them has exposed us to other religious choices.
- Declining Christian values at home: Earlier people took their children to churches religiously every Sunday to inculcate the Christian values in them. This trend has seen a decline, and in its absence, children engage themselves in other activities like playing on consoles or watching TV. And when these kids grow up and have kids of their own, there is little chance that they will take them to the church. This rippling effect can be disastrous.
- Sex scandals and other controversies: Sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up that followed has irreparably damaged the reputation of the church and has alienated many believers.
- Disconnect with the youth: The church is finding it hard to connect with the new tech-savvy generation. Instead of embracing technology and adapting it to propagate their messages, churches normally shun the very tools of technology without which few Millennials would know how to communicate or interact.
So, when churches die, what happens to the buildings?
Churches are generally located in the central area of towns and cities which are otherwise prime real estate locations. When these churches go defunct, most of them get torn down or renovated to pave way for luxurious and expensive residential or business complexes. A large number of abandoned churches have also been converted to wineries, breweries or bars. Few have also been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, or Airbnbs.
However, there is a slight problem with this approach. I won’t want my place of worship to get converted to a place where people come and booze, nor would I be happy to see it become someone else’s house and become inaccessible to me. And, I am sure many devout Christians will echo my emotions. A church building is not just walls and windows; it is a sacred place that stores generations of precious religious memories. Even for those who do not regularly practice a religion, sacred images and structures operate as powerful community symbols. These buildings serve to unite the society. So, when a hallowed building is resurrected as something else, those who feel a connection to that symbol experience a sense of loss or even righteous anger.
The problem with America is that it is losing its identity and the disappearance of churches is only compounding this problem.