Can Sacred Space Revive the American City?


By Richard Reep

During most business downturns, nimble private business owners search for countercyclical industries to which they adapt. During this business downturn, the construction industry finds itself frantically looking for anything countercyclical. Private construction, almost completely driven by the credit market, has stopped, and public construction, driven by tax revenue, has also stalled. Religious institutions, however, seem to be continuing incremental growth and building programs, giving evidence to some people’s answers to spiritual questions being asked today.

Christian congregations surged in the 1990s, building megachurches in mostly suburban neighborhoods throughout the country. In some cities, mostly in the South, the urban megachurch also became common. Fundraising for these followed patterns that made lending a fairly straightforward risk; many were financed by a combination of patron contributions and lending from local or regional banks. By the early part of this decade, the growth of megachurches was a well-established pattern, and had become a sophisticated niche within the booming development and construction industry, as reported by Forbes Magazine in 2003.

Churches seem to remain one of the few work sectors for construction firms, architects and planners. This comes at a time when there appears to be very little new development, either private or public in Central Florida. Even small private projects that were funded by cash or private equity have been postponed or cancelled, as the money sits on the sidelines. Yet Christian churches continue to expand, forcing them to accommodate the needs of their worshippers.

Unlike in the past decade, much of this expansion is taking place in smaller congregations, and is funded mostly by donations, pledges, and bequests. “Our church task force is looking at creative ways to raise money for facility expansion,” commented Scott Fetterhoff, President of Salem Lutheran Church. “We have to have faith however that our congregation, and those looking for spiritual growth in a society with eroding values, will support worthwhile causes.”

Fetterhoff also displays a very worldly sense of pragmatism. ”Our expansion and outreach program will simply adjust to fit the available budget,” he adds. “On the bright side with a construction industry looking for work, that might allow us to do more for less.”

This is one example of several recent interviews with local church leaders who are considering a construction project, and all are echoing similar themes. Salem’s expansion includes new classroom space which seems part of a growing interest to provide flexible multi-purpose space for church-based education and community use – largely in lieu of public education. No one in Florida can ignore the continuous stream of news reports of its legislature’s continued reduction of funds for Florida’s public education system, and many in Florida are trying to find alternatives for their children.

Salem’s decision to expand is emblematic of other stories in the region. This incremental growth may signal a consolidation of sacred space into people’s lives, as we cope with the changes in our secular, consumer-driven culture. Salem Lutheran, and others like it, use the general uncertainty of our economic times to re-focus on faith based relationships. This is a true grass-roots trend.

On a larger scale, the evangelical movement continues to encourage church construction on a more global, top-led basis, in what is termed “church planting” by its leadership. The surge of interest in nontraditional forms of churches in the Western Hemisphere is well-documented and remarkable, as this Christian movement is supplanting traditional denominations, particularly Catholicism. Religion remains formidable in America, but much of it reflects more of a shift from one form of Christianity to another.

One organization, Capernaum Ministries, is developing a retreat for Christian pastors and ministers to provide leadership training to church leaders. Its founder, Jim Way, sees his mission as creating “a laboratory for building effective relationships between leaders of various denominations and independent ministries.” Way, a minister and founder of Capernaum Ministries, has affiliations with over 3,000 churches. “I see this as an opportunity to study, and solve, the problem of how the decline of the denominational church influence is affecting American culture”.

As cities have grown in the past several decades, the well-documented lack of sacred space has been notable as governments meticulously avoid any tangible form of religious expression, and mainstream religions find themselves in retreat. While public space in American cities has always been constitutionally secular, sacred space usually evolved with the development of cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Sadly, this has been missing from private development for some time. Church growth in the suburbs usually occurs after the fact, not as part of a planned community, for developers are loathe to forfeit profits on a choice parcel of land.

Church building has historically been a narrow niche market avoided by most design and construction professionals who have preferred more lucrative building types, like hotels or hospitals. If one believes in the organic model of city growth and development, this has been a serious deficiency.

But now, amidst lower costs for construction and more need for their services, some congregations seem to be taking stock, making plans, and acting. Salem Lutheran, like many, has members who come from the design and construction industries. These congregants know how to efficiently deliver a building, and are offering these skills to their congregations, while their regular businesses sit idle.

Whether global or grass-roots, the development of sacred space will need to overcome the substantial obstacle of financing, difficult in the best of times, using new means and methods. Nontraditional means including volunteer labor, outright donations, in-kind donations, and bartering will bring costs down to more affordable levels. As projects are realized, alternative practices to achieve affordability could result in interesting innovations.

If the current economic crisis begs some larger spiritual questions in people, then there may be a countercyclical trend towards investment in sacred space. Faced with lowered expectations and a lost sense of prosperity, people naturally long for some aspect of their lives that transcends the material. Church building, however incremental and small, demonstrates that sacred space is important to enough people to do something about it. Their actions speak loudly in these uncertain economic times.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.