Americans aren’t building churches like they used to anymore.
Construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to the lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967. Religious groups will build an estimated 10.3 million square feet this year, down 6% from 2013 and 80% since construction peaked in 2002, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. In terms of dollars, spending on houses of worship totaled $3.15 billion last year, down by half from a decade earlier, according to Commerce Department figures.
As the economy heals, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples may move forward with renovation and expansion projects put off during and after the recession. But church-building began to ebb well before the latest downturn.
Behind the decline is a confluence of trends: a drop in formal religious participation, changing donation habits, a shift away from the construction of massive megachurches and, more broadly, a growing taste for alternatives to the traditional house of worship.
“There’s been an awakening: If we can put more resources into ministry and not into infrastructure, it’s a better use of those resources,” said Sing Oldham, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
For the Rev. Rob Apgar-Taylor, the shifting sentiment plays out inside a renovated former shoe factory in Hagerstown, Md., where the Veritas United Church of Christ, which launched in 2011, holds Sunday services. Mr. Apgar-Taylor hopes to keep renting the space as his 30-member congregation grows.
“I don’t want to sit at a table and worry about how to get the roof replaced,” he said. He would rather focus on “how to reach out to kids in the community.”
The trends are far from universal across regions and faiths.
Booming Catholic dioceses plan to build new cathedrals in Raleigh, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., while shrinking Catholic parishes in Northeast cities like Boston and New York and Philadelphia are closing or even selling churches.
Muslims and Mormons have seen strong growth even as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline Protestant denominations have shrunk, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
There are signs the long decline in church-building may have hit bottom. While construction is down this year, the pace of spending has inched up since the end of 2013, the Commerce Department said. Two private firms, FMI and Dodge Data & Analytics, both expect spending to rise modestly in 2015.
But a return to the building boom of a dozen years ago—in 2002, religious groups built 51.9 million square feet, Dodge says—faces headwinds. Dodge said in its latest report that “the level of activity will remain extremely low by historical standards.”
Driving the longer-term decline is a slow but steady downturn in formal religious participation. The share of Americans who say they never attend services rose to 25.3% in 2012 from 9.3% in 1972, according to the General Social Survey, a survey of behavior, attitudes and demographics conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago. Nearly 20% in 2012 gave their religious preference as “none,” up from 5.1% four decades earlier.
Fundraising, in turn, has been a problem. While inflation-adjusted charitable contributions in 2013 rose 10% from 2001, giving to religious organizations was largely flat in that time, Giving USA Foundation said.
Furthermore, religious groups that took in half of all charitable contributions in 1990 now get less than a third amid a shift in generational giving habits. Older churchgoers often put something in the collection plate every week, but younger worshipers “see the church now as just one place to give,” said Joel Mikell, president of RSI Stewardship, a Dallas-based firm that works on church fundraising campaigns.
As a result, many congregations are in no shape to take on big building projects. Some congregations even feel pressure to downsize into less-expensive quarters as membership declines.
When Beth El Congregation in Akron, Ohio, built its synagogue after World War II, the sprawling structure was “the focal point of the Jewish community for our members—social, cultural, religious, from birth to death,” said Rabbi Stephen Grundfast. But he said keeping up a building intended for 600 or 700 families was “going to be expensive” for a congregation that had fallen to half that size.
In 2012, the congregation voted to sell the synagogue and lease space at the local Jewish Community Center. “It was a very emotional thing, to move from that building,” Mr. Grundfast said. “But people realized, for the fiscal health of the synagogue and our community, we needed to make this radical change.”
But even well-funded congregations have been rethinking the value of stained glass and pews.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of large churches, just large church buildings,” said Jim Sheppard of Generis, a church-fundraising consultant. Starbucks, with its web of small shops, “has taught the church that it doesn’t need to be big,” he said. “It needs to be local.”
Many megachurches, typically Protestant congregations with weekly attendance above 2,000, erected enormous buildings with arena-like sanctuaries in the 1990s and early 2000s. But while their memberships have continued to grow over the last decade, their sanctuaries haven’t, said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary who studies megachurches.
Instead, he said, an increasing number have become multisite churches, holding multiple smaller services in rented movie theaters and other satellite locations. It is less expensive than a big building and makes for a more inviting worship experience, he added.
More than 3,000 people attend Sunday services at National Community Church, with Pastor Mark Batterson’s prerecorded sermon playing on screens at seven locations in and around Washington, D.C.
Mr. Batterson said he isn’t opposed to eventually building a more traditional home for his church. But he doesn’t want a building that gets used just once a week, or to make the space an overwhelming focus.
“We don’t want to be about a building,” he said. “We want to be about loving people and serving people, and sometimes buildings can actually be a barrier to that.”
At Mr. Apgar-Taylor’s Hagerstown church, congregants on a recent Sunday said they didn’t mind worshiping in the factory-turned-office-building.
“For us, having an actual church space, with a steeple and pews, isn’t essential to our message,” said Kyla Greenhorn, 25 years old. “You can worship God anywhere.”
Write to Ben Leubsdorf at firstname.lastname@example.org