Organized religion in 21st century New York is facing a profound challenge. In too many instances, churches built to welcome the faithful have become physical obstacles to congregants seeking to pray and to clergy trying to create faith-based programs to strengthen the community.

The reality is that many of our places of worship were founded and began flourishing years ago. Over time, as with many organizations, churches became a collection of like-minded individuals with similar backgrounds and cultures. We became insulated from the world, often not recognizing that spiritual and demographic landscapes had changed.

The buildings in which we worship became surrounded by changing diverse communities while those who gathered inside remained relatively similar. The result has been that the sanctuary, and the messages preached from it, are no longer viewed as an integral centerpiece of the community.

The Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently reviewed the physical condition of its churches, the number of congregants who attend services, the ability of the facilities to offer community-based programming and how best to bring more faithful through the door. The firm that conducted the review for the church -- which has 32,000 baptized members in nearly 60 congregations on Long Island -- has asked the synod to consider consolidations, the sale of property and the reinvention of some churches to permit construction of appropriate mixed uses on their sites.

The report also found that some churches can't offer access for the disabled. In other cases, obsolete infrastructure from the early 20th Century puts the church's operation in doubt. In still other instances, the faithful don't live near the community church and its pews welcome only a handful for weekly services.

The report will spur thoughtful study; but most important, it recognizes that some of our churches are no longer welcoming havens. That prompts us to consider complex questions about renovations of aging facilities when charitable giving has dwindled and neighborhood demographics have changed.

The role of our church recently came into focus when the Commack congregation considered the potential use of available space to temporarily house unaccompanied immigrant children -- a program within the church's mission of social justice and being a welcoming refuge for those in need. While the query was sadly overshadowed by prejudicial and hate-filled overtones, it led to legitimate questions from the community.

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Since our nation's beginning, our houses of worship, regardless of individual faith, have served as the foundation for teaching society's ethical and moral beliefs. Churches, synagogues and mosques are a significant part of the fabric of our communities and reflect our commitment to respect and our celebration of diversity. In other words, our houses of worship need to be relevant to their communities, underscoring the religious and ethical foundations on which they were built.

On a more local level, the episode at Holy Cross in Commack must be examined. Our experience reveals a disturbing divide between faith centers and their neighborhoods, where racism and other social issues percolate. Though Holy Cross participates in community events, it appears its spiritual presence is not widely recognized nor its teachings embraced. Has it become little more than physical space with no relevance to the community?

Perhaps the issue in Commack may serve as a wake-up call for our houses of worship to reconsider how to engage in their communities. The controversy over offering safe haven to children is as much a message to organized religion as the sad reality of membership decline and reduced financial giving for a church's mission.

Robert Alan Rimbo is bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


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