liberal churches

October 22, 2019

Beautiful Liberal Churches Become Virtual Museums

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.


25 Responses to Beautiful Liberal Churches Become Virtual Museums

  1. Brad Pope says:

    the only thing that stands out about secular churches is the architecture and history, interesting but not worth repeat visits

  2. JoeD says:

    This is truly sad, and in the most pointed meaning of the word… a shame.

    But there is a chicken-egg question that is not addressed here: Were these now-empty churches simply dying out with suburban migration, regardless of their anti-Scriptural policies? Was their decision to become “affirming congregations,” as the Double-speak calls it, simply a last-ditch effort to get someone, anyone, interested in attending there?

    It’s always seemed to me that these old, urban churches are unattractive to a minister who wishes to grow a church, so I’ve always assumed these churches get the “scrubs” from the divinity schools. And. let’s face it, the whole “affirming” thing only makes sense to people who really didn’t pay attention in divinity school.

  3. Lee D. Cary says:

    This trend in the US is an extension of what’s long been happening in Europe for a long time, as anyone who’s been a tourist there can attest.

    Less obvious is the diminishing occupancy of older, large, downtown church buildings in the US still open to weekly worship, but with 150 people shuffling around in a sanctuary that seats 750. (Some kept open with long-established endowments.) Built in the early-mid 20th Century, these structures generally do not feature museum-quality architecture.

    So what will become of them? Too large for a restaurant, and too small for a basketball arena.

    • William says:

      The secular left in America is on a mission to not only make these structures museums and/or political activists centers but to render orthodox Christianity itself nothing more than a historic reference. One of the most startling occurrences in all of historic Christendom is that “liberal Christians” inside our historic Christian denominations are all in by aiding and abetting the enemy in this phenomenon!!

      • Lee D. Cary says:

        Some will, doubtless, ridicule the notion which you describe. But that will only indicate how closely you are flying to the flame of truth.

  4. Steve says:

    “Progressives are following the same script as the Soviets: allow/tolerate/celebrate those Churches holding the “correct” political views; demonize all others.” If there are no living churches with the correct views, they’ll embalm and celebrate dead ones. Reminds me of Lenin’s corpse.

  5. David says:

    “He that rejoiceth at another man’s ruin, shall not be unpunished.” Provbs. 17:5

    The great age of church building ended nearly a century ago, well before the urban decay that left many US cities ruins. One could just as easily point to the many Roman Catholic churches that have been closed in recent years. There are actually real estate listing services for religious properties. Many of these are modern and in the suburbs. Some of these are even megachurches that did not survive the departure of a charismatic founding pastor. The Crystal Cathedral near Los Angeles is but one example.

    Congregations tend to be ethnic organizations. One can find RC churches built literally across the street from each other. Each immigrant group would often vie with each other to build the largest church with the tallest tower, the most bells, and largest pipe organ. As ethnic neighborhoods changed, disappeared, or became unsafe, people went elsewhere. Different groups have their own worship style, music, and oratory as well.

    People no longer join churches, temples, or fraternal organizations as they once did. One can find handsome masonic temples, Elk, and Moose halls up for sale as well. Where possible, it is desirable to preserve architecture that could often not be recreated today. However, many of these purpose built structures do not easily lend themselves to other uses.

    • Steve says:

      You seem unaware that the one concrete example you give, Crystal Cathedral, was purchased by the Catholic Church and as far as I know is doing fine.

      • David says:

        I was well aware that the building was sold after the church fell into debt after Schuller’s departure. “We’re buying a used cathedral,” Evers said. “That’s never happened before.” Not all churches find buyers.

        • William says:

          Interesting point. As for the UMC, if liberals manage to liberalize the church at the 2020 General Conference without reforming the exit provisions — what are the going to do with the empty properties they end up with, plus the agencies and boards they cannot fund?

        • Steve says:

          And yet you brought it up although it runs completely contra to your argument that its all about neighborhoods and trends. Since I wrote, I went to the Facebook page for the cathedral, it livestreams its mass, from all appearance the place is jam packed.

          • Steve says:

            Also, you could try to act a little less disappointed that the cathedral is successful, considering you started your post with the admonition that we shouldn’t exult in the failures.

          • David says:

            Who is acting disappointed? Generally, it is neighborhood change that kills off urban churches. The Crystal Cathedral is not exactly urban and I have been there.

          • Steve says:

            Well, I have been around some of the churches in the article and there’s no reason they couldn’t be successful also other than the product being bad. Obviously, they have tremendous advantages that are just being squandered. Well, maybe the parking at the DC one isn’t great, but the neighborhood obviously isn’t bad and there’s public transportation. Lovely Lane in Baltimore, the neighbor isn’t great nor terrible, and there’s lots of free parking in the area (I used it regularly). I know the trends are against church, but I tend to think with different management these could be successful. But they want to continue offering a product the marketplace has rejected. They should move out and let somebody else give it a try, but of course they won’t as long as the money lasts.

          • Steve says:

            Through the miracle of Google Street view we are all able to simulate the experience of being at the Crystal Cathedral, and you know what, it looks like a lot of run down not quite central urban areas I’ve been to (Baltimore for one). Its a few of blocks away from the Anaheim Convention Center, its not some kind of verdant resort, its next to an Interstate on the other side of which appears to be the center of a highly urbanized area.

          • John says:

            David, I wonder whether it’s so much neighborhood change that kills off urban churches… or the inability/unwillingness of existing congregations to receive those moving into the neighborhood as it undergoes demographic change. I think its more likely the latter. To the best of my understanding, that was (and continues to be) the case with Lovely Lane.

          • Steve says:

            John, I appreciate you sharing your understanding. However, I am very skeptical of these community arguments. I often hear progressives say we can’t go back to the 50s or the 60s, but the idea that a congregation is comprised of people within walking distance seems like 50s nostalgia to me. Successful churches cast a wide geographic net. I suppose clergy desperate for ASA would like to take whatever random person they can get from the immediate vicinity, even if the reason for attending is like the line from the song California Dreaming: “The preacher knows its cold: he knows I’m gonna stay”. Clergy has a wide range of standard plausible excuses, and that’s one of them.

  6. David says:

    It is an area of one story ranch houses with lawns and palm trees. I do not see anything run down about it, though it is hardly an upper income district.

  7. Jim says:

    Hey Dave & Steve- why don’t you exchange emails and continue your conversation?

  8. David says:

    I agree, but I certainly not give out my email to certain persons.

  9. Ralph Weitz says:

    What is amazing is that in the midst of these urban centers there are thriving churches, some new and some that have survived very well. Near the National City Christian Church, cited in the article, is a thriving Anglican congregation, Church of the Resurrection, young in both attendees and longevity. It is less than a mile from the U. S. Capitol.

    Several years ago I did a stewardship workshop for another Anglican church north of the White House. They were all young. I had a hard time finding a parking place in the urban setting. I asked attendees how they found parking. The answer from the four I asked, “I walked.” Hmm…when we present the good news, they will come.

    In light of the above back and forth, two observations about the Crystal Cathedral. It certainly was centered around Schuller. Secondly, it was a member of the Reformed Church of America, a mainline denomination. My evangelical friends were a little stand offish to Schuller’s style and teaching.

    Finally, surviving the founding pastor of a megachurch or any church always has its challenges. The next pastor is often called “the sacrificial lamb.”

  10. Lee D. Cary says:

    A large building in Frisco, TX, that sits on the west side of N-S toll road that connects Dallas to the norther burbs, once housed a Gander Mountain store that opened for just a few months, and then suddenly closed. It sat empty for months.

    It’s now being converted to one of the campus churches of a large independent, non-denomination church operation. People will flock there from the far Northern burbs when it opens. Including some former UM’s.

    While the protestant liberal “Seven Sisters” dissolve – at various speeds – a church growth phenomena is underway. It goes largely un-noticed. It’s happening outside the interest range of those debating the issues eroding the UMC and other liberal denominations.

    I offer no judgment of its validity, or theological integrity. I’m not keen on their music, but then I’m old. The young seem to like it.

    It’s as though we’re witnessing a version of the debate between those of the commercial teamster profession (as in horse & wagon) while train tracks are being laid across the land. Or the horse-n-buggy manufacturers, unaware of what Henry Ford was up to.

  11. Steve says:

    “The church as we know it is dying. But the church itself is not dying, because it can’t. The church is God’s creation. It’s not ours to kill; God help us we probably would have already if we could have.”
    The Collapse Is Here: by Crusty Old Dean, Monday, September 2, 2019.
    My assessment is that the mainlines will die and be replaced by biblical churches. The powers that be will do everything in their power to turn these new churches non-biblical; those that do will also die, to be replaced by yet newer biblical churches. The powers that be will subsidize some non-biblical churches and penalize biblical churches in their usual attempts to use religion to control the masses. Never worked 100% in the past, but who knows, maybe the internet age will be different.

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