In a process that’s been going on for decades, church buildings have been sold and repurposed. Part of the reason is the fact that spirituality has come to resemble a free market and there’s increasing competition from the Nones. Thinking back over a lifetime of attending various services, many of which seemed to do nothing more than demand I pull out my wallet, I can understand this lack of public engagement with established religions. At the same time the rather shallow, but emotionally based evangelical tradition continues to grow, largely based on the emotional payoff it gives. Ironically, it makes the claim that it’s the doctrine responsible for this appeal, but it seems more likely that it’s the way the doctrine allows you to feel about yourself that’s the key. And still the wallet comes out as the mega-churches grow.
There’s a profound beauty in dereliction. Some of the more solidly built structures—for even the way a church was constructed was a theological statement—have lent themselves to creative reuses. I’ve visited churches converted to used bookstores, and this seems fitting. The trade-off of doctrine for knowledge is appropriate. In Pittsburgh, years ago, I was intrigued by the Church Brew Works. Occupying a closed Roman Catholic Church, the brew pub is a trendy gathering place and the titillation of drinking in a once hallowed location is part of the draw. People find such irony irresistible, it seems. Better than letting an abandoned building simply fall to ruin. When it first opened some were scandalized—a lingering belief in sacred places may account for this. People were married here. Baptized. Funerals were held.
While walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood recently I found a church building that has been converted to a spa. The idea struck me as so counterintuitive that I had to think through the implications. Churches, for all their faults, are places advocating spiritual growth. Whether or not it takes place is quite a different question, of course, but this is all about interior life. Spas are about the surface, physical beautification. Indeed, often personal pampering. This is building space come half circle. An edifice built of heavy stone, implying the gravity of the business inside might have eternal consequences is now a place to beautify the body. Perhaps the building itself has gone through a similar process. What used to advertise to the world that depth could be found here has now become merely an exterior. Market forces dictate what it will become on the inside.