Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.
There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.
However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.
So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?
It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.
Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?
So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:
When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.
Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.
"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "
Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.
So what is going on here?