A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine issues facing religious congregations, neighborhoods, towns, and cities where houses of worship are falling into disrepair or vacancy. View selected videos and browse all essays here.

Houses of Worship and Religious Architecture: Identity, Place, and Effects of Repurposing

Frederick Rucker Jr.

Houses of worship and other religious architecture contribute to our soul, our personal outlook on life, and our spiritual well-being. They contribute to the community’s character and awareness of good, bad, truth, and life. Those raised in places of worship associate their emotional state of mind, sense of hope, faith, and community with these types of architectural structures. The home, school, office, and church all illustrate the ways that our spiritual and psychological state becomes naturally associated with the revered places we inhabit.

We revere the physical embodiment of these religious structures long after they fade from our visual landscape. For example, I offer a silent prayer of thankfulness for Friendship Baptist Church when I pass its 130-year-long original location on the corner of Mitchell Street and Martin Luther King Jr Drive in Northwest Atlanta, since this is where my family first introduced me to religion and the Bible. Today, the church’s old location is the home of the Mercedes-Benz Arena. During the church’s best future land use experience and transition to its new home, members had mixed emotions as they left the church.

As churches transform through construction, disrepair, and destruction, the community it caters to transforms as well, and best land use projects must be adapted. When architecture succumbs to time, the emotions and identity represented by that physical dwelling produce feelings of joy and pain. It is a fact of life that all things go through some form of physical transformation and spiritual transition as they age. Church architecture should be prioritized for best land use opportunities as communities evolve, so that they too can continue to serve and meet the needs of those in the communities. In some cases, a plan to continue significant missions work in the community is the appropriate best land use. In other cases, community development trends may suggest non-religious, revenue-generating businesses may be the best land use for the vacated church.

Land Use and Religious Property Repurposing

I will explore some constructive religious land repurposing options that our buildings of reverence could evolve into to meet the needs of the community to benefit the next generation’s spiritual health and well-being. These best land use initiatives for vacated houses of worship require codified laws and financial commitments to ensure generational success. These initiatives could have long-term grandfather clauses in their code to ensure that governmental commitment is codified and that all vacated houses of worship have the funding and support to help sustain the positive mental and social health resources that are fundamental to the stability and equity of all communities when vacated houses of worship are present.

One best future land use project that a community and a government could work toward together would be to first determine how much available unused church real estate exists in the targeted area. Then, working with the congregation of ownership, they could implement the missions’ programs and services that generate revenue and traffic for a community in those buildings, depending on the congregation’s presence or lack thereof. Community development funding could be used to subsidize these specialized best future land use projects and eliminate the eyesore of an abandoned church. These community development dollars would target available vacant church buildings and their square footage to determine what is best for each community. It would be a sin to tax-paying citizens to not devote community development resources to projects related to utilizing vacant church buildings for good purposes because the structures are available, the community needs are urgent, and the church building — whether for congregational or public service use — should always be a sponsor of positive impact in the community in which it stands.

Churches are not just architectural structures used for Christian worship. Even religious canon suggests that a church building or house of worship is not nearly as important as the good work and habits of those who inhabit it. Therefore, if the building isn’t as important as the work within, then we must shift our focus and perpetuate other community preservation programs, like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to maintain the church’s presence through community service.

Partnerships like this not only support community needs, but also unite the community and can offer local outlets for other national house of worship preservation projects that also meet the best future land use requirements of our constantly changing local landscape. If revenue-generating services are implemented as a best future land use for a vacated house of worship, then those revenues could be reinvested into the community it serves for common area improvement projects like clean public spaces, landscaping maintenance, sidewalks, infrastructure capital funds projects, and other best future land use investments that ensure the community’s real estate market values grow incrementally and that we perpetually reinvest in community equity. One of the most common signs of plight in a community is trash and disrepair in public spaces — these revenues could be used to maintain public curb appeal and other community features that impact property values and produce the best land use to help maintain community property values.

Currently, there are thirty-four churches for sale in the state of Georgia with an average sales price of $1.7M, according to the most heavily trafficked commercial real estate marketplace. With an average of 20,000 square feet per property, there’s plenty of room for productive contributions to the community if the building is repurposed for good works that reinvest revenue in the community. These best land use strategies can be directed and funded by federal, state, and or local grants and other municipal budgets, directed by democratic vote, such as those in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Role of Government and Houses of Worship as Community Centers

Churches and houses of worship are faith-based service centers, just as government is a service center. Most people are not aware that the government’s role in America is to manage the best land uses for our national infrastructure, in addition to public policy formation, taxation, and policing. A number of non-profit development corporations also focus on redevelopment of houses of worship, including, nationally, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Enterprise Community Partners’ Faith-Based Development Initiative. Ultimately, coordinating efforts like those will fall primarily to local governments. With the coming wave of closings and the potential for mixed-use projects, more municipalities should begin developing initiatives whose sole focus is on the care of the real estate of houses of worship.

The primary objective of the municipality’s vacant house of worship grant program in Maryland government’s Faith Community Advisory Council is to help the church congregation stay connected to its community through mission programs by providing seed money to support the church operations as new best land use initiatives are implemented. An active church adds value to a community in ways the dollar can’t.

Construction projects are often categorized by tiers of finish selections. For example, if you’ve ever been a home shopping Buyer at a new residential development, you may recognize their use of Tiers 1, 2, and 3 to distinguish between various categories of cosmetic finish selections. Things like crown molding, judges paneling, or chandeliers may be a Tier 1 option versus basic molding, no molding, light dimming features in the Tier 2 selections category. Tier 1 finishes are usually high-end, top-of-the-line, luxury finishes, while Tier 2 will be your average finishes and your more popular home buyer selections. Tier 3 is usually your economical, more basic set of finish selections. I use tiers to propose categorization of vacant churches and houses of worship to help church and municipal leaders determine the scope of change in management needed to transform the vacant house of worship into a more functional best future land use facility as well as set the expectation of the degree of funding and programs that may be expected of its post best land use function.

Tiers of Constructing Community Centers from Religious Property

Architecture, through its very discipline of learning, teaches the student to consider the life of the structure and what it represents to the community. Houses look inviting, shopping centers look convenient, gas stations look quick, and churches look reverent. Churches and houses of worship that deserve historic preservation because of their legacy in a community should be considered the highest level of preservation priority. For the sake of exploring the initial decision-making process of determining its land use, I have labeled these well-preserved churches and houses of worship as Tier 1. It is likely these houses of worship are still operating in their best land use scenario and Historic Preservation funding would help carry on the tradition of the church and the community. The congregation and Board of Trustees can advance their plans to vacate for expansion or relocating reasons and yield operations and control of the real estate to the governing municipality.

There are several solutions and new best land use options to allow a vacated church and house of worship to continue to serve its community in social and economic equity. One great use of a vacated church is to make them community conflict resolution centers, mediation meeting rooms, or virtual login locations for Zoom and other virtual meetings. The vacated congregation could extend their church missions by adopting a faith-based conflict resolution center, which would open doors to federal grant funding to keep the church doors open while the church expands in outreach and relocates to a new home. This may be a partnership with the judicial system and vacated churches and houses of worship in its jurisdiction.

This Tier 1 level would call for funding and support similar to that of the National Trust and Historic Preservation Fund. In my proposed Tier 1 assessment, designation of a church or house of worship would be granted to landmark churches that have been documented in public events, the architectural structure has been well maintained, or it is an iconic landmark for the community.

At the Tier 2 designation level, assessment of the current congregation’s community development growth strategy should be reviewed as the congregation is in the process of vacating. This mid-level Tier’s target objective would be to create resources, community services, and light commerce. If there are no education or faith-based missions planned, this Tier may be a good option for a cafe, a bookstore, or youth enrichment businesses, like a dance studio and after-school program may also be good options for best land use options that continue to draw people to the house of worship for productive life activities. Depending on whether the church or house of worship decides to maintain operations and control of the operations, it will give the church an opportunity to expand its outreach, instead of just relocating it. Tier 2 level community reinvestment level also allows the church to maintain its current local operations for those who may not be able to get to a new location as easily, while also reaching new communities in the region when their new location opens. Tier 2 also yields the option of becoming a full-time community service center if it is determined that the best future land use is realized by the municipality’s control of the operations.

Tier 3 and 4 would be levels of assessment that consider governmental control of the land and its operations. Tier 3 converts the church or house of worship from a non-profit land use to a for-profit land use. They would be offered to new and existing businesses as a shared workspace option. Depending on the square footage of the church or house of worship, leased professional and service-oriented businesses that align well with the church’s faith-based missions could be offered municipal subsidized lease rates for their lease term, funded by community reinvestment dollars sourced from municipality budgets. At the Tier 3 designation level, the building would be renovated and used as a community small business initiation center. Churches have always been known as places to meet people with the intentions of doing good. Small business centers can serve a similar purpose and help bring identity to the community. This tier allows the community to continue to form and maintain a positive reverence for the church or house of worship, despite the fact that its best land use has evolved with time to meet the tone of its new generation of residents and their needs. It is important that the overall objective of the operations within the converted house of worship is to invest in the community’s growth and productivity by guiding the best land use into activities that reinvest in that community and yield positive equity.

The Tier 3 vision is not limited to a homeless shelter or some low-budget charity center vision. Instead, this vision for Tier 3 best land use designation would be an investment of quality that reveres the house of worship architecture and blends its renovation into the new look and feel of the community for the purpose of modernizing the community and attracting new commerce. Some features of community service that would encourage community engagement for the less fortunate and the business owners is to hire and train those in need of work and housing in the area to work in those businesses that operate from within the vacated and converted house of worship. The municipality of jurisdiction can subsidize their income and training expenses for the hiring business as a way of reinvesting in the residents and providing new, productive work opportunities for those in need of work or housing. Tier 3 designation would also be the appropriate phase to incorporate housing options for a two-fold community benefit, one being revenue from new rental housing and secondly, to address homelessness for families with small children who need a fresh start. Appropriate housing and living standards would be of the utmost importance and a required commitment of anyone who’s a beneficiary of reinvestment funding and subsidies.

Tier 4 designation would be given to any church or house of worship which has been vacated and is in need of renovation or demolition. If a vacated church or house of worship receives a Tier 4 designation, the municipality takes control of the land to meet the immediate needs of the community through social service programs. The land would be renovated on a more budgetary scope because tax revenues and municipal budgets would be used to fund the repurposing of the building to open community-accessible social services. Programs like the Workforce Development Program offered by the City of Atlanta could offer continuous improvement programs with community development dollars or computer-networked access to training for remote learning and work opportunities.

The Tier 4 designation would be all about uplifting those suffering in communities where vacated houses of worship have created community plight. Starting with the least privileged in our communities, opening the doors of vacated churches and houses of worship to the homeless and mentally challenged and abandoned not only serves the struggling individual, but it also helps the community by improving its curb appeal and creating safer roads and sidewalks, while providing structure and positive work habits for participants. This Tier 4 designation would include programs that create opportunities for work details that include business skills like budgeting, planning, and implementing continuous improvement plans like cleaning, painting, preparing event spaces, and other customer service needs.

A vacated or abandoned church or house of worship is the perfect commercial real estate to use for hands-on training in partnership with our local Trade Unions, which are governed by Trade Commissions on the State Level. Trades such as plumbing, electrical, flooring, drywall, and painting are always skills that can be taught and used for income by those who would be participants in the Tier 4 house of worship community service offerings. At the Tier 4 designation, vacated houses of worship could become the community’s own network of home improvement service centers, where residents can be connected to trustworthy trade professionals at reasonable prices to perform quality home improvement installations that meet or exceed local building code requirements. Tier 4 designation elevates the best land use of the vacated house of worship into a resource center for goods and services.


People have very mixed emotions about using a church or house of worship for anything other than worship, however, it is not a bad thing for a church building to be repurposed for the best land use of the community. All architecture has an expected life cycle. We must all be prepared for its change from new to old, to new again. Churches require revenue just as any other business operation or household does. The wise community and municipality will always be thinking about how to create revenue and how to reinvest it for the good of the community it serves. This gives the church or house of worship’s best land use an opportunity to create its own revenue for the express purpose of reinvesting those funds in the social and economic needs of those people in the community of that church or house of worship.

The soul of the community and its government matters. Few communities have thrived without the presence of a church or some other house of worship. It is a spiritual phenomenon which few can reference as an exact source of physical influence. I believe that is because it is the spirit of the people within it that ushered in prosperity from the good works of the church. That same spiritual benefit to the community can be perpetuated by making investments in equitable best land use scenarios after the congregation has vacated the building. Therefore, we must find better ways of incorporating life development activities and resources in churches and other houses of worship that have been vacated by their congregations, that enrich those in the community it has been planted. The church used to be the place where people met their soulmate, formed lifelong friendships, shared personal life trials and tribulations, and networked toward common business and civic goals. Locales like churches or public service centers are evermore essential as young people’s primary and only source for all forms of community, commerce, and communications go digital. The digital age has had a directly negative impact on churches and houses of worship, which has led to concerning trends in church closures and vacant houses of worship across the country. Indeed, vacated Churches and houses of worship must experience a rebirth if they are to always be a lighthouse in the community it serves. This rebirth, the repurposing of best land use, is a responsibility of the government to ensure that the best land use of all parcels is executed for community services, economic development, social responsibility, and neighborly networking. ♦

Frederick Rucker Jr. is a Six Sigma MBA Mathematician with professional experience as a commercial realtor and broker. Working with Coldwell Banker Commercial Metro Brokers, he has helped facilitate the productive repurposing of houses of worship across the country.

Recommended Citation

Rucker Jr., Frederick. “Houses of Worship and Religious Architecture: Identity, Place, and Effects of Repurposing.” Canopy Forum, June 22, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/06/22/houses-of-worship-and-religious-architecture-identity-place-and-effects-of-repurposing/.