As membership plummets, church leaders are looking for new ways to make ends meet. Some congregants say they’re selling out
In a gray sharkskin suit and aviator sunglasses, Pastor Christopher Benek stands on a patch of astroturf at the edge of the First Miami Presbyterian church parking lot. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “Right now this is a parking lot.”
A developer has a plan to make it much more than that, and Benek is buying in.
Benek was hired in 2018 as a “crisis-management specialist” to lead First Miami Presbyterian, the oldest congregation in the city, away from what seemed like impending ruin. The church has been a fixture in the community since 1896, peaking in membership at about 1,400 in the late 1980s before dwindling to 140 in the early aughts and continuing to decline.
“They’ve been a financial wreck for years,” Benek says. “Those problems don’t get solved overnight.”
With the church facing over $7m in back taxes, Benek has negotiated a potential deal to sell 2.2 acres of its 3.4 acre lot to a local developer for $240m. (Just four years ago, it was valued at $66m – a symptom of the rental market’s blistering recent inflation.) This last slice of undeveloped waterfront property in downtown Miami’s financial district has been coveted by developers for years.
For the last two decades, religious affiliation in the US has continued to decline. Membership of denominations of Christianity – the country’s dominant religion – fell from 78% in 2007 to 63% in 2021, while the number of Americans with no religious affiliation – dubbed “nones” – has risen from 16% to 29% over the same timeframe. With large physical footprints, but precious few congregants, many traditional churches have faced difficult decisions about their viability, opting to downsize or close their doors altogether.
But in Florida – particularly Miami, which has a severe housing shortage and was recently named the most expensive city for home ownership in America – developers are capitalizing by constructing multi-unit apartment buildings any place possible, giving church leadership there another option: selling to the highest bidder.
As part of First Miami’s deal, the church would keep its sanctuary, but lose its school, office space and sun-scarred parking lot. It would get, Benek points out, 20,000 square feet of additional worship space just beneath a lavish pool deck on the 11th floor of the bay-front 80-story luxury condo tower the developer plans to build.
After a recent Sunday service, a longtime church member, Cary Tolley, stood eyeing the building – its cherry-wood interior and handsomely oxidized tin roof mark a lull in the cold procession of modernist skyscrapers lining Biscayne Boulevard.
“If this real estate transaction goes through, it won’t be long before the church closes its doors,” he says. As the voice of the opposition, Tolley has stuck his neck out to condemn the deal.
Benek is undeterred. “There’s been no critique about the actual build, which tells me that all the opposition is only about politics and control,” he says.
Walking towards the Biscayne Bay on the far side of the parking lot, Benek grows animated as he approaches a row of food trucks, where a few dozen young people sit on picnic tables beneath monitors playing promos for bible study. This was part of Benek’s initiative to put a modern gloss on some of the church’s assets.
“Every day of the week, tons of people come here,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The hope that it will attract some new faces to Bible study and that trucks will pay to rent a spot are increasingly common money-making tactics for churches in the state. But, in First Miami’s case, it’s not nearly enough to cover seven-figure debts.
The more Benek talks, the easier it is to understand why some of the older members of the congregation find him off-putting.
He overuses the verbs “leveraging” and “scaling” and name-checks Elon Musk as he compares technology to theology; during the pandemic, Benek launched a VR church service set in a virtual model of First Miami. Older congregants found it disagreeable and a waste of money. One of the main criticisms about the proposed deal – to which the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, a council that oversees the business dealings of all Presbyterian churches in the region, agreed – is that Benek held the deliberations and final voting over video chat, which the same demographic had a challenging time with.
“Is the spirit of God not so big that it can’t work through Zoom?” Benek asks.
He is unapologetic about his predictions for the future of the American church. In short, he says it could be extinct by the year 2030. “Churches can’t survive on passing the plate alone,” he says, referring to collecting tithes. “This isn’t the 1960s.”
More and more churches are employing entrepreneurial business models to remain profitable in Florida’s rapidly growing metropolitan areas. In downtown Miami alone, four historic churches have sold in the last three years with condo high-rises going up in their place. Others are selling their air rights or are renting out unused interior space and parking lots. In February, a Lutheran church in a suburb of Miami agreed to share its property with a Wawa gas station and move into a smaller building behind the site’s convenience store.
“Most of these churches are just trying to figure out a way to survive,” says Matt Messier, a Florida-based real estate broker who specializes in religious and non-profit properties. “When the property values go up, it gives them a lot more options.”
Other than the federal government, religious organizations are the largest owners of real estate in the country, but in the near future we will undoubtedly see fewer spires and steeples. Messier says churches will embrace a more secular appearance, moving into existing community centers and fellowshipping in gyms, coffee shops – or, in the case of First Miami Presbyterian, the 11th floor of a luxury condominium.
Pastor Audrey Warren provides a window into the future of First Miami Presbyterian church. In 2018, three years into her tenure as pastor of the nearby First United Methodist, she helped arrange the sale of her church’s original 1.15-acre property, just one mile north of First Miami, for $55m.
Before the sale, 50% of its income came from renting out parking spaces to a community college. When its 40-year building inspection came up in 2016, the church estimated that the necessary renovations would have cost more than $500,000, which it couldn’t afford. “We were counting toilet paper rolls,” she said.
Warren and church leadership vetted a parade of brokers and developers before finding the right fit. The new development project was christened Society Biscayne, a 49-story mixed-use apartment building, and the original church was promptly demolished. Once the build is complete, the 125-year-old congregation of First United Methodist will find its new home somewhere between the sky pool deck, co-working lab, yoga lawn and two-story gym.
“We would never have survived on tithing alone,” she says. “There’s been a very steady decline since the 1970s.” And it will soon get worse. The “death tsunami of the church”, as Warren calls it, is expected to reach its apex within the next 10 to 20 years, as the death rate of Baby Boomers increases, according to US Census Bureau data.
“These are the people who give a full tithe, but also our volunteers, teachers and elders,” she says. “We’re going to lose these people soon.”
On the third Sunday of March, in the year of our Lord 2022, the airy corridors of First Miami Presbyterian church are filled with music but not people. This is only the second in-person service since the church has reopened after two years of virtual service due to the pandemic. Behind the altar, the lead singer of a praise band pounds away on his piano keys and looks out into the sparse crowd. The pews are about 15% full.
“C’mon!” he says, inviting them to sing along. “Let’s knock the dust off these pews!”
Preaching a reformist and relatively progressive strain of Christianity, First Miami’s Presbyterianism is one of the seven mainline denominations in America. The US constitution was inspired by Presbyterian governance, better known as “ecclesiastical polity”. As a cultural touchpoint for centuries, it’s the kind of church that would be with you for your baptism, wedding and funeral.
The smattering of young families and seniors in the pews straddle these life events, but most people in this part of town – dotted with celebrity-chef steakhouses and multi-story nightclubs – are still partying from the previous night instead of attending to their souls.
As Benek steps up to the stage to deliver his sermon, Cary Tolley sits near the back of the church, lean with a shiny bald head and white beard.
His central complaint about the deal Benek is overseeing is that there’s no formal agreement about how the money will be used. “We’re completely reliant on the good faith of the presbytery that they’ll let the church use the money,” he says.
Though the congregation voted in favor of selling last October, Tolley says that the vote should be thrown out on a technicality. Presbyterian churches have a representative form of government, “but the members have been largely shut out of this process … this is totally contrary to how a healthy church operates”.
Following the vote, Tolley filed a remedial complaint with a higher court (the Presbyterian church has an especially complicated judicial system) and succeeded in delaying the sale. As he explains the forthcoming legal proceedings in great detail, a fellow churchgoer approaches Tolley and leans in to whisper in his ear.
“Did you hear that?” he asks. “That person just told me, ‘You’re doing a good thing; keep it up.’”
Not all houses of worship in Miami are struggling. Vous Church (short for rendezvous), run by a fourth-generation evangelical pastor to the stars, Rich Wilkerson Jr, attracts thousands of people to multiple campuses throughout south Florida every Sunday.
“I don’t see us in competition with a place like Vous,” Benek says of the church whose pastor officiated Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s wedding. “It’s easy to draw a crowd when you have Kanye West perform Sunday Service, but there’s victory and peril in that.”
Benek suggests that eventually the magnetism of contemporary megachurches with charismatic pastors fades. “It’s all young people [at Vous]. What we want is intergenerational.”
The mission of churches writ large, as Benek sees it, is to reduce suffering in the world, but that’s impossible if they can’t figure out a way to keep the lights on. If this sale goes through, the windfall of cash would get kicked back to the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, but he says the larger portion will be used to fund homelessness programs, staffing, Bible studies and, of course, the VR offering. All of which, he says, will help grow their membership.
No matter how many churches close, or how few congregants remain after the current trend bottoms out, Benek is confident that the core tenets of Christianity will never fall apart. “Look at where we are,” he says, glancing up at the glass towers neighboring his church, which radiate the kind of disquieting emptiness characteristic of trendy new development projects.
“The people who live in Brickell have more money than most Americans could ever dream of, but money will never answer their existential questions,” he says.
Lolling back to eye level, he affects a solemn expression. “After all, the enemy of humanity is death. Unless that changes, the pursuit of spirituality will never end.”