About eighteen months ago I explored an isolated example of a trend that has become increasingly common: the vacating of old church buildings by their original founding congregations. In some cases, the old church benefits from monumental architecture, making it suitable for adaptive reuse, particularly as an events planning or catering facility that can capitalize on its spacious, old, handsome sanctuaries. Sometimes the new developers transform these old buildings into grand workrooms for service-oriented businesses, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows presiding over a grid of cubicles (or, perhaps, the “open office” concept that has increasingly fallen out of favor). Sometimes they become atmospheric restaurants. And sometimes they get subdivided into multi-unit apartment or condo buildings, the cheaper units claiming the rectory or Sunday school space, while the “penthouse” units each win a small slice of that glorious nave and chancel.
Those cultural critics who predict (often with rapturous glee) the escalating secularization of America aren’t wrong: across the country, even in the Bible Belt, churches have been closing at an escalating pace. The lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic have only exacerbated the delicate financial situations many churches were already facing. But these statistics, grim though they may seem for the faithful, don’t reflect the full nature of church attendance or change in the United States. Closures have concentrated in the older denominations: Mainline Protestant (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.), Roman Catholic, and (to a more recent and lesser extent) Southern Baptist. Meanwhile, independent or nondenominational churches have opened at a rapid pace, as have smaller denominations, many of which have emerged as a response to theological differences amidst the established, formerly prominent Mainline Protestant denominations (ACNA, PCA). It’s nearly impossible to quantify exactly how many churches operate in the US, since such an inventory requires a universal standard for what constitutes a church. But most surveys still suggest that the rate of new church plantings slightly surpasses that of closures. Furthermore, while church membership is declining precipitously, the trend of “church-hopping” has grown dramatically. While this trend doesn’t bode well for loyalty to a certain ministry, many surveys suggest that new churches (the “church plants”) are better at capturing the formerly unfaithful or indifferent than are old, established churches.
Meanwhile, most metrics fail to account for the single biggest factor shaping who sits in the pews each Sunday: immigration. It’s common for old churches with static or declining congregations to sublease their sanctuaries to a fledgling faith community, often consisting heavily of first-generation immigrants. in these situations, the established Episcopal congregation may hold its services at 10 o’clock, while the Iglesia Bautista meets in that same sanctuary at noon, hauling in their own instruments, amps, and slide projectors. And, in more dramatic situations where the old declining congregation can no longer justify a building, it hands over the keys to the building (and the title and deed, through a sale) to the immigrant church altogether. That’s precisely what I documented in that blog article from eighteen months ago (linked above), where an established Protestant church building on the south side of Indianapolis (near where I grew up) is no longer Southport Christian. It’s now Chin Christian Church, the “Chin” referring to an ethnicity from Myanmar who have moved to Indianapolis in huge numbers over the last 25 years, seeking religious freedom after persecution by the Buddhist majority government. Indianapolis is the epicenter of the Burmese diaspora. The Chin Community Church has breathed new life into the 1960s-era building that Southport Christian used to occupy; for the first time in decades, the parking lot is jam-packed every weekend with Burmese Americans.
And what happened to Southport Christian? Well, it’s part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Mainline Protestant denomination that has been shedding congregants since the middle of the 20th century. Incidentally, Disciples of Christ is headquartered in Indianapolis, and the Circle City unsurprisingly claims a higher prevalence of Disciples of Christ churches than much of the country, as well as a seminary. Disciples of Christ has long been a pillar of American Protestantism, except that it cannot seem to stave its demographic decline. As I previously noted in the old article, Southport Christian has rebranded itself as Tapestry Church. But I didn’t really explore Tapestry that much; my interest was in the Chin community that has transformed this church (and many others on Indy’s south side).
So what has happened to Tapestry Church? Venture a few miles further south, and there it is:
It now occupies a medium-sized space in an apparently unnamed strip mall in Greenwood, a suburb of Indianapolis. The strip mall itself dates from the early 2000s, and, typical of commercial/retail construction from that time, features muted colors, ornamentations on the façade to preclude the boxy appearance, and a parking lot with abundant trees and landscaping. The owners have maintained it well over the years. It might not be Class A commercial space anymore, but if it’s class B, it’s still probably B-plus. That said, it’s got the vacancy rates typical of a less-than-spanking-new strip mall, and its anchor tenant, Stein Mart, closed all its physical locations, demoting itself to an online-only retailer after the COVID-19 lockdowns. The big vacant wall on the left of the photo below used to support the Stein Mart, which was present at the inauguration of this strip mall.
Lacking this prime tenant, the strip mall’s overall revenue stream has probably decreased significantly, and it may be harder for the management company to maintain the space as readily as it did in the past. Nonetheless, Tapestry Church has an appealing enough entrance at this point.
But it is just a strip mall. And that means this Mainline Protestant denomination has itself opted for an unquestionable real estate demotion: from discrete bricks-and-mortar to a tenant in a space that, twenty years ago, would have been unthinkable to host a church.
I’ve explored the storefront church multiple times in the past. I hardly want to criticize the concept. It’s a great way for a small congregation to get started, since they don’t need the cash on hand for a down payment on a physical building, which is almost certainly any church’s greater aspiration. But it’s a signal of a fledgling church, one that may easily fold if it can’t enough summon people to the offering plate during a six-month period (like the lockdowns). It’s equally indicative that the strip mall itself commands reduced-rate leasing agreements, since no thriving shopping center actively recruits churches as tenants; they don’t bring cars to the parking lot during the prime hours when people shop, so they rarely help a retail-oriented strip mall appear vibrant. It’s a partnership of convenience and frugality for both landlord and tenant. Though this strip mall has nationally-known restaurant/fitness chains like Starbucks, McAlister’s Deli, Bonefish Grill, Massage Envy, and Pure Barre, it’s safe to assume it’s not commanding top dollar for the leasable space.
With Tapestry Church as a tenant, it’s a testament to a denomination seeking radical measures to mitigate its continued demographic decline. I have no idea if the typical Sunday at Tapestry is bustling. At the moment they seem capable of supporting two separate morning services, which is more than one can say about most Mainline Protestant congregations. Good to know. But for a denomination that first emerged during the burgeoning American frontier era, one that peaked at nearly 2 million members in the 1950s, and has long boasted a prominent role in civic society (as have all the big Mainline denominations), it’s a bit jarring to see a Disciples of Christ church reduced to a storefront in a strip mall that no longer has an tenant anchor. If anything, instead of Tapestry, I’d expect a strip mall like this to host an immigrant congregation. But on the south side of Indy, they understandably seem to prefer subleasing in freestanding buildings where the original, established congregation remains the landlord. Like this:
If they grow enough, these Chin congregations build their own church. Or they take the space vacated by Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc. And, where new populations aren’t there to replace the old, the churches may not find a buyer to convert them to restaurants, offices, or apartments. Then they face a grimmer fate.