A friend recently pointed out to me that the National Fund for Sacred Places has announced ten grant recipients to receive a total of $1.9 million in repair and restoration funds.
Unsurprisingly, most (if not all) are left-wing activist churches that have smaller congregations in underutilized spaces.
One recipient is National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) just around the corner from IRD’s office in downtown Washington, D.C. National City was designed by John Russell Pope before the architect designed the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art.
“The sanctuary serves as a center for national, religious and social justice gatherings,” the announcement states. It is a remarkable space that recently hosted Sojourners’ Jim Wallis for the launch of his most recent book, featuring a conversation with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The denomination no longer makes membership and attendance figures for individual congregations freely available, but according to the Washington Post in 2011 there were only about 125 people who attended there on a Sunday (mostly retirees), shockingly few for a building that regularly housed 800 in the 1950s and 60s. The congregation has struggled, opting to redevelop some of its space for commercial purposes.
Some other awardees for the 2019-20 program year are:
- Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL. “With murals by Frederic Clay Bartlett and windows by Tiffany Studios, Second Presbyterian hosts numerous hospitality services amidst a treasure trove of decorative arts,” the announcement notes. A quick glance at the Presbyterian Church (USA) congregational directory reveals an average Sunday attendance of 80. Not a single person was reported baptized in the last five years. “For many years, Second Presbyterian Church has offered same-sex marriage as part of our ministry to the church and the greater Chicagoland community. You and your partner will find an inclusive, warm fellowship of diverse spiritual people at Second Presbyterian Church. If you are looking for a place to be married, or a people who believe in the full dignity, beauty and equality of all God’s children, welcome home,” the congregation’s web site proclaims.
- St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Syracuse, NY. The Episcopal Church Executive Office of the General Convention reports that St. Paul’s membership has crashed from 570 down to fewer than 200 since 2012, and attendance now sits at 120. Plate-and-pledge giving has dropped from $270,000 down to $130,000 during the same time period. A rainbow flag waves prominently off the church building.
- Trinity Episcopal Church, Abbeville, SC. “Prominently located on Abbeville’s historic town square, this impressive church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” the announcement reports. “The parish and its diocese are partnering with Preservation South Carolina to achieve major restoration projects at the site and manage the facility as a venue for religious and cultural activities.” Trinity is among the smallest congregations on the list of grant recipients, listing 25 members and an average Sunday attendance of 17. Plate-and-pledge has dropped from $70,000 to $25,000 in the past two years.
- Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, Baltimore, MD. “Lovely Lane, designed by architect Stanford White in the Romanesque style, is the Mother Church of American Methodism,” the announcement reports (Francis Asbury is buried there). According to the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Journal, Lovely Lane has an average attendance of only 45 persons. It’s also not that diverse for a church located in inner-city Baltimore: of 212 professing members counted at the end of 2017, 184 are white. There are no children, youth, or young adults reported enrolled in Sunday school or small groups, and the congregation recorded only one baptism in 2017. Lovely Lane affiliates with the Reconciling Ministries Network, the unofficial LGBT caucus within the United Methodist Church.
It is sad to see congregations that were once vibrant now diminished. Beautiful liberal churches ultimately become virtual museums, with architecture to preserve, but little to no missional vitality remaining.