In 2014, I read an article about a 119-year-old Lutheran church sanctuary in St. Louis that suddenly collapsed. It was a beautiful old Gothic structure that had once been glorious, but had been deteriorating for decades. The story seemed to me to be a parable about how the church is changing in today’s world. Perhaps even a parable about death and resurrection.
Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church was founded in 1849 by twelve German immigrants. In 1887, the congregation moved to its current location in the Hyde Park area of North St. Louis. The congregation completed a brick sanctuary in 1893, but within three months, it was destroyed by fire. The current building was completed two years later and featured red brick with stone trim in the English Gothic style with stained glass windows, buttressed walls, and steep slate roofs. It originally had two bell tower spires, but both were destroyed in a 1927 tornado. A school building was constructed next door.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church was built with a sanctuary that could hold 1,100 people. In 1895, it was the largest Lutheran church in St. Louis. In 2014, the congregation had only 150 members.
In 1989, lightning damaged the building, and the $85,000 in repairs were beyond the church’s financial means. The congregation relocated to the school building next door in 1995 because the church’s overall deterioration had pushed the repair bill to $3 million. The church opted for the more affordable task of remodeling what had been the school building’s bowling alley as the sanctuary.
On Friday evening, April 11, 2014, much of one wall and part of the roof fell in. The school building which now houses the sanctuary and offices of the church, as well as Better Learning Communities Academy, a charter school, were undamaged. The historical structure which once was crowded with people in fellowship, worship and music is now in ruins.
Metaphorically, this is true for many older congregations in the United States. Where ministry once thrived, the challenge is now to simply keep the doors open.
A recent study found that in 2000, the median worship attendance at US congregations was 137; now it’s down to 65. As church attendance shrinks, small congregations make up a growing portion of the US religious landscape. In 2000, 45 percent of churches had fewer than 100 in weekly attendance. That has climbed to 65 percent. And aging sanctuaries which were built for larger crowds are becoming an increasing burden to maintain.
But though Bethlehem’s church members mourn the loss of the old building, they are encouraged by Bethlehem Lutheran’s housing efforts in its Hyde Park neighborhood, their pastor said. In less than nine years, the church’s Better Living Communities, a nonprofit housing corporation, had built or remodeled 248 houses. The charter school which shares its building is still going strong. The church also boasts a boy’s basketball team, the Bethlehem Bulldogs. They refuse to give up and are seeking new ways forward through creative ministries to the neighborhood.
In a symbolic way, the church has moved out of the sanctuary with its beautiful stained glass windows and into the streets where the ministry to “the least of these” occurs. The gospel preached by Bethlehem Lutheran Church is made manifest in better housing and education for its neighbors. As the old structures of the church collapse, new ways of being the church in the world are arising.