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Religion in America: (Not) Filling the Buildings

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 30, 2021 13:37

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Membership in houses of worship in the US is declining. Many factors are at play; I have a particular interest in this topic.

Here's something I'm not surprised to read: "U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time." The topic is of interest to many people. My older cousin Robert posted about this on Twitter. Robert does not attend regular religious services like I do, but I cannot say that I am uniformly saddened by this trend. 

There are many factors impacting this drop, and it's not just due to social distancing parameters of the past year: a decline in belief, a dislike of sermons, an aversion to be nagged about dues and tithes, discomfort in physically attending religious services, annoyance at the amount of time it takes to sit through religious services, and more.

An important aspect is that young adults are much less likely to affiliate with a religious institution than older Americans. Will this trend reverse, or is this a pathway to a major drop in the importance of religion in the US? 

People can cheer this news or wring their hands. But I have another lens with which to view this news, as "the Lost Synagogues Lady." I document Lost Synagogues on Facebook; I've written three books about this topic, and lead walking and biking tours as well. I've also documented lost churches and other houses of worship in NYC.

These buildings often morph into houses of worship for other groups, but there is a growing trend of former churches and synagogues being turned into residential homes, schools and more. Around the world there are former churches and synagogues that have become gyms, restaurants, museums, art galleries, stores, medical centers; you name it. 

Houses of worship typically need money to survive: they need to maintain (if not build) their structures, pay for clergy, pay for prayer books and ritual items. Membership and fundraising drives are the typical methods of financial upkeep. When membership falls, especially if it is drastic, then houses of worship shrink or close or merge with others. Then the buildings are sold, even demolished.

There are many painful decisions to be made when a house of worship's finances are dire. It's a heartbreaking decision and process. But it's really not easy in America to force, compel, nag, coax most people to come to services and join a congregation when they're not interested. We've no state religion.

I've asked my own two daughters, who are proudly Jewish but not interested in the local synagogues because they are peopled by congregants who are much older than them. My girls have told me that if there are teens and young adults, they're more interested. And many of their peers aren't even interested in having any connection with houses of worship. 

It appears to be that I will be documenting more and more lost synagogues and churches in the US. And believe me, there are people who are interested in this topic. Many do join congregations but others don't, yet they are interested for their many reasons (interest in history, architecture, nostalgia, etc.) 

Religion in America is ever-evolving. 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 30, 2021 13:37

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