EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Tradition compels us to close shop at Sightings for August, but we hope and intend to be back to greet September, ff., with you. However, we keep thinking of one special fact in the human condition and situation: sooner or later, every thing on earth will close and will not reopen. One does not need scriptural reminders of this; we just do our sighting and have evidence. Having read much about “decline” in religion—hereabouts, not always globally—evidences abound. What prompts this choice of topic this week was the combination of two headlines in The New York Times last Thursday. One was “An Ode to Shopping Malls” by Steven Kurutz, and the other was “Country Stores Look for Someone to Hand the Keys To” by Julie Turkewitz. The first story is about a film series which chronicles how malls, “pleasure palaces of days past,” are reaching their end as “a way of life”; the second, about the slow disappearance of small-town hubs.
Both seem to deal with secular, not religious, subjects. But churches (etc.) and cultures or societies are so intertwined that their stories overlap and get fused. The religious world is very much a subject or victim of change in its many forms and locations. The internet surveys this, not only in suburban-mall or rural cultures, but in cities, too. Thus, close to home, in my case, one fairly recent story is being lived out: “[Chicago] Archdiocese May Close Nearly 100 Churches in Next 15 Years.” Another offered a more ambivalent judgment: “Thousands of Churches Closing Every Year, but There Is a Silver Lining.” The latter, by Lisa Cannon Green of LifeWay Research, saw a cheery upside: “America is launching new Protestant churches faster than it loses old ones, attracting many people who previously didn’t attend anywhere.” LifeWay found that “[m]ore than 4,000 new churches opened their doors in 2014,” for example, “outpacing the 3,700 that closed, according to estimates from the Nashville-based research organization based on input from 34 denominational statisticians.”
What is more, said Ed Stetzer, then executive director of LifeWay, recently planted churches do better at attracting the unchurched than do existing churches. He observed: “In winning new converts to Christ, church plants are light-years ahead of the average church because of their focus on reaching the unchurched.” We’ll let readers pursue that topic with LifeWay, since we are for this moment (or month) interested instead in noting how churches and other religious institutions suffer or prosper depending upon their location, environment, and so much more.
Here is where the New York Times stories are revelatory. A few decades ago, almost no public institutions had better prospects than suburban malls. Kurutz notes that 1986 was the peak year for malls in America. Hollywood featured mall culture in films. Families organized weekend life with them as the attraction. Kids hung out at them. Now? Don’t invest in malls, and, if you don’t want to feel haunted, don’t stroll in these dead or dying palaces of commerce. As for rural and small-town life, let’s say that 1886 might well have been the peak for new enterprises which were created by and catered to country folk. No more.
Thousands of lay and clerical religious leaders and other spiritually hungry and ambitious citizens will engage their environments and find fresh ways to deal with them. But one plus factor in the change is this: heirs of the self-contented ruralists from back when town-and-country stores and schools and churches prospered don’t boast any more about their prosperity. They just serve as they can. And the boomers who once mega-prospered in suburban-mall cultures are now succeeded by more modest, but newly hard-working believers and builders, who experience “ups” and “downs” as they try to make personal, philosophical, and theological sense of their surroundings and possible destinies.