Library Learnings: Church: More than meets the eye, part 2


Library Learnings

Church: more than meets the eye, part 2

“Who will be left to care?”

Arising out of The Great Courses DVD set, The World’s Greatest Churches—which is available in SSUC’s Library—this second instalment in a multi-part essay about “Church” picks up where part one ended: venerate church buildings less. It’s, in the words of Matthew French writing for methodist.edu, “the individuals who come together” as a congregation who constitute the church.

“Church became the last place I wanted to be,” Sarah Bessey confesses. 

Hold fast! This one-time Pentecostal charismatic, who had her reasons for rejecting religion, does change her mind, and does return to church, as she reports in her 2015 book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith. But there was a six-year-long absence. [Not only is this volume in the SSUC Library collections, it was a “Featured Book” this spring.] 

Look. Like it or not, more and more individuals are steering clear of church, of organized religion; they’re not, as Matthew French puts it, “coming together”. It’s like United Church of Canada cleric Christopher White has it in this June’s Broadview in an article entitled, “Precarious and Part Time”: “[T]he generations that supported the churches are aging out, and fewer young people are joining to support the institutional infrastructure.” 

Search Google, and you’ll drown in stories that report a decline in attendance: Wikipedia tells the tale, as does Gallup, Pew Research, even the Gospel Coalition. According to Barna Group, a religion polling firm, more than 4,000 churches shut their doors in the U.S. in 2020. These numbers “predict a future in which churches are as empty as offices during the pandemic,” Jennifer Graham declares in Deseret News in March. She posits a “post-Christian America,” then writes, “[W]e’re seeing it unfold in real time.” She goes on to quote what she calls Rod Dreher’s “primary message”—he’s senior editor at The American Conservative: we must “learn to live resiliently in a post-Christian world.”

___________________________________________________________________________

“Why is the church failing in the West?”

It was under this Religion News Service headline that, this May, Thomas Reese offered his answer. He, a senior analyst at RNS, pointed out that theories which account for ”the decline of the church” “were developed by theologians who believe that ideas are what motivate humans. Ideas are important, but experience often matters more.” 

A Jesuit priest, Reese, once the editor-in-chief of America, the Jesuits-in-the-USA magazine, argues that “a bad experience…can turn people away for good. […] [T]he fact is, we lose more people through boredom than because of theology.” Folks “are not going to come unless they benefit from the experience. If the preaching is dull, if the music does not move them, if they do not feel welcomed, then they are not going to come back.”

Now, it’s true that he, in this writing, focused exclusively on the Catholic Church, but it’s equally true…isn’t it?…that his conclusion is just as true for Protestant churches: “Ideas are important, but Catholicism must also be a lived experience that is relevant to the lives of the faithful.”

___________________________________________________________________________

If anything, Covid-19 has only accelerated the decline. Canadian Mennonite magazine columnist Arli Klassen, in an article last August, noted how the virus caused churches to close temporarily. “I wonder who will come back,” she wrote, once they open to in-person gatherings. She supposed that buildings, along with Sunday services, doctrines, programs, and theology, “will continue to decrease in value for many people.” It’s true that “some of us are not sure we’ll ever make it back to Sunday morning worship, but that does not mean withdrawing from church. Let us be open to reimagining church….”

Just so, sociologist of religion at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, Conrad Kanagy, who has just written a series of four books about this business, offers, as publisher Masthof Press puts it, “a vision of hope in what he calls the ‘Spirit’s dismantling of the church’.” In the foreword to one of them, the reader is reminded how Jesus, in his time, “dismantled the pillars and practices of institutional religion.” Just so, “a grand dismantling of the church as we know it” is afoot, and “Christian leaders, says Kanagy, should align themselves with the project, not try to obstruct it.”

One can’t but wonder if the publishers of Andrew Roots’ new-this-March Churches and the Crisis of Decline are right when they, in marketing this book, assert that the only way for the church “to find life is to stop seeing…[itself] as the star of its own story.” In his address last fall to the House of Bishops of America’s Episcopal Church, presiding bishop Michael Curry dreamed aloud of a “new and reformed church…no longer centred on empire or establishment, no longer fixated on the preservation of institutions….” 

In more than one posting last year, blogger Carey Nieuwhof reminded followers of how it was assumed that, whenever COVID-19 would abate, “people would flood back into church, high-fiving people and embracing friends they hadn’t seen in weeks or months.” Not happening, he avowed. “The Great Return to church has become the Great Realization: maybe they’re not coming back. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.”

Indeed, American churches—here, too?—“are witnessing an acceleration in the decline of congregants,” a headline in The Globe and Mail’s January 24 issue proclaimed. Citing a new Institute for Family Studies analysis, the newspaper’s U.S. correspondent, Nathan Vanderklippe, reported how “the pandemic ended churchgoing for 20 million people; 57% of Americans now say they never or seldom attend church. (A Canadian survey last fall found 67% of Canadians never attend church.)” 

He quotes one cleric as allowing, “[T]he last couple of years have been cataclysmic for the church.” He continues: “Church leaders now estimate that 20% to 30% of the missing parishioners are unlikely to return to their places of worship.” They’ve “’fallen away from church attendance,’” one preacher told him, “’and they’re not coming back.’”

Actually, this is “a continuing reality confronting churches,” he concludes, part of “a broader trend toward secularization. […] In 2020, for the first time in eight decades of polling by Gallup, less than half of Americans belonged to…churches, synagogues, and mosques.” As a result—and here he references studies by Faith Communities Today—“Almost a quarter of Christian congregations now fear for their continued existence….”

________________________________________________________________________

“If you build it, they will come.” Not!

“[O]rganized religion used to live by a saying made famous in the 1989 film [about baseball, and baseball diamonds] ‘Field of Dreams’: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Put up a new church…and the crowds will follow. That might have been true in the past,” but nowadays churches “have to work hard to connect with their audience, and adapt to the changing world around them. Otherwise, life will pass…religion by.”

In a point-blank analysis posted on March 4, Religion News Service writer Bob Smietana mentions how major Christian denominations “have lost millions of members in recent decades.” Then he wonders, “What have these groups done in the face of that decline? They have turned inward, fighting amongst themselves over sex, race, and doctrine, while their churches fall apart.” 

His conclusion? “[T]he damage has already been done. When the fights are over…who will be left to care?” He gives his last word to one-time MLB pitcher Tom Johnson, now pastor of missional life at Minnesota’s non-denominational Church of the Open Door: “‘People are going to move on. They are going to learn to live without church.’”

_________________________________________________________________________

As a church empties, “What do you do with your building?,” Carey Nieuwhof asks. “You use it,” he answers, “to equip people…. […] The church facilities of the future will be places where people assemble to be equipped to do ministry during the week. […] In the future, churches that equip Christians will eclipse churches that gather them.” 

And churches are trying to adapt, to reform, to innovate. Already two years ago, Broadview drew attention to Kedron United Church in Oshawa, Ontario [though, just as rightly, the magazine could have pointed up SSUC!]. Under the headline and subhead, “Amid COVID-19, my church is proving it’s more than a building: right now, we have a chance to really understand our mission to the world,” minister Christopher White reported, “[W]e needed to completely transform our ministry.” (In a June, 2022, Broadview article, he writes again about “the need for transformative vision”.)

To hear him tell it, Kedron “launched a whole new way of being church.” Worship came to be streamed live on Facebook; a virtual Sunday school was undertaken; an online piano recital was offered; fitness classes were Zoomed; a virtual coffee time was set in motion; and the list goes on. The whole of the United Church of Canada, White concluded, needs to recognize that it’s “in the midst of the most significant shift since our foundation as a denomination in 1925.”

It’s as churchleaders.com reported a year ago: “[I]n the past year, the church has left the building.” Joel Hunter, pastor of Florida’s Northland Church, puts it winsomely: “[T]he church happens not so much when we gather, but when we scatter.”

“In the Bible,” Tom Bumgarner points out, “there are no pleas for people to ‘go to church’.” The plea is for folks “to become the church.” In a 2014 posting, he, lead pastor of the 2 Pillars Church he planted in Lincoln, Nebraska, worries that when we “see the church as a building to go to, we lose the fundamental piece of what it means to actually be Christian. […] There is me, and then there is the church [building], but the two are not one in the same.”

In Old Testament times, God said “He” would live in the temple in Jerusalem that Solomon built. But, with the coming of Jesus, things changed. Thus Acts 7:48: “The most high doesn’t live in temples built by human hands.” It’s as Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “You should know that you yourselves are God’s temple. God’s spirit lives in you.”

Luke Tharp is a graphic designer in Maryland whose “passion,” he declares, “is to help the local church reach the world through creative design.” Here, by way of bringing part two of this essay to an end, is how he betokens St. Paul’s admonition.

Ken Fredrick

 

To be continued. The third instalment in this essay about “Church” will be posted to the SSUC Library website [ssucedmonton.com/library] on August 19th. Come again!

 

A sidebar

Hungering to “transform consecrated spaces”

Real estate is a hot commodity. And not just houses in Toronto and Vancouver, be they modest or ultra. Church buildings, too, are in demand. Yes, church buildings. A good thing, given how many are having to be sold. 

In January, two staff writers for The Christian Science Monitor, Tara Adhikari and Erika Page, reported how “hundreds of churches across the United States [are] beginning a second life. As congregations dwindle…churches are closing doors and changing hands. Developers have jumped at the chance to transform consecrated spaces into luxury condos, cafes, mansions….” 

In St. Louis, for example, St. Liborius Catholic Church is now an indoor skate park; St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in small-town Maine serves as a multicultural centre; one nearly-300-year-old Episcopal church in Connecticut has become Trinity Spiritual Center where folks are being helped “to have a more contemplative life”; in April, the National Catholic Register reported that “the Archdiocese of Seattle is planning to sell and redevelop four archdiocesan properties that will be converted into sustainable housing”; and then there’s the house of worship that’s become a Dollar Tree store.

Apparently, some congregations aren’t willing to have their church homes sold down the river, so to speak, even to a different denomination. One such is Ragsdale Church of Christ in rural Tennessee, where attendance dwindled to “only eight, including the preacher”. According to The Christian Chronicle, “[R]ather than sell to a group that might not worship” in “the New Testament way, the building will be torn down, replaced by fields of corn or soybeans or maybe wheat.” 

Ragsdale’s parson, Paul Coston, attributes the congregation’s decline to what Chronicle writer Cheryl Mann Bacon calls “generational changes”: “‘The first generation is fired up, enthusiastic, and dedicated to God. […] The second generation goes through the motions. The third generation doesn’t care.’” On March 6, he concluded what would be his final sermon with these words: “‘Today, it’s my duty to encourage members to start worshipping in another congregation of your choice….’” 

At the opposite extreme, Florida’s First Miami Presbyterian, the oldest congregation in the city, and sitting hard by Biscayne Bay, will become a “bay-front 80-story luxury condo tower,” The Guardian reported in April—yes, this is news even in Britain. (Actually, the church will “keep its sanctuary, but lose its school, office space, and sun-scarred parking lot”; mind you, it’ll get “20,000 square feet of additional worship space just beneath a lavish pool deck on the 11th floor.”) 

In his story, “The great church property flip,” The Guardian’s Jordan Blumetti points out that, “Other than the federal government, religious organizations are the largest owners of real estate” in the U.S. But, if First Presbyterian’s pastor, Christopher Benek, has it right, “the American church…could be extinct by the year 2030,” Blumetti reports him as saying. He visits Audrey Warren, as well—she’s minister at nearby First United Methodist: “The ‘death tsunami of the church,’ as Warren calls it, is expected to reach its apex within the next 10 to 20 years, as the death rate of Baby Boomers increases…. ‘These are people who give full tithe, but also [serve as] our volunteers, teachers, and elders,’ she says. ‘We’re going to lose these people soon.’”

It’s as the Associated Press spelled out in a January dispatch: “Fewer souls in the pews means less money coming in to pay for staffing, upkeep, and programs, forcing smaller congregations to sell their buildings.” United Church of Canada congregations are not immune. Here’s a sampling of nearby, recent closures:

➽  In 2020, Westlock United sold its iconic downtown building—it’s now Kerri’s Cafe & Bakery. “Our congregation is getting older, and the young people aren’t coming out to support us,” its board chair told townandcountytoday.com reporter Andreea Resmerita. “The short story is, we’re no longer bringing in enough money to support the building.”

➽  The Toronto Star’s local journalism initiative reporter in Swan Hills, the Grizzley Gazette’s Dean LaBerge, wrote lately about the sale of what was once the United Church building there: “Reduced participation in today’s religious institutions seems to be the modern trend, and it is even more noticeable in small towns like Swan Hills. The current membership is down to just four people….”

➽  Not every here-today, gone-tomorrow church building is necessarily sold. As was reported in SSUC’s own Morning Messenger in May, “The United Church community of faith in Ashmont, near Saddle Lake, had planned to sell their building. However, instead, with the approval of the [UCC’s] Northern Spirit Regional Council, as an act of reconciliation, and in the spirit of right relations, they have gifted it to the Acimowin [Opaspiw] Society,” which represents the interests of residential school survivors and their descendants.  

Here’s what it’s come to, this downward slide: there’s now in the U.S., AP reports, a nonprofit—Partners for Sacred Places—that “helps religious institutions nationwide make plans and raise money to repurpose their spaces for a different era.” No surprise then that California realtor Dominic Dutra has just authored Closing Costs, a book about how church property can be repurposed.

Now it is that “[c]ongregations are major community hubs,” a spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Religion and Social Policy Research has noted. Repurposed church buildings can still be that: as the two Christian Science Monitor writers mention, groups “are finding that one fundamental purpose of church—community uplift—can take many forms.” They quote Dave Blum, co-owner of that church-turned-skate-park in Missouri: “A whole community came together to build this structure because it was important to them. And now what we’re trying to do is have a whole community come together to maintain this structure.” 

Right. So other than believers can join to form communities. Like maybe barflies: in February, Religion News Service reported that, “today the U.S. has roughly 30 breweries based in once-vacant churches.”