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Congregations Seek New Purpose for Historic Worship Space

Many congregations in the United States are facing a common problem: not enough attendees or savings to maintain their historic buildings. Consequently, many churches are at risk of closing, many already in serious disrepair. In Philadelphia alone, 200 of the city’s 800 church buildings are at risk of shutting their doors.

Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit dedicated to protecting historic, endangered houses of worship, helps faith communities develop deals with outside entities that provide supplemental income. The Partners’ story is told in a 9 1/2-minute news video prepared by correspondent Saul Gonzalez for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source for cutting-edge reporting at the intersection of faith and society.

Faith community buildings, says Bob Jaeger, the president of Partners for Sacred Places, “can stay alive and they can be cared for and they can be shared in new ways and they can live out their public purpose in new ways.” Some of those new purposes include providing space for community arts groups, social service outreach and grassroots organizations. However, some of Philadelphia’s grand old worship buildings have been repurposed in a very different way. Real estate developer Alon Barzilay, for example, purchased the massive St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in South Philadelphia, and is spending $10 million to convert it into more than 30 luxury apartments for young professionals. Barzilay said the attraction of St. Matthew’s is “the exterior. The stone. The detail. That iconic clock tower that is so fantastic. You see it from everywhere. And its sheer size...this is a giant building.”

For more insight on the decline of U.S. congregations, see our feature article, “Best Resources for Demographic Research.” For more perspective on partnerships between congregations and social service organizations, see “Congregations and Social Service.” For ideas for community outreach and community service, read “Best Resources for Community Engagement.” Also see, “Take Action: Community Engagement.”

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