NYT New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches

October 26, 2020

Paddy Burke, 19, in the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The building used to be a Catholic church.

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

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