Sep 22, 2014

Churches outside of churches

Calvary Chapel, Johnson City, Tenn.
More than 10 percent of American congregations 
occupy buildings not originally designed as houses of worship. 
Not all churches are in churches in America.

There are many houses of worship in the country. Most were built to be houses of worship. Others were re-made for the purpose.

According to the National Congregations Study, more than 10 percent of American congregations meet in these re-purposed places. This includes 11 percent of African-American churches and nearly 13 percent of white evangelical churches.

This is not a lot, but enough to note. And these churches outside of churches are often noted. They're colorful and attract attention. Some capture the imagination. Others cause controversy. They are a curious and, in some ways, significant feature of the American religious landscape -- the literal landscape, as well as figurative -- showing something important about the shape of the religiousness and the diversity of America.

These churches outside of churches are an example of how, in America, religiousness is connected to diversity, and religious diversity is connected to the country's intense religiousness.

Of the 1,332 congregations surveyed in the third phase of the study in 2012, 39 were meeting in store front churches. This is about 3 percent.

Notably, the percentage of store front churches has increased dramatically since the late 1990s, when the survey found only 1 percent of congregations were meeting in spaces designed for commercial purposes.

There are also a lot of religious congregations meeting in public schools, renting the space from the school districts and re-purposing them for weekend worship services. Of the 1,332 congregations in the recent study, 12 were meeting in schools. This is 1.8 percent -- a steep decline from the 1998 survey, which found 5 percent of congregations meeting in schools.

The National Congregation Study shows that the number of store front churches has increased from 15 years ago, while the number of congregations meeting in schools has declined.

Religious diversity sometimes creates controversy, as with churches meeting in schools.
The reason fewer congregations are gathering in schools may have to do with school boards' and school districts' concerns about lawsuits. There are ongoing questions about the constitutionality of churches' use of public property. Some say that churches using schools amounts to a government subsidy for a religious group, violating the First Amendment.

While this is debatable, most schools would rather avoid being the plaintiff in the case to settle the legal question.

In New York, rules were recently changed to bar churches from using school buildings on weekends. One religious group sued for the right to use the space. The federal appeals court ruled against the church and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In Hawaii, a pentecostal church recently settled a lawsuit with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State over the church's use of public school buildings. The church, accused of not paying fair rent for the government property, agreed to pay $775,000 to settle the suit.

It's not clear why store front churches are increasing, on the other hand. It may have to do with the economy.

Interestingly, only certain sorts of groups look at meeting in re-purposed commercial property. Mostly, these are churches designated by the American Congregations Study as Black Protestant churches. The study found no mainline churches -- here called "white liberal or moderate" -- meeting in store fronts. Only a few white evangelical churches use these types of buildings. Over the years, there were six times more black churches in store fronts than there were white evangelical churches.

White evangelicals, on the other hand, are more likely to meet in schools than other groups. There are some Catholic groups that have been noted in the survey using these public, re-purposed spaces, but only a very few black congregations and a few non-Christian congregations. White evangelicals are the majority of congregations renting public schools on Sunday.

Non-Christian groups have created some controversy, in recent years, in attempting to construct religious buildings suited to their uses. Mosques, in particular, have been controversial. According to the congregations study, non-Christian religious groups almost never meet in store fronts or schools. Christian groups seem to have more flexibility in occupying public spaces and re-purposing commercial spaces as houses of worship.

There's a strong regional difference in how this religious pluralism presents itself: Store front churches are mostly found in the South. The second most common region is the Northeast, which has about a twelfth the store front churches in the South, according to the congregations survey.

Congregations are also more likely to meet in public schools in the South. About half the churches meeting in schools are in the South, according to the study, with another third found in the West. Where there are only very few store front churches in the West, there are many meeting in schools.

The Northeast and the Midwest do have a few churches that don't meet in churches, but they tend not to be in store fronts or schools, but buildings designated as "other."

Nearly 7 percent of all congregations meet in "other" buildings -- including 9.4 percent in the Northeast and 5.4 percent in the Midwest. This has remained pretty consistent since the late 1990s. In 1998, the congregations study found 6.8 percent of congregations in buildings that are not built to be houses of worship, not schools used on weekends and not re-purposed stores. In 2012, there were 6.4 percent of congregations meeting in these buildings.

Little detail is given about these congregations in this fourth category, but I personally have seen churches in retrofitted houses, warehouses, auto shops, and strip clubs. There are also groups that meet in homes, at outdoor sites, at golf courses, and in bars. There are others that are even less traditional, like biker churches and cowboy churches.

America's religiousness means many diverse spaces are made into places of worship.

This is the nature of American religious pluralism. Religion is everywhere, and adapts to different places, different spaces. Religious groups make and re-make the American landscape.

The diversity of religions is related to the intensity of religiousness, and the religiousness is related to the diversity.

With such diversity, pluralism is sometimes contested, and sometimes creates controversy. Other times, it's not controversial, but is nonetheless noted as diverse congregations proliferate to the point that there are even all these churches that aren't even in churches.

The American Congregations Study looked at 1,332 congregations in 2012.
Presbyterian Church in America, Johnson City, Tenn.
America's religiousness and its pluralism mean many diverse spaces become places of worship.