On a still Sunday night in January, the Stage on Herr buzzed with alternative rock as concert lights blared on an empty stage. A handful of 20 and 30-somethings, drinks in hand, made small talk as they waited for the evening’s program to start.
They weren’t there for a concert or dance party, which you can find at the Midtown performance venue almost any night of the week. Instead, they were settling in for church.
The Hummelstown-based church The Bridge has held Sunday evening services at Stage on Herr, one of the performance venues within the House of Music, Arts and Culture (HMAC), for the past year. They know that a bar and rowdy concert venue isn’t a typical place to hold a worship service. But according to its leaders, that’s not a problem.
“There’s no boundary on what a church has to look like in our world,” said Alyson Wert, The Bridge’s midtown campus pastor. “When we were looking for a venue, no space was off limits, and no idea was off the table.”
The Bridge is hardly the first church to plant itself in a quirky venue or swap out organ music for contemporary praise songs. A growing number of congregations have left historic church buildings in favor of non-traditional, mixed-use spaces in recent years, participating in what religious leaders say is a broader re-invention of white, evangelical and mainline churches for an increasingly secular American public.
As a recent announcement by Harrisburg’s United Methodist Conference shows, even long-established churches are starting to look for a change in scenery.
The Susquehanna Conference of the UMC said in December that it would consolidate 10 congregations across Harrisburg as it prepares to sell off their historic church buildings. The congregations will meet in one location starting this spring, and church leaders eventually hope to open five new worship locations around the city.
It’s unlikely that any of the new campuses will have steeples or stained glass. Conference leaders are scouting out community centers, schools and entertainment venues instead.
“Basically, it’s taking church out of the context it’s always been in,” said Shawn Gilgore, communications director for the Susquehanna Conference. “We’re looking for spaces and places that that aren’t intimidating to people who are looking for a spiritual community.”
As other churches in the Harrisburg area have already shown, there’s almost no limit on what space can become a house of worship. Since 2005, Harrisburg’s Brethren in Christ Church has met in a converted car dealership on Derry Street. The rapidly growing, Lancaster-based church LCBC—shorthand for Lives Changed by Christ—recently announced plans to purchase an ice skating rink in Mechanicsburg and convert it into a campus with a 700-seat sanctuary. (Its leaders declined to comment for this story.)
Up on Allison Hill, Wildheart Ministries holds fiery, jam-band style worship in an Instagram-worthy mansion on S. 13th Street. The circa-1900 estate is also command central for Wildheart’s community service projects and houses missionaries working in Allison Hill.
Gilgore estimates that the movement of churches out of traditional church buildings has swelled in the past decade. For many churches, the motivations are just as much spiritual as they are financial.
Data from the Pew Research Center show that the American public is becoming less religious with each passing year. Devout Baby Boomers and Generation Xers still log regular attendance at Christian worship services, but a growing minority of Americans say they do not identify with any organized faith. As a result, overall church membership—especially in white, evangelical churches—has dwindled over the past two decades.
Coupled with the 2008 financial crisis, stagnant or declining membership numbers have forced many churches to find creative ways to cut costs.
The UMC Conference in Harrisburg, for instance, calculated that it had just 400 members across its 10 church locations before it announced its consolidation plans in 2018. That figure was a far cry from its membership rolls a few decades ago, when a single church would likely count hundreds of parishioners.
With only a small congregation to support its maintenance, a historic church building can siphon precious resources from clergy salaries or outreach programs.
These factors have led the UMC conference to drastically reimagine what a church can look like. Unloading 10 of its church properties and leasing newer, smaller spaces will give the church more flexibility to ramp up ministerial programs across the city, Gilgore said.
That’s what happened for Harrisburg’s Brethren in Christ Church, which in 2005 moved from a church building in Bellevue Park to a converted car dealership on Derry Street. The church’s new facility was four times larger than the previous one, opening up new possibilities for worship and outreach.
“Our ministry just went on steroids,” said senior pastor Hank Johnson. “We were doing a lot at the old church, but our capabilities just shot up—not just because of [space], but because new people came in with new ideas.”
Johnson also said that divorcing a church from its physical home can help a congregation ask tough questions about belief and religious belonging. After all, what makes a church a church when all the physical trappings of its sanctuary are gone?
For BIC members, Johnson said, the answer to that question lay in helping their underserved neighbors. The move to Derry Street helped them interrogate their priorities and led to a new wave of outreach programs.
For instance, BIC had long dreamed of providing free medical care to impoverished Harrisburg residents, according to Lynda Gephart, the church’s pastor of congregational life. That never came to fruition at their old space on Chestnut Street. But the energy that arose from their new location, she said, bred a partnership with a mobile medical clinic. To this day, it visits the church once a month to offer patrons free medical and dental care.
Gephart pointed to another, more mundane factor that drove BIC’s real estate hunt: parking. Many inner-city churches struggle to provide patrons with enough of it, she said, but a commercial property or strip mall storefront often comes with acres of surface lots.
Indeed, it’s hard for a church to grow if its congregants can’t find a convenient way to get there. But other religious leaders say that traditional church buildings also can stifle a congregation by alienating non-believers or skeptics.
When The Bridge first launched its Midtown campus in 2016, it held services in an old church building at Green and Cumberland streets. The space met the congregation’s needs well enough, but leaders said they wanted to be in a multi-purpose space that was trafficked by a larger segment of the community.
They scouted locations in Midtown, including the Broad Street Market, the Midtown Scholar and empty storefronts. In the end, they landed in HMAC, where they can host services either in the Capital Ballroom or the Stage on Herr.
Pastor Justin Douglas said that church leaders didn’t blink at the prospect of worshipping in a bar, which, on any other night of the week, may host a death metal band or drag show.
If anything, Douglas said, the unconventional location is a natural fit for a church that prides itself on questioning many long-held Christian rituals.
The Bridge doesn’t offer communion every week, for example, and its leaders don’t operate in a strong hierarchy. They don’t accept monetary offerings during services, for fear of alienating members who can’t afford to give (those who wish to support the church can give online instead.)
But as Douglas sees it, the reimagining of church spaces is part of a broader reconfiguration of Christianity—one that’s taking place as religious leaders try to attract younger, more socially conscious congregants who, for personal or political reasons, may be skeptical of Christian institutions.
He said that many churches today have alienated younger members by taking hardline stances on issues like LGBT rights or abortion. Removing a church from a physical church building, Douglas said, can signal to current and prospective members that a congregation is ready to meet its members where they are—physically, politically and spiritually.
If that means setting up shop in a neighborhood watering hole, he said, so be it.
“I don’t care if you have an alcoholic beverage in your hand in the Stage on Herr instead of a pew in a church with a stained-glass window,” Douglas said. “The destination for us and other churches is the same. But the vehicle can look very different.”
As the UMC Conference starts to scout new locations this spring, its leadership team will try to follow the same method of meeting people in places that are familiar to them, including ones that are secular.
The goal, according to Gilgore, is to make a day of worship feel like a seamless part of a person’s busy routine — not a disruptive chore on a Sunday morning.
“I think people nowadays are looking for new ways to do things they’ve always done,” Gilgore said. “We’re saying, ‘You can still do church this way, but here’s a way that is less intimidating, more welcoming, more community-driven way that’s more like what you do on the other six days of the week.’ We’re taking the church out to the people, in whatever way that takes place.”