'Twas the church that faded first, the flock inside the crumbling Christmas church

If you know anything at all about Christian theology and vocabulary, you know that the word "church" has multiple meanings.

For reporters working at the local level, the there are two definitions that matter the most. You can hear them when church people talk and they sound something like this, when encountered in the wild.

You may hear someone say, "My family has been part of First Baptist Church for three generations." The word, in this context, refers to the actual body of believers in this congregation. If the building was damaged and these folks had to meet in a local school gymnasium, they'd still be First Baptist Church.

But you also hear people refer to the building as the church, as in, "Go two traffic lights and turn left at St. Stephen's Church. It's the church with the really tall steeple."

This brings me to that nice "Building Blocks" feature that ran in The New York Times the other day under this headline: "Church With Ties to Famed Christmas Poem Is in Need of Repair." Which poem? That was clear in the lede:

What was stirring were not creatures.
It was worse. Much worse. The soft patting sounds that the Rev. Stephen Harding and I heard inside St. Peter’s Church Chelsea -- the “Christmas Church” that owes its existence to Clement Clarke Moore -- came from rainwater. It percolated through the tin-and-timber roof and the lath-and-plaster Gothic ceiling vaults, dripping down to the balcony floor.
St. Peter’s needs a lot of help, about $15 million worth, Father Harding estimates. In that respect, it is like many mainstream houses of worship used by congregations that are now only a fraction of their original size.

You can see the problem already, right? Who or what needs the $15 million?

On one level, it is the building that will require that much money in order to see better times. Yet the truth of the matter is that it is the church that meets in the building that needs the money, in order to repair its aging sanctuary.

Now, I realize that "Building Blocks" is, by definition, a Times feature that focuses on buildings and architecture. But in this case the primary subject of the story is the status of efforts to save the building.

This raises a question that is never answered and, thus, the story fails to give readers the information they need to understand what is actually happening in this case. I raise this issue, because of that accurate statement that was included in the text, the one that said St. Peter's (Episcopal) Church is "like many mainstream houses of worship used by congregations that are now only a fraction of their original size."

The story here is that the building is at risk because the church that meets in the building is in trouble. So what happened to the congregation?

This is a huge story all across America, where declining and dying congregations in oldline Protestant churches are leaving behind crucial pieces of real estate in cities and towns. The question, "What will happen to these churches (referring to the buildings)?" is directly linked to the real question, "What happened to these churches (referring to the body of believers meeting inside the building)?"

Journalists! You cannot answer the first question without dealing with the second.

Once again, let me state that I realize that "Building Blocks" is about buildings. Yet, to be blunt, readers need more information about the state of the congregation than this:

Consecrated in 1838, St. Peter’s, at 346 West 20th Street near Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, is one of the oldest Gothic Revival churches in New York. Today, it is home to an Episcopal body founded in 1831 that Father Harding serves as interim pastor, and to the Chelsea Community Church, a nondenominational body founded in 1975.
But its real claim to the public’s heart is its close association with Moore, the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known to modern readers as “The Night Before Christmas.” He sold the land from his family’s Chelsea estate to the embryonic parish for only $1. He is believed to have designed a Greek Revival structure, now the rectory, that served as a chapel from 1832 to 1838. He was a church warden. He played the Henry Erben organ. And he is memorialized in the baptistery.

Later on, the story notes that, "Neither St. Peter’s nor the Community Church is in a position to raise $15 million from within their congregations."

Like I said, this is a story that is unfolding from coast to coast, and around the world. Several years ago I had a chance to visit Rome and, as we traveled from site to site, it seemed like we drove past stunning Catholic sanctuaries on every block. I asked our guide: What is the status of these churches? He said bluntly: They are almost all empty, because the members are dying and there are no young people and young families to take their place.

And there is the larger question: Why is that the case? As I said in a 2014 post about closing Catholic schools, "Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine." Some churches have children and converts and some do not. Eventually, these facts in pews and cribs affect the status of the church buildings.

So what will happen to St. Peter's Church in Chelsea?

What will happen to all of the other sanctuaries of this kind? Will they be sold and allowed to house growing congregations in other traditions? Will they become art galleries, condos, restaurants, pubs or bed-and-breakfast operations? Will many become mosques?

What will happen to St. Peter's Church in Chelsea? That is an important question. But the Times team needed to devote at least one or two paragraphs to this all-important question: What happened to St. Peter's Church, the congregation, that eventually put this glorious, important building at risk?

You cannot write about the state of the church building without covering the church itself.

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