Culture At Large

When historic churches suffer Esau congregations

David Greusel

A recent article in an online edition of The Atlantic calls attention to a problem for many urban churches: the care and feeding of their old building is sometimes more than the dwindling congregation can bear. The article raises an interesting question: what are - or should be - the obligations of a faith community to maintain a building that has become too much for them?

This question has many dimensions: property rights versus community obligations; free exercise of religion versus coercion by the state; and so on. It invites thoughtful discussion, even disagreement.

When the government tells you you must do something, even if that something is not to tear a building down, that is what lawyers call “a taking.” You have been deprived of a property right - the right to level your building and start over. Or to sell it to a developer who will do the same. Courts have ruled in the past that preservation of a city’s cultural heritage is a legitimate reason for “taking.” Less clear is how or whether owners should be compensated for this encumbrance on their property. One might reasonably assert that an asset claimed by the public should in some way be paid for by those making the claim.

There is little doubt that historic churches contribute enormously to the fabric of cities. Sometimes they seem to be the only human-scaled building in a super-sized downtown.

But sometimes the value of the land beneath an urban church can exceed the replacement cost of the building, tempting a faith community to leave their drafty, leaky stone money pit for a newer, if more modest, building farther from the city center.

There are several troubling things about this scenario, and the issue of property rights is the least of them. For one thing, I am of the strong opinion that churches should not abandon the city, regardless of the leaky roof or the value of the land. God’s love for the city is found throughout Scripture, and we should love what he loves.

Second, a congregation in a historic building that can’t afford the heating bill has a larger problem than operating costs. The inability to meet expenses is a symptom of a sick congregation; one suspects that the Gospel is proclaimed a little less than boldly when a beautiful urban building can’t generate enough attendance to keep the lights on. What might be needed more than a downsized building is some new blood in the pulpit, or on the board, or both.

Third, and most troubling to me, is the inability of a struggling church to see what they have. To trade a magnificent stone building with carved wood beams and stained glass for a utilitarian space in midtown or the suburbs is to be an Esau congregation - selling its birthright for a mess of pottage. The reason cities and preservation boards value these old churches enough to list them is that they are magnificent. What church walks away from magnificence on the excuse of poverty? A church with an impoverished imagination and, I dare say, an impoverished faith.

In the final analysis, it is not property rights (or wrongs) that should determine whether an urban church stays or sells. It is a Biblical understanding of beauty, of God’s own extravagance to us, and of his enduring love for the city and its people that should compel a troubled congregation to seek to stay in a beautiful home and to cherish it, the same way Christ cherishes his bride, the local church.

(Photo by David Greusel.)

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