RALEIGH, N.C. — About halfway through Sunday service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, as worshipers passed around the collection plate, a chorus of screams pierced the air.
Chunks of the ceiling in the 52-year-old church near Hickory came crashing down on the crowd of 200 or so, striking about 14, who later were treated and released from nearby hospitals. A jagged piece of the ceiling, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, dangled from exposed wires over the back pews as deacons struggled to guide panicking worshipers from the building.
"My jaw just dropped," the Rev. Antonio Logan said. "I thought, 'This can't be real.'"
Caring for old church facilities is an increasingly acute problem, particularly for mainline Protestant denominations. As membership declines and budgets shrink, the beautiful edifices of American Christianity can feel like weights dragging down churches that are forced to spend money on maintenance and repairs instead of ministry, charity and other Gospel-derived imperatives.
"It's hard times in paradise," said the Rev. William Quick, pastor emeritus at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit.
Metropolitan's Gothic church was completed in 1926 at a cost of $1.6 million, at the time the most expensive Methodist house of worship ever built. By 1949, it had 10,300 members, more than any Methodist congregation in the world.
Today, membership is at 375, in a city where Methodist churches have fallen from 77 to 16. Its decline in fortune is mirrored among Protestant denominations like the Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, which have seen membership drop in recent decades while the average age of remaining worshippers gets older.
A church can be an anchor for a whole neighborhood, and its loss can hurt beyond the borders of a single congregation, as a coalition of residents and preservationists in Charlotte discovered when they tried to save the old Garr Memorial Church from the wrecking ball.
The building had stood for nearly 70 years, with its iconic rooftop "Jesus Saves" sign a beacon that locals used as a landmark when giving directions.
On a Wednesday in July, the old building came down after its new owners, the New Bethel Church of God in Christ, couldn't justify refurbishing the building.
"It's regretful, but the economics, just the roof repair cost was just excessive," said Bobby Drakeford, a real estate developer and consultant for New Bethel.
New Bethel plans to develop the property, but for churches that try to stay in their old buildings, even necessary upkeep can become a burden.
The Rev. Phyllis Norman is the pastor of Prospect Congregational Church in Prospect, Conn., which is planning to add an elevator to its 59-year-old building. Churches are exempt from federal regulations requiring buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities, but many congregations with aging members are installing wheelchair ramps, elevators and other features.
Before that effort had really taken off, though, the Connecticut church's decades-old septic system failed, dumping a $30,000 repair bill in the congregation's lap.
"The timing was just pathetic," she said.
Making things harder is that many pastors are loathe to set aside money for maintenance that could be used on missionary work or charitable services like soup kitchens, said the Rev. Ken Carder, a retired Methodist bishop and professor at the Duke Divinity School.
"I was the same way about endowments when I started out. You know, 'Lay not up for yourselves treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust corrupt,'" he said, quoting the Gospel of Matthew.
But setting aside money for maintenance costs will enable future generations to pursue those ministries by freeing them from the burden of emergency repairs, Carder said.
A reluctance to spend money on upkeep has caught the attention of churches' insurers, who are making more maintenance recommendations since the start of the Great Recession, according to Rick Schaber, risk control manager for Church Mutual Insurance, a Wisconsin-based company that insures more than 100,000 religious institutions in the U.S.
"We're finding some things are starting to get a little bit worse," he said. "If our customers are forced to make cuts, we're finding that maintenance budgets are commonly the first place they look."
Norman's congregation, like many, does not want to reduce its commitment to efforts like the local food pantry and soup kitchen, it's getting creative: The church is seeking a tax status that would let them apply for grants to fund the elevator and is considering a loan from a United Church of Christ fund specifically designed for building needs.
The UCC's Cornerstone Fund typically has 200 or so low-interest loans outstanding at any given time, ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $3 million, according to Mary Seymour, vice president of the fund. Seymour has seen the number of loans rise as churches fund more emergency repairs.
"Many of our churches are 150 years old or older, and many others were built in the 1950s, when no one gave a thought to handicap accessibility," she said.
Most mainline denominations have similar funds, partly because local congregations can't pay for work they might have been able to afford in the past.
"A lot of these churches have shrunk from 500 members to 100 members, or from 800 members to 200 members," said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the Partnership for Sacred Places. "They look at the trend lines and they see the decline in membership and wonder, 'Gosh, in 10 or 15 years are we going to be gone?'"
Jaeger's group strives to prevent that, primarily through an intensive, yearlong training with smaller churches designed to show them how they can find new ways to pay for repairs and maintenance.
The partnership's main theme comes from research it conducted showing that roughly 80 percent of the people who use church facilities for things like after-school programs or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are not members of the individual congregations.
"Our larger task is really to convince America's leaders that these sacred places are public assets, not just Presbyterian places of worship, or Methodist, or Jewish, or Catholic, but something for the entire community," he said.
The partnership has trained about 600 congregations, and does about eight or 10 training sessions a year, Jaeger said, working with several congregations at a time.
Larry Latter, 67, lived across the street from Garr Memorial for 17 years and did some remodeling work inside. As he watched the building pulled down recently, his reflections highlighted something Jaeger says churches need to remember: Vitality comes not from bricks and mortar, but from what happens inside.
"When I moved in, it was reassuring that Jesus is always with us, when I'd look out every morning and see the sign," Latter said. "But Jesus doesn't save through the building, he saves through our lives."