Haunted demographics: Cells and church towers

Down in Southern cities -- small and large -- the local folks call them the "high-steeple churches." I am referring, of course, to the churches of the old, declining world of liberal mainline Protestantism -- the denominations that historians and sociologists call the "Seven Sisters." These were the old-money flocks (yes, in some Bible Belt locales there are Baptist churches that fit this description) and it was easy to know where their stone and brick sanctuaries would be located.

There would be one or two franchises for each oldline brand located in downtown. In the big cities, of course, there would be more -- since the older neighborhood churches dated back to the days before automobiles. Then you would find the second ring of mainline sanctuaries in a city's oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods and then, once again, in the hearts of its older suburbs. Think Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas or even Baltimore.

In other words, what we are talking about is lots and lots of prime real estate. We're talking about this mantra: Location, location, location.

This days, the most of the flocks inside these church buildings are getting smaller and older. The same goes for many, but not all, of the Roman Catholic parishes that fit into these historical niches. The people in the pews are graying and, as a result, the ink in the budgets is turning red.

The Baltimore Sun ran a very interesting story about this phenomenon the other day. The problem, of course, is that the newspaper was -- once again -- blind to the religious and demographic angles of the story. Here's the double-decker headline that ran with this A1 business story:

In Baltimore area, churches' bell towers also cell towers

Wireless carriers increasingly leasing steeple space from churches

Here's the top of the report:

The stone marker in Catonsville Presbyterian Church's steeple tower is dated 1921, dedicated "to the Glory of God."

Next to it is a black ladder with caution signs tied to its rungs, warning of radio frequency fields in the narrow space above. In the steeple overlooking Frederick Road, three cell phone companies have placed antennas, serving a growing demand for smartphones, iPads and other gadgets.

Such leasing arrangements help Catonsville Presbyterian and other Baltimore-area churches raise revenue, while companies get access to neighborhoods where it is difficult to build free-standing cell towers. And though the leases have drawn fire from communities worried about health effects and property values, experts predict such deals will become increasingly common as the need for data speed and capacity grows. ...

For Catonsville Presbyterian, the antennas bring a steady stream of income to help cover maintenance costs for the 91-year-old building — freeing up money for feeding the hungry, reaching out to the community and supporting overseas mission work, said church elder Keith Glennan.

These churches are earning, readers are told, about $1,000 a month -- per carrier. That's not a lot of money, but, if you read carefully, it's clear that these churches -- the ones with the prime locations -- tend to need the money. It takes money to maintain these beautiful and aging sanctuaries.

The story never addresses the membership trends in these flocks.

Why are certain kinds of churches (a) in the right locations for these deals and (b) willing to alter their facilities in this manner? Why does this kind of financial need tend to exist in these congregations?

The Sun is not interested. However, it is interesting to note that location has something to do with this -- naturally. The experts say that these old churches are often located at prime spots in what is called a residential "oasis." In other words, older churches tend to be located in older, more expensive, yet highly populated, prestigious neighborhoods. It's hard to find affordable locations to erect this kind of equipment.

That's the business side. However, it's also easy to note that the churches mentioned in this news report all fit the oldline Protestant profile. Are churches in other denominations cutting these kinds of deals? It would be really, really interesting to know the answer to that question, which has strong religious overtones. Thus, this question is never asked by the Sun team.

This passage is about as candid as the story gets:

At the Episcopal Church of the Messiah on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, cell equipment is not hidden inside a steeple but mounted on top of the tower, between crosses.

In an era of declining church attendance, money from the leases with AT&T and Clearwire helps the church keep a presence in the Hamilton neighborhood, said the Rev. Timothy Grayson, the church's rector. "That need and that benefit trumps any considerations about detracting from the aesthetic look of the church tower."

Location, location, location. Needs, needs, needs.

The religion side of this story is, in my opinion, just as interesting as the business side. What is going to happen to all of this prime real estate? What will become of these flocks?

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