Tuesday, June 22, 2010

REWIND: Full parking lots, not-so-full pews.

For the first time in the history of this blog I offer a re-run, but no worries—I’m far from syndication and, whenever I offer a repeat of an older post, it is only because I hope to improve upon it. The last time I published “Full parking lots, not-so-full pews” it elicited a reasonable amount of discussion (at least for me). The essay focused on the spatial distribution of main-line Protestant denominations (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists), most of which have a concentrated presence in the oldest parts of a city, often downtown or in the adjacent neighborhoods. Many of them have struggled to retain good membership levels, due to a changing religious landscape, decentralization of the population, and aging facilities. Some old churches in Indianapolis survive as their intended use; some of have been re-purposed as condominiums; others sit vacant awaiting a new life. Since the time of this post, I have had the chance to interview one of the parishioners from First Lutheran, a church downtown that has been vacant for several years and current is listed as for sale. This update of the March blog post will integrate portions of this interview with an enhanced analysis. For those who are new to the blog, I encourage you to read and comment; for the others, much will be familiar but new insights and feedback is always welcome, so read on!

The robust and always broadening cultural pluralism of this country almost guarantees that issues of faith will enter the public limelight regularly. 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 include a study on demographics, and, in doing this, will also inevitably reference sociological implications of certain religiously based demographic patterns. 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 cannot and probably should not ever 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 emotionally charged 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 commands readers and 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 confident 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 recall 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 within the Indianapolis city limits, 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 parallel 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 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 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 Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, 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 after I have acquired better photographs and more research. But the spatial distribution of the mainline Protestant versus the nondenominational only requires a keen 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 depend on its physical location: the exurbs, with their affordability, relative homogeneity, and usually highly-rated 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 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 most frequently 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 downtown. 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 institution built of Indiana limestone 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 faƧadectomy, but fellow blogger IN Architecture recognizes (in far more artful words than I could hope for) the respect that adaptive re-use architects Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Inc 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 nearly a decade. My interview with a long-term member of the congregation revealed many interesting details about this building for which virtually no information exists online. It originated from the 1870s, back when anything immediately outside of the mile square of downtown Indianapolis was considered suburban. The congregation at 702 Pennsylvania Street peaked after World War I, when leadership advocated the rescue of refugees and immigrants, giving rise to contingents of German, Lithuanian, and Estonian descent. By the 1960s, when my interviewee first became active at the church, the tithing population had declined at the same time that maintenance costs for the aging building was rising. Only one man new how to operate the furnace, and the pronounced fluctuations in temperature accelerated the deterioration of the sanctuary. Despite many challenges, the small congregation remained committed and diverse: all races and social classes were welcomed, from the neighboring homeless to yuppies, from federal judges to gay couples living in the gentrifying historic district down the street.

But the deck was still largely stacked against First Lutheran. Other unfavorable portents included the eventual cancellation of all Sunday school programs (not enough children to serve them), the lack of handicapped accessible entrances for an increasingly wheelchair-bound population, and, in the final years, a minister who made no effort to conceal his interest in re-branding the church as a house of worship targeting the gay community. In 2002, the Indiana-Kentucky Synod announced that it was closing the church; despite little consultation with the congregation, the Synod shuttered the building two weeks after the announcement. Nearly all of the thirty or forty regular members have remained in touch, and the majority still attends other Lutheran churches in the region.

First Lutheran has inevitably fallen into further disrepair: the roof already leaked before the closure, and now plaster is falling out. Homeless individuals squat on the patio and undercroft. 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 grim until recently, 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. But many old churches in even the most bustling of American downtowns are struggling to retain members. The US News and World Report article notes that Lutheran and Episcopal and Presbyterian leadership have been seeking to reinvent themselves in order 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 rely upon to age-old Eucharistic services, antiquated hymns, and beautiful but stuffy old buildings that, as a friend of mine said, “smell like the 1950s”. But their interpretation of Scripture is often deliberately worldly, and Pew surveys reveal that the mainline Protestants 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 just a few blocks away from the soup kitchens and homeless shelters—the same ones that the mainline churches often support or operate. This by no means intends to criticize the nondenominational churches in the suburbs—quite frankly, the Evangelicals have done a far better job 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 they’re not staking claims on the ones that church leaders have already abandoned!

The decline of mainline denominations none-too-subtly echoes the general decline of old inner-city neighborhoods. One is clearly symptomatic of another, and I’d venture that the later causes the former, rather than vice versa. After all, old religious buildings themselves aren’t driving the congregation away simply because they’re old: the members have simply left the neighborhood and found a church closer to their new home. Then the increasingly high-maintenance houses of worship slip into financial insolvency. The cash infusion generated by weddings becomes a saving grace, but the charm of an old church does not impel people to loosen their pocketbooks the way they might when they spot an old house in an urban neighborhood that could use some TLC. Simply put, a church does not spur reinvestment the way an old house would—which is why, in the case of Meridian Lofts, the church has become an old house.

All observations of America’s past suggest that we will continue to exhibit wanderlust and crises of faith well into the future. Other religious institutions will emerge or fade. The megachurch may someday seem like a museum piece. But only some denominations will synchronize with both our suitcases and our choir robes. The great churches of yesteryear have a few choices in order to avoid the fate of First Lutheran: they may become showcases for adaptive reuse; they may continue as mausoleums for extinct denominations; or they may operate as experimental labs for spiritual practices that find a second life through a constituency that loves everything about urban centers—the streetscape, the stores, the homes, the parks, the churches. 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.

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