As LDS and other Christian congregations shrink, what happens to their empty buildings?

Historic Salt Lake City congregation sells its meetinghouse, downsizes and moves into another church’s space — an increasingly familiar trend.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A stained-glass window, titled "The Good Shepherd," at the First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

The cross had to be downsized — literally.

The giant wood-and-brass symbol of Christian faith, which hung for decades behind the pulpit at the First Congregational Church of Salt Lake City, wouldn’t fit in the group’s new worship space.

One of the first Protestant congregations established in the Beehive State — circa 1865 — was selling its 1960s meetinghouse on the east side and moving in with All Saints Episcopal Church down the street.

There, these Congregationalists would be meeting in a large space under the parish hall, but it was only 8 feet high, not the soaring ceiling that had drawn their eyes and faith upward for so many years. Thus, they had to saw off the cross.

(Marilyn Felkner) A large cross is displayed in the sanctuary at the First Congregational Church of Salt Lake City in November.

Before they moved, though, the churchgoers were distributing (or selling) parts of their sanctuary to others like relatives of a dying organ donor.

The stained-glass window “Walk to Emmaus,” which had been in their first historic church downtown, was going to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for use in a temple entryway. And their glorious pipe organ was promised to the Provo Community Congregational United Church of Christ.

(Rob Adamson) This stained-glass window, titled “Walk to Emmaus,” at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City is going to a Latter-day Saint temple.

Then, the beloved Foothill Boulevard structure, which has been a spiritual home and community center for generations of Congregationalists, their families and friends, will be razed to make way for an apartment complex in the housing-hungry Salt Lake Valley.

It had to happen, says longtime member Marjorie Kimes, since the congregation had shrunk from its 1970s high of 350 to 450 members to fewer than 100, with just 25 to 35 regular attendees. Some members have died, some haven’t returned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and others have just stopped coming, she says. “The building was just too big and expensive for us to maintain.”

Kimes remembers fondly when First Congregational was brimming with life, energy and love, along with picnics, parties and — always — prayers.

“The hardest thing,” Kimes says, with a hint of sorrow and nostalgia, “is thinking about it being bulldozed.”

She is not alone. Indeed, experts say, church sharing and demolitions are happening across the country.

Church-sharing trend

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. This building is going to be torn down to make way for apartments.

The average congregation in 2000 had 137 people, but today, the median congregation size is 65, says Religion News Service writer and editor Bob Smietana, citing a recent Faith Communities Today Study. “With 137 people, a church can afford to pay a pastor, have a choir, maybe even a youth pastor while still maintaining their building. At 65 people — or less than that number — the finances become trickier.”

Some churches wait till it’s too late, says Smietana, author of “Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, “using up their reserves or letting maintenance go until they run out of money and the building starts to fall apart.”

Most congregations haven’t “adapted well to this new reality,” he says, “and are often waiting for people to show up rather than thinking about how to engage with people who are far from faith or disengaged from organized religion or who don’t think that faith has anything to do with them.”

Others, like First Congregational, are exploring creative solutions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

There is too much church property and physical space “for the amount of people engaging in traditional church activities,” says the Rev. Mark Elsdon, a Presbyterian pastor who leads a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin and who just completed editing a book of essays on the topic titled “Gone for Good: Responding to the Wave of Church Property Transitions in Our Communities.”

It’s not that God or the church is going away, Elsdon says. People are just not looking for a traditional experience.

Church buildings used to be a hub of piano recitals, food pantries, support groups, neighborhood potlucks and voting booths, he says, so what will replace them? And what are the social implications?

In the next decades, tens of thousands of these properties will become something else, Elsdon says in an interview. “We need to figure out what to do that will provide the greatest social good.”

Because, he says, they are not coming back.

The Latter-day Saint model

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The American Heritage School is now leasing this former Latter-day Saint meetinghouse at 142 W. 200 North in Salt Lake City from the church.

What about Latter-day Saints, whose meetinghouses dominate the Salt Lake Valley landscape?

Though several congregations, or wards, might meet at different times in the same building, it would not typically be open for use by another religious group. Wards are geographically determined and rarely bigger than about 250 to 300 members. So if attendance gets too large, a congregation might be split; too small, and headquarters would adjust its boundaries.

Still, the Utah-based faith is not immune to the vagaries of real estate and population patterns. So, through the years, the hierarchy has had to sell or demolish many properties.

Looking around, you can see the familiar Latter-day Saint architecture in buildings that now are used as theaters, art studios, charter schools, and, yes, other churches.

The problem for the church emerged, says architectural historian and preservationist Allen Roberts, when some of the previous sacred spaces became, well, sacrilegious.

Some years ago, after a limestone Latter-day Saint meetinghouse was sold, the buyer turned one wing into a state liquor store, then punched a hole in the chapel wall to make it an auto body shop and “lined it with hubcaps,” Roberts recalls. “People hated it.”

Now, the church’s general policy, with some exceptions, he says, is to sell a property with a church on it, but either demolish the structure before it changes hands, or require the buyer to do so.

Nearly 50 years ago, Roberts cataloged some 600 Latter-day Saint structures, including chapels, tabernacles, Relief Society buildings and tithing offices. Of those, he says, more than 65% have been torn down.

“As I drive around, I see a 7-Eleven or a vacant lot where I used to see a gorgeous old Mormon church,” he says. “In my visual memory, I see building ghosts.”

Losing a home, but making a new one

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carla McIntire gathers hymnals at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

On Jan. 22, 1865, the Rev. Norman McLeod, a Congregationalist pastor in Denver, preached what is believed to be “the first gentile [non-Mormon] Christian sermon ever delivered in Utah.”

The group, which soon swelled to about 150, according to the church’s history, bought property from an “apostate Mormon” and built a plain adobe building that followers named “Independence Hall.”

Some 28 years after that initial speech, the First Congregational Church [originally called “The First Church of Jesus Christ (Congregational) in Utah,” dedicated its first building at 400 East and 100 South.

The third home on Foothill, built in 1965, was where Kimes worshipped and reared her three children, after moving to Utah with her husband. It was a center for the nurse and her growing family that included everything — from camps and concerts to blood drives and Bible studies, from Sunday school and interfaith services to baby baptisms and funerals.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Sunday school room at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

Now, Kimes and her mostly retired Congregationalist friends have made the space at All Saints’ St. John Hall feel holy by hanging banners and affixing the cross to the wall.

In the 1960s, the Episcopal congregation became so large, the Rev. Trace Browning of All Saints says, attracting more than 1,000 on Christmas and Easter, with an average weekly attendance of 300 to 400, the Episcopal diocese split it into two parishes, creating St. James Episcopal Church in Midvale.

All Saints has since dwindled to about 100 worshippers at services, down from its pre-pandemic tally of 180.

Members share the church with a small Sudanese congregation, too, Browning says. “We have a history of welcoming everyone.”

He wouldn’t be surprised, the Episcopal priest says, “if more churches do more of these collaborative arrangements.”

After all, creative churching, they say, is the way of the future.