The robust and always broadening cultural pluralism of this country almost guarantees that issues of faith will enter the public limelight on a regular basis. Scarcely a day passes where religious and political concerns don’t overlap, but that is the subject I will consciously avoid in this blog. I’m far more interested in exploring whether or not religion has any tacit bearing on in how people spatialize themselves, or how they maneuver within a larger settlement pattern, as guided by religious principles. Such an examination cannot help but investigate demographics, and, in doing this, will also inevitably reference sociological implications of certain religiously based demographic inquiries. But I hope to sidestep the relations between politics and religion—such a hydra is beyond my ability to wrestle, and hopefully my commenters will tell me how good a job I’m doing at eschewing political partisanship. The built environment offers enough interesting manifestations of religious faith on its own.
Just as the nation collectively will not and probably should not ever be able to divorce religious considerations from their bearing on self-governance, we also seem fixated with how religiosity continues to evolve. Whether it’s the introduction of a new faith through immigration, the creation of one by an influential guru, the dissolution of another, or an emotional schism within a single denomination, religious matters preoccupy us. Even a newspaper targeting a relatively secular part of the country—the New York Times comes to mind—still regularly offers a section on Religion and Belief, no doubt because it sells ad space and commands readers, at least as much as any major print media is finding an audience in this desperate time for the industry. I am certain that other organizations perform more probing macro-level studies of religion in America, but the most thorough of the widely known ones that I’m aware of is the Pew Charitable Trust, whose Religion and Public Life Forum aims to scrutinize issues of personal faith, with particular consideration to how they reflect on the distribution of the population.
I couldn’t help but ponder over my previous glances at Pew and other religious surveys when I noticed the parking lot of a mainline Protestant religious denomination in an outlying, suburban section of Indianapolis, shortly after the church’s services had ended:
I’m capturing about two-thirds of the parking lot through these photographs; it holds a little over forty spaces. Clearly not a big one. But the tight-knit congregation manages to fill it on most Sunday mornings (a few members had already left at the time these photos were taken). Yet on most given Sundays, the sanctuary remains only about 30% occupied. This discrepancy by no means intends to discredit the leadership of the church, or the members themselves. Many parishioners have been committed to the church for decades, and they come from a diverse array of professions, backgrounds, and ages. But one member made a critical observation to me, which I will paraphrase: “We get the same number of cars in the parking lot that we did twenty years ago. The only difference is those cars were full of four or five people, and now most of them hold only one or two.”
The conclusion one can draw is simple: large families of parents and children used to go the church, and now most of the kids have grown up and moved on. Many of them, no doubt, have left the area; Americans are famously predisposed to relocation. In his Restless Nation: Starting Over in America, James M. Jasper exalts the American thirst for self-actualization through routinely changing our domestic surroundings; we find a new home, on average, once every five years, and in a typical year, 20% of Americans move, far more than the Dutch or Germans (4%), the British (8%), French and Japanese (10%). Jasper asserts that “Geographic mobility has been a constant in American History” (p. 72). No doubt these numbers—the highest rates in the non-nomadic world—have lagged a bit in recent years due to the recession, but the 2010 long-form Census surveys that ask a householder’s place of residence five years ago will surely reveal similar trends.
That’s fine, and it should come to no surprise to anyone who has seen a dear friend or family member grow to adulthood. But how does that reflect our perpetually diversifying assortment of religious faiths? Did the aforementioned church in Indianapolis shrink solely because the kids moved away from home? What about the ones who stayed? According to the last year’s Pew study Faith in Flux, slightly under half of Americans change religious affiliation at least once in their lives. Of those 44% surveyed who do not currently belong to their childhood religion, the largest group (15%) were raised mainline Protestant but have switched to a different Protestant faith. Other shifts, such as those raised Protestant and now unaffiliated (7%) and those raised Catholic and now Protestant (5%) clearly trail in influence. How does this play out in church memberships? The mainline Protestant denominations (such as the one featured in the above parking lot) and the Catholic Church are feeling the biggest pinch. A recent article by U.S. News and World Report reveals that the United Methodist Church has watched its membership drop one-fourth over the past few decades, and the percentage of Americans affiliated with Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and the United Church of Christ has dropped from 19% in 1990 to less than 13% today. Conversely, the nondenominational and unaffiliated Christian churches have grown astronomically over that same time frame, from 200,000 to over 8 million. This statistic suggests that the preponderance of the 15% who have switched from one Protestant faith to another did not move from Lutheran to Presbyterian, or Methodist to Episcopalian; they shifted away from those denominations altogether.
The growth of the megachurch deserves its own report, which I hope to engage in when I have accumulated better photographs and more research. But the spatial distribution of the mainline Protestant versus the nondenominational only requires a careful eye: overwhelmingly the older central cities host the Lutherans and Methodists—or the Catholics—and the low-density suburbs are home to the nondenominational, often Evangelical houses of worship. And, by and large, old central cities have a flat or declining population and the newest suburbs, particularly the exurbs, enjoy the bulk of a metro region’s population growth. A fair amount of a church’s vibrance may dependent on its bricks and mortar: the exurbs, with their affordability, relative homogeneity, and usually superior school systems (often a reflection of that homogeneity), attract the younger families, who left the roost for a home five miles away from where they grew up—that aging neighborhood where Mom and Dad might still live. It’s a match made in heaven (pun obviously intended) for Evangelical start-ups, because the land to host their spacious, often unadorned structures—and the parking for all those the full minivans—is much cheaper in the low density purlieus. Meanwhile, the mainline churches near downtown struggle to operate their aging, expensive-to-maintain facilities. And even though their attendance is plummeting, they still have parking problems—partly because they never had many spaces to begin with, but also because the number of cars is not shrinking. Vehicles going to the local Presbyterian church are just filled with middle aged and elderly folks in pairs or solo.
How does this Protestant shift play out in a city like Indianapolis? Drive around downtown, just as you would in Lower Manhattan or Tupelo Mississippi, and you’ll see the venerable, ivy-covered brick or stone tributes to European heritage in those Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. Some of them are functioning quite capably: the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral operates from an impeccably maintained structure sitting respectfully along Monument Circle, in the heart of the Indianapolis. Other mainline denominations have been less fortunate.
This French Gothic sentinel presides over Meridian Street just a few blocks north of the Circle. It housed the Methodist Episcopal Church when first constructed in 1906, but the church departed in 1947, long before the documented shrinkage of mainline Protestant denominations. In fact, the entire denomination succumbed to a merger with what eventually became the contemporary United Methodist Church. The church building housed Indiana Business College until spatial constraints required the college to seek a new campus in 2003. How has this Indiana limestone institution survived into the twenty-first century?
Condos. Developers removed the back quarter of the building and provided a fenestration reflective of the 27 units that Meridian Arch now contains. Other angles demonstrate the reuse more effectively:
The sign in front of the structure promoting the condos suggests a wide price range for the units, from the high $100,000s to $900,000s. My suspicion is that the priciest units enjoy the vaulted ceilings and arched windows with restored grillwork lintels. Cheaper ones are in the new section in the back. Orthodox preservationists may shake their head and dismiss this as a tacky façadectomy, but fellow blogger INarchitecture recognizes (in far more artful words than I could hope for) the respect that adaptive re-use architects Browning Day conferred onto the original structure, echoing some of the design details without attempting an ersatz replication of the aesthetic. The magnitude of the alterations forfeited the structure’s eligibility for the National Register, but it remains a viable building, boosting downtown’s residential population and retaining more than 50% of the original structure. If the old Methodist Episcopal Church building had found new life as an office, a fitness center, another school, or (Lord willing) a church, it may be easier to wag one’s finger at the current reinvention. But the most likely alternative, if not for the adaptive re-use into condos, was for the building to suffer demolition.
One can hope that this other church just two blocks away will enjoy a similar resurrection.
Yet again, another mainline Protestant congregation, the First Lutheran Church. But this one has sat padlocked and vacant for at least a few years; I can find virtually no information on its history. A few years ago, several developers had eyed the property with the hope of echoing the Meridian Arch condo redevelopment, but nothing materialized as the economy tanked, and downtown owner-occupied housing suffered a particularly devastating blow. Its fate seemed murky until the past few weeks, when Halakar Real Estate placed the sign out front (visible in the photos), suggesting that the perceived market for some form of adaptive re-use may have improved.
In both of the above examples, the congregations that closed their doors could not find a new religious group to buy or lease the space. Are these two defunct downtown churches indicators of the reduced demand for houses of worship in central cities? Are they a bellwether of the decline in mainline Protestant denominations in general? Downtown Indianapolis is not particularly declining; its economic health and diversity of activities are more confident than they have been in over half a century. The U.S. News and World Report article suggests that Lutheran and Episcopal and Presbyterian (and other mainline Protestant) leadership are seeking new ways to reinvent themselves to compete with the more relaxed, contemporary approach to praise and worship by which the large Evangelical and non-denominational churches are flourishing.
But there’s a possibility these leaders could be neglecting the advantages that are percolating in their front yards. Here’s a broad-brush generalization, tiptoeing around politics as much as possible. These European-descended mainline churches may still resort to age-old Eucharistic services, antiquated hymns, and beautiful but drafty old buildings that, as a friend of mine said, “smell like the 1950s”. But their interpretation of Scripture is often notably worldly, and Pew surveys reveal that the mainline Protestant denominations are far more open than most Evangelicals to the notion that other faiths can also lead to eternal life. The growing populations staking claims in urban condos such as Meridian Lofts tend to be well-educated, affluent, childless, and desirous of a culturally diverse community and classic urban environment, which they may prefer over low crime or superlative schools in the suburbs. These yuppies and empty nesters are willing to live blocks away from the soup kitchens and homeless shelters—the same ones that the mainline churches often operate. This by no means intends to criticize the nondenominational churches in the suburbs—quite frankly, the Evangelicals have done a far better job than mainline Protestants at assessing the confluence of demographics and theology and assigning it a place on the map. Meanwhile, the population base most likely to be attracted to the Weltanschauung of an Episcopal or Lutheran church is literally moving right next to these dusty old buildings, if their not staking claims on the ones that their church leaders have already abandoned!
All observations of America’s past suggest that we will continue to exhibit wanderlust and crises of faith well into the future. But only some religious groups will successfully move in tandem with our suitcases and choir robes. The great churches of yesteryear have a few choices: they may become showcases for adaptive reuse; mausoleums for extinct denominations; or laboratories for the resuscitation of spiritual practices that find their second life in a constituency that sees urban centers as fashionably modern and suburbs as old and stale. Hopefully the Episcopalians and Lutherans will find away to get these people, their own neighbors, into their net—they might not even have to offer them a free parking space.