Some have claimed that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week (including all denominations and non-denominational as well). n estimated 30,000 congregations shut their doors in the United States from 2006 to 2012. Yet a recent study finds good news for churches overall—including the lowest closure rate of any American institution.
According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches. Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012. In other words, Protestant congregations appear to die at the same time new open -- a far different scenario than Rome. However, it is worth noting that denominational churches are the ones closing at a faster rate than non-denominational churches and more of the new ones opening are non-denominational.
The point is this -- there is a lot of real estate out there that was once considered sacred but now sits largely unused, empty, or has been repurposed for another but secular use. Now if that building is a warehouse style structure like many newer non-denominational buildings and even denominational ones, who cares? But what do you do with sacred art that cannot be taken down or all that stained glass or chancel appointments not likely to be reused? Look on eBay. They are for sale there -- at least a few of them. It creates a confusion and certainly a disappointment for the faithful when they see a church building decaying and empty or what was clearly a church used for secular, even profane, purpose. My sense of things is that this is but the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come.
While many of the buildings are in urban settings, many are also in rural settings. As a child my family and I drove past a sister church building, an old wooden structure with a steeple, that had been sold at auction and was used as a hog house on a farm. The steeple had been cut off but the line of the windows and the structure under what had been the steeple made it clear what it was before it was used for such an ignoble purpose.
But it does not have to be. While Rome has priestly scandals and a shortage of priests that drive some of their numbers, many of the other situations happen in neighborhoods and settings where the majority of the population does NOT affiliate with any church at all. I believe Jesus said something about the harvest being ripe. Think about it.