Shifting Religious & Spiritual Delivery Systems: Closing Congregations

Signs of struggling or closed congregations are easy to find — for rent and for sale signs dot properties and groups like Bricks and Mortals in New York City have started to support the repurposing of religious buildings. Case studies abound but are there patterns to church closures? Are the patterns the same for Christian and non-Christian congregations? What factors influence whether closed congregations become high-end condominiums (like in much of greater Boston) rather than community centers or affordable housing? And how do the people — congregational leaders, city officials, real estate professionals, and others — negotiate these transitions and transactions? As the fraction of people in the United States who are religiously unaffiliated continues to grow, closures of churches and other sacred spaces with long-standing histories are likely to continue.

This project – currently focused in greater Boston – is exploring methodological approaches for tracking and analyzing the closing of local congregations. We view these closures as part of larger changes through which the delivery systems or mechanisms through which people engage with spirituality, religion and other existential aspects of life are changing. This project aims to build an approach to thinking about these closures as part of the changing spiritual infrastructure that creates opportunities and challenges for actors ranging from the public to religious leaders, architects, community leaders, planners and the state.

We presented an early report from this project, “Closing Congregations: On the Hunt for Patterns” at a virtual conference organized by the Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in May 2023.

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