By Mark Osler
I live in Minneapolis, where many of us enjoy the short summer by ditching the car and commuting to work on our bikes. My own bike route downtown takes me around the shore of a glacial lake, along an old rail line, and through a variety of residential neighborhoods with big houses and small. My meandering lets me get a better sense of the community and how it is doing as I pass new restaurants, failed businesses, street parties, and thousands of people out walking, canoeing, biking and just hanging out.
Last summer, I saw a city coming back from both a pandemic and a terrifying spate of destruction after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 (an event that occurred not far from my bike route). New apartments were being built. The parks were sparkling clean. My fellow bikers seemed to be everywhere. But I noticed something else, too: Churches that had closed their doors for good, or seemed to have nothing going on in the evenings—even Wednesday evenings– when I passed.
It was near dusk when I passed one of them, not far from Lake Harriett. The church was a handsome brick building in a prized corner location on the border between Minneapolis and Edina, a neighboring suburb. What caught my eye was an anomaly out front. The sign there said “Sunday Worship 10 am, Education Hour 11:30 am/Pastor ______.” I rode a little further, thinking that they might be between ministers, but something told me to circle back. I did, and noticed a yellow sheet tacked to the sign. Pulling close enough to read it, my heart sank: it was a demolition notice. It was going to become a “mixed-use development.”
I stood there, astride my bike, and imagined the little playground full of children and parents coming out to claim them after the education hour. These are the buildings that house our Sunday schools, our AA meetings, the Cub Scouts, the pre-school, the after-church potluck, the Wednesday night lectures, the book clubs. But no longer. After generations found kindness (and other forms of connection) there, the pandemic saw its death. No stone would be left upon another; every one will be thrown down.
And, of course, it is not just that church. In 2019, about 4,500 Protestant churches closed (while only 3,000 opened), and that was before the pandemic hit. We don’t have good data yet, but it certainly looks like the pandemic was a death blow to hundreds of congregations. Make no mistake: The death of a church is a death. My friend and mentor, the Baylor professor Bob Darden, once told me that churches have a soul, something that lives beyond the lives of any one minister or congregant. As I’ve gotten to know churches, I’ve seen the deep truth in that, and the tragedy in the passing from this world of that soul.
However, it’s not just churches that are failing. Shopping malls, fraternal organizations, and other places where people gather were struggling before the pandemic and decimated during it. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase “Third Places” three decades ago to describe those locations other than work and home where we gather and socialize; and it is these places that are dying as home becomes the workplace and the internet replaces pretty much everything- trends accelerated by the pandemic.
Some writers have acknowledged the importance of churches as third places, and the Aspen Group, a church design company, has even proposed reconfiguring churches to better serve as third places by creating “nooks, edges, hot spots and perches” near the lobby to encourage informal socializing. It’s a good idea, but hard to implement for aging congregations who are disinclined to reimagine their spaces in such a radical way—and no help at all to those like the little church by Lake Harriett that have already passed from this world.
Part of the downfall of third places, and churches especially, has been exclusion. Those third places that have suffered the most—churches and fraternal organizations, for example—are those that are perceived as excluding some people based on belief or background. Meanwhile, those with low levels of exclusion like a coffeehouse (where all it takes to get in is the price of a cup of joe) seem to be thriving. This comports with the reasons we know that young people reject church and faith—that they perceive it (often, but not always, correctly) as excluding LGBT people, people of color, or at least people who aren’t already certain in their beliefs. The Pew Research Center has convincingly found that the most common switch in faith is from identifying as Christian to not identifying with faith at all, and part of the reason is exclusion. The decline in churches reflects the decline of faith in the United States, as reflected in Pew polling data that shows only 64 percent of Americans have any kind of Christian identity (a striking drop from the 90 percent rate in 1972).
That may suggest a way out of this wave of dying churches: These congregations could transform themselves by opening up to new people and groups, by choosing openness over exclusion. That is a hard road, though. Over the past several years, I’ve spoken to several ministers facing the same conundrum. Their parishioners aged and young people stopped coming. In some places, they made efforts to attract young families; in others they just complained about ‘how young people are today.’ Looking out at a sea of gray, these ministers contemplated two choices: some kind of transformative effort that would re-birth the church, or to minister to the people who were left. Those considering transformative efforts faced a daunting challenge: If they changed too much, it would likely drive away those families who most consistently funded the church. If they did nothing, they would minister over a slow death of the congregation, and if they attempted a transformation, they risked a fast death.
Of those two choices—comfort for the remnant or risk-taking for the sake of those outside the church—the latter seems more Christian. Christ’s example was never one of comfort or of risk-avoidance. Still, how is that re-invention done? There are precious few sustained stories of success. In his book, Reinvention: Stories from an Urban Church, pastor Mark Whittall describes building up a successful church in a 145-old building in Ottawa. There, though, the project is described as a church plant in a congregational home that had been emptied out, rather than saving an existing congregation.
My own experience here in Minneapolis has shown me the hardships of reinvention. I became involved with First Covenant Church of Minneapolis, which was a historically significant congregation within the Covenant denomination. Founded by immigrants from Sweden, the church has a large building across from U.S. Bank Stadium (home of the Minnesota Vikings). Hollowed out as members moved to the suburbs, it faced extinction in the 21st century.
Many of the remaining members, however, committed to a re-invention led by music ministers from a suburban megachurch. In some ways, for a while, it worked: The old sanctuary became full of bold ideas and new people… well, to be honest it was full of bold ideas and half-full of new people.
Those changes jarred some remaining members of the church, and some left even as new members came in. The choice to include LGBTQ people fully in the life of the church led to more tumult and ultimately to being thrown out of the denomination. The church cycled through people coming in and out and then a disastrous transition of ministers. Today, the church has the same soul, but less of a physical presence– a small group on Sundays relying on one another for liturgy and support in the absence of any clergy at all. It is surviving, but as something very different than it was and far from the scale that was hoped for. Now, we are in a “brooding period” as we consider who we are and what we will be.
I don’t have an answer to this wave of church deaths. I do know that we have to honestly appraise the truth of this moment, and bring to bear the resources of Christ’s followers to consider and address what is happening. A worthwhile project would be to collect the tales of success to serve as role models for those churches considering transformation.
It’s important to recognize what is at stake. When I travel, I often visit churches in other places. I usually find the same thing: a thinning, graying congregation listening to a sermon that affirms their comfort but never challenges them in a meaningful way. I often love the music. I look around and see people who look like the ones I grew up with, in my generation and the one that raised us. The service ends, and I stand alone for a long minute, as people chat with those they have known for decades in little groups. I pretend to read the bulletin for a moment. No one approaches me. And then I walk outside into the sunshine on God’s day, out of a church that probably will not be there in a decade or two. And that is a deep tragedy; there will be no service of remembrance for those who die after the church does, because no one knew them in the coffeehouse that outlived that church.
—Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas (MN), and holds the Ruthie Mattox Chair of Preaching at First Covenant Church—Minneapolis.