New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches

The pandemic has thrown religious worship into turmoil. Some congregations spent months meeting over Zoom, uncertain if in-person worship could be safe. Others struggled to keep the doors open as contributions declined. A few have closed their doors.

But even before the coronavirus hit, many of the same issues were afflicting religious institutions; the most faithful worshipers have aged and church attendance has fallen in recent decades. Often, congregations have sold their buildings to eager developers, who might tear them down or partition the cavernous spaces into pricey condos.

But not every flock-less church faces an afterlife as living spaces stuffed full of “exceptional quirks around every corner” for hipsters. Many have become different kinds of creative spaces and communal gathering spots, often providing what might be considered “secular ministry.”

It is unclear how many religious buildings are repurposed. Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s 350,000 congregations — or 3,500 — close each year, based on an analysis from Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.

In January, before the coronavirus hit the United States, The New York Times began checking in with the people and organizations inhabiting eight former churches. Then, the buildings continued to serve and delight their communities. Now, their transformations may serve as prophecies for more change to come.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In the summer of 1971, William Christopher Cooper, a youth minister, gave his first sermon at the Bentonville United Methodist Church in northwest Arkansas. His father had been a minister, like his father before.

NEWARK — Audible, a digital audiobook and podcast service, has fully embraced the tech world’s affinity for proprietary slang.

Meetings are sometimes “scrums.” The offices are sometimes “campus.” If an employee accidentally calls their flagship building a “church,” colleagues might gently correct them. It’s the Cathedral. Specifically, it is “Innovation Cathedral.”

“It’s supposed to be our own space of inspiration, to take you out of the traditional work space and help people think about: ‘What is the next thing that we need to invent?’” said Anne Erni, the chief people officer (another term), who oversees personnel and facilities.

To make the former church suitable for office workers, Audible built a three-level structure inside the cavernous space. The structure, built in 1933, was once the Second Presbyterian Church, which housed a congregation founded in 1811. The congregation dissolved in 1995 and Audible began restoring the building in 2015.

“We removed as many religious icons as we could,” Ms. Erni said. “Our goal is not to make this represent any one religion, but to represent the diversity of thought and perspective that comes from having a diverse population.”

Still, the original stained glass windows are surprisingly humanist, with images of figures like Aristotle and Louis Pasteur as well as Jesus. “It’s things that bring it down to: ‘What are the great moments in history when things changed?’” Ms. Erni said.

Since the pandemic started, most employees are working from home. But the Innovation Cathedral waits, as so many other office buildings across the country do, for their eventual return.

Mr. Sigel, an economic historian, knows his stuff, both about monasteries with vineyards dating to the Middle Ages and the roots of the building he now inhabits.

“They had lots of chicken and biscuit dinners in the basement,” Mr. Sigel said, talking about the small congregation that occupied the space before it fell into disrepair in the 1970s. “I feel like it’s maintained its original sense of purpose.”

More than two decades ago, he stopped by the old building. When he asked to take a photograph, the woman who oversaw the property told him he could just have the whole place. (The building was free, but he had to buy the 16 pews, each costing $75.)

In 2000, he employed local Amish carpenters to take the building apart, piece by piece, and then move it 52 miles to his farm, which has served people outside during the pandemic.

“These are not difficult buildings to repurpose,” he said. “There could be all kinds of bars and restaurants and breweries. Long term, those are the things that have survived: that common bond of people taking communion — not necessarily religiously, but centered around food and alcohol.”

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