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Published: Monday, 8/4/2008

Churches on the move

FIRST Unitarian Church of Toledo has moved from its decades-long home to a smaller building in South Toledo. Numerous congregations in the nation's urban centers are facing similar decisions, and the changed face of their neighborhoods is not the main reason for the consideration.

Attendance at First Unitarian dropped from 500 in the 1950s, when it was on Collingwood Boulevard, to about 140. Its new church on Glendale Avenue, the former South Toledo Baptist Church - which also relocated to a smaller building in Maumee - is single story with less than half the area of the three-story building it left.

This is not unusual. Membership at mainline churches has declined, forcing members to make choices that are difficult and often emotionally charged. When they do move, it often leaves hearts broken and relationships severed.

Some, though, like St. Mark's Episcopal, also on Collingwood, are determined to stay put. Likewise, Central United Methodist sold its building and now rents space in Collingwood Presbyterian Church, which is on Collingwood too.

When attendance drops, churches must find ways to cope with rising maintenance and utility costs. First Unitarian's utility bills could be as high as $70,000 a year; one winter month they were $7,000. They expect to save $40,000 at the South End site.

Clearly, changes in neighborhood demographics are not the sole reason urban churches move. Their massive structures were built in the late 19th century or early 20th century when large was the norm. It's a matter of economics, and with fewer people in the pews, it often makes sense to move.

Interestingly, the dilemma mainline churches face typically doesn't affect the nondenominational and mega-churches. Their experiences are the opposite, and some are gaining former members of the mainline congregations.

But since fewer people go to church anyway, mainline church membership is not being replaced. U.S. churches are losing more than a million members a year.

Not every mainline denomination is adversely affected, though. First Unitarian sold its building to a New York City-based Pentecostal church. That suggests then, that despite the losses, the church is hardly dead.



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