It won’t be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years. The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.
In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays. On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews. Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations.
Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture. Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open. The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home. In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations. Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building. These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church. All for a building.
I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling. Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good. Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.
Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools. The location where these congregations gathered didn’t make them any less of a church. The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community. The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity. Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that.
By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned. But, I can’t see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost. The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling. Desperately holding onto a building that you can’t afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable.
There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches. In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier. There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s. Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center. The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes.
People don’t like change. But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.
The Globe and Mail article on “The Collapse of the Liberal Church” from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.