Historic urban churches beginning to face new set of problems

Reverend Clarence Wallace has been with Carmel Presbyterian Church (map) in Avondale for 32 years. As an African-American growing up in the south during the civil rights movement, he experienced both segregation and integration first-hand. These life experiences helped to mold the high level of social consciousness that is still with him today.

“I’ve worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, witnessed Klan rallies, and was working in Harlem when Martin Luther King was stabbed. I could tell you many stories.”

Today, however, it is the story of the modern day ‘urban church’ that keeps him occupied. An unfinished story filled with both hope and adversity.

In Avondale, it is virtually impossible to miss the diverse collection of historic churches that line the streets of the neighborhood. However, while their stunning architecture is viewed as an asset, there are also challenges that these places of worship face including competition from mega churches, declining parish sizes, tight economic conditions, high maintenance and utility costs, and growing social needs from their members.

Built in 1890, Carmel Presbyterian brings along with it a unique set of financial challenges. Upkeep of the historic building is extremely expensive, and high utility costs are placing a burden on the church which is already devoting most of its resources to social and community development. These challenges, together with an economic recession that has hit neighborhoods like Avondale particularly hard, have created a difficult financial situation for ministers like Reverend Wallace.

“The poor continue to come in with more social needs than spiritual needs, and the costs keep rising. The urban church is being challenged as never before with this economic recession,” explained Wallace. “What would be viewed as a cold in a suburban church can be viewed as pneumonia here in the urban core.”

The church’s situation is complicated further by the fact that 75 percent of the congregation comes in from outside of the neighborhood. The group, most of which are originally from Avondale, has stayed loyal to the church over the years. The church has been seen as one of the few constants in the neighborhood during otherwise troubling times, and Wallace views the emigrating parishioners as part of the solution to helping bridge both the economic and social divide.

“We serve different people with different needs and sometimes it becomes difficult to meet these needs, but whether affluent, working class, or poor, they all worship one god and this is the common factor that brings them together…and with time this can help to benefit the entire community.”

Wallace emphasizes that while it is extremely challenging during these economic times, giving up is not an option.

“Is it easy? Certainly it’s not easy, but leaving would never cross my mind.”

  • The congregation might be loyal now but the next generation? It’s going to get tougher as new generations switch to churches in their their new communities & consolidate in the weird (to me) mega churches.
    One solution for the traditional neighborhood churches is banding together for mission work.
    CAIN (Churches Active in Northside) is a good example.
    It brings together traditional Protestant churches, Catholic churches & (for lack of a better term) “new” churches.
    I don’t know if they are exclusively Christian – that’s just all there is in that neighborhood.

  • I find the mega churches to be a rather odd phenomenon as well. In most other areas of our society people seem to be getting back to neighborhood-level operations of their life. Localism seems to be alive and well, and people seem to have a great desire to have a strong sense of community in their neighborhood again.

    The mega churches seem to go against all of that, while these smaller churches were designed to be exactly that – neighborhood churches. I wonder if a similar shift back to the neighborhood level will occur for people spiritually as it has in so many other facets of life.

  • Kevin Wright

    It’s also important for churches like these to begin considering additional ways to make their building more financially viable. Often times they have quite a bit of unused space that can be turned into something like a coffee shop or deli. It also might be smart to look into how community gardening can somehow be tied into the extra space these buildings have available. I know that one church in Avondale is adding a full-service kitchen that will be used to teach cooking classes with vegetables grown from their own backyard.

  • Even if people return to their neighborhoods for church, there’s no reason to believe they will return to the traditional denominations.

  • Indeed, many churches need to find ways to leverage their underutilized spaces. A lot of churches expanded in the 1950s and 60s, usually by adding classrooms and large kitchen and dining facilities. These are great spaces to lease out for community events, daycare centers, preschools, adult education programs, or after school recreation (many churches have playgrounds for instance). Ultimately though, some congregations are going to have to merge, or at least consolidate their facilities. I don’t generally advocate converting churches to residential use, especially larger ones that aren’t particularly suited for it, but even something like a community theater a senior center might be possible. The real trick is figuring out what to do with the sanctuary. It’s a grand space that is not suited to being divided up or repartitioned like many other rooms might be.

  • Kevin Wright

    I agree Jeffrey, you don’t want to tamper with the sanctuaries, they’re just too beautiful, but lets not count out these churches just yet. They are extremely important to these neighborhoods in terms of worship, social services, safe havens, and community. Carmel Presbyterian has had a mini credit union in it for years. It was initially started as a way to provide credit to african-americans who were not getting it through mainstream banking institutions, it is still operational today and is an important part of Avondale.