First Presbyterian Church is undergoing an extreme makeover.
The congregation has put a “For Sale” sign on the Akron building that it has called home since 1905. It has moved to Copley to share traditional worship space with another congregation and has leased a nontraditional office building for community outreach.
“We’re a church in transition — trying to make the necessary changes to move forward, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus,” said the Rev. Mark Ruppert, pastor. “Change is difficult, but we had to make changes to continue as a congregation. We’re not changing the message; we’re changing the way we’re doing things to reach out to society.”
The church building, at 647 E. Market St., is among a number of religious-use properties in the Akron area that are on the market. Many — like First Presbyterian, Good Shepherd Baptist and Temple Israel — are being sold because their aging, dwindling congregations no longer can manage the maintenance and utility costs.
Some buildings are empty because the congregations have disbanded or merged. Those include the former St. Michael Archangel Byzantine and Holy Trinity United Methodist churches.
Other properties, like River of Life Assembly of God, are listed because the congregation is experiencing growth and needs to upgrade to a building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The church currently is located at 772 E. Turkeyfoot Lake Road in Green, an area where the congregation would like to remain.
“We actually need a bigger building that has no steps for easier access for our members who use wheelchairs,” said Duane Milford, a board member. “We’re gaining a couple of people each month, so we need something bigger than [the nearly 6,000-square-foot building] we’re in.”
David Kaplan, an agent with NAI Cummins, said that because of changes in congregations, there is always real estate activity in the religious community.
“There is always a flurry of activity because there is always a larger congregation that’s downsizing and always a smaller congregation that’s growing and looking for a bigger building,” Kaplan said.
Local real estate agents agree that most properties put on the market by religious congregations generally are sold to another religious congregation. Some, however, are sold to buyers who use the property for something different, like a school or for redevelopment purposes, like the former High Street Christian Church in downtown Akron.
Plans for that property, at 131 S. High St., call for the building to be razed and a hotel to be built. The High Street congregation moved to Green in 2012, amid a decline in the number of worshippers, and is reinventing itself as Harmony Springs Christian Church.
Much like Harmony Springs, First Presbyterian is transitioning in Copley as the Vine Fellowship. The congregation worships at 11 a.m. Sundays at Copley United Methodist Church, 1518 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road. The United Methodist congregation worships at 9 a.m.
The sale sign went up in front of the former First Presbyterian property in the fall — a year after the congregation had left the building and moved to Copley. During that year, the congregation had worked on a plan to transform the building into a community center with a clinic. When that plan fell through, the building was put on the market.
The congregation now is shifting its focus to the Copley area by offering the traditional Sunday service and by offering a nontraditional alternative at a building it is leasing at 1234 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road, called The Hub.
At 10 a.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month, The Hub is the site for the congregation’s contemporary services. The congregation also is working to convert the space into a community gathering area with a cafe, child-care area and meeting areas for various activities like guitar lessons and martial arts classes.
“We hope that because The Hub is not a traditional setting, people will be willing to come, and when they find out it’s a church, we hope they will stay,” said the Rev. Mark Ruppert, pastor of First Presbyterian/The Vine Fellowship.
Ruppert said the demographics of the church drove the move to Copley. Those demographics reflect a national trend of city-based congregations following their members to the suburbs.
Temple Israel, Akron’s Reform Jewish congregation, is proof that the relocation of congregations cuts across the religious spectrum. The dwindling congregation is selling its property at 133 Merriman Road and renovating a building at 91 Springside Drive in Bath Township for its new home.
“Many of our congregants have moved to the Montrose/Fairlawn area, and we wanted to find a building that would accommodate us. We felt we needed to move closer to our population and to a more energy-efficient and more maintenance-efficient building,” said Ron Winer, temple president. “The move will allow us to decrease our operating budget and allow us to be self-sustaining for generations to come.”
The Reform congregation, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, hopes to be in its new location by the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — this fall.