Religious construction is plummeting. As Joe Weisenthal notes in Business Insider, construction spending by religious institutions is “off the cliff.” Recent Census data paint a bleak portrait for the religious sector, with a decline of more than $1 billion in construction spending in 2009. Worse still, in late 2010, there was another fall nearly as severe. Even as other construction sectors are beginning to show signs of life, religious institutions are still wandering in the wilderness.

These data reveal that religious construction spending is in total free-fall. Between April and May of this year, spending fell 8.2 percent; between May 2011 and May 2012, spending fell a full 14.6 percent. That’s the greatest decline in nationwide construction spending by any sector (including healthcare, residential, commercial, amusement and recreation, and more).

In fact, the downward trend isn’t new or even easily explained as a consequence of the larger national recession—though some observers have described the downturn for religious construction in those terms. In a 2010 story on churches and foreclosures, Reuters reported that access to easy credit preceded a building boom for religious institutions, which in turn led to widespread foreclosures. The foreclosures certainly materialized—according to Reuters, foreclosure proceedings against U.S. churches tripled between 2007 and 2010—but it’s less clear that the building boom ever happened. Spending on religious construction rose consistently in the 1990s but hit its peak in 2002 and 2004 before beginning a steady decline.

In hindsight, the boom in religious construction looks a lot less boom-y. Compare religious construction spending with private residential construction spending over the same period. In residential construction spending, there’s a clear rise between 2002 and 2006, followed by a bust. (The magnitude of the housing boom shouldn’t be overstated. As Matthew Yglesias wrote for ARCHITECT, there was nothing unprecedented about the recent housing boom—it’s the subsequent bust that has been so unusually severe.)
Religious construction spending shows no marked boom at all. Instead, the trend from 2002 to 2012 is one of epicyclical decline—a long and steady drop marked by small, regular surges, like a bobbing buoy that’s gradually sinking. During the recession, in 2009, churches suffered a steep spending drop. But religious construction had suffered another, similar fall in 2003, back before the economy fell on black days. While residential construction was surging, religious construction was suffering. 

How do religious leaders explain what’s happening? The number of U.S. Catholic parishes has steadily declined since its peak in 1995, falling from 19,331 that year to 18,634 in 2005 and then to 17,782 in 2011. The toll of the sex-abuse scandals of the last decade has mostly been paid at the expense of church real estate. In 2007, Brad McKee wrote in ARCHITECT that a number of dioceses had sold off chanceries, headquarters, and other estates in order to pay the $2 billion that the sex scandals had cost the church at that time. Today, the church is growing in the Southwest, according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“New construction for congregations has decreased significantly,” says David Schoen, minister and congregational vitality and discipleship ministry team leader for the United Church of Christ. “Most new congregations exist in storefronts, schools, public space, or space used by other congregations for many years. It’s not just a matter of cost of construction.  Many new churches see traditional church buildings as detrimental to their mission, especially reaching new generations.”

Residential spending is on the rise, and it's one of a few signals that the economy may be turning around. Religious spending is not one of those signals. Perhaps, as Schoen suggets, church leaders have adapted already: Only a decade ago, religious institutions were building at a furious pace. If they're not adapting, they'll need to quickly,  

Religious institutions may be adapting to new circumstances. If so, they’re doing so quickly: Only a decade ago, religious institutions were building at a furious pace. If they’re not adapting—if the slowdown in construction is not deliberate—religious institutions will need to evolve quickly.