by Pastor Doug Kings
A recent Facebook post got my attention for a reason the writer didn’t intend. It appeared in an artist group that I participate in. The writer was telling about her experience touring a small town in Croatia. Most businesses were closed as it was off-season, but she found a church with its door ajar. She went in and discovered it was now an art studio (with much original church art still in place). The artist using it explained that the city rents empty churches to artists to use as studios.
It was the phrase “rents empty churches” (plural) that made me pause. Apparently, churches are state property here (as is often true in Europe, which is why—for example—France is on the hook for repairing Notre Dame), and this little town has more unused ones than they know what to do with. This repurposing seems like a good match.
But figuring out what to do with unneeded church buildings is a growing challenge. In my sermon two weeks ago, I mentioned an article in The Economist titled (ominously), “The world’s religions face a post-pandemic reckoning.” It notes that property maintenance is often one of the biggest expenses for churches. Declining memberships have put many congregations in a bind and the pandemic has added new wrinkle.
With the arrival of COVID-19, all churches experienced dramatic drops in onsite worship attendance, with many canceling such services altogether for many months. As in-person services have resumed, however, worshipers have been slow to return for a variety of reasons.
Surveys have shown that some still didn’t feel safe and when—or if—they will return is unclear. For others, the pandemic has caused a change in their worship habits. Some, who presumably already had weak church connections, have dropped out. Many are continuing to use online streaming options, at least some of the time, because they prefer it to in-person worship. Some now watch services from multiple churches or have even “left” their previous congregation to watch a different one.
With people leaving churches, changing churches, or opting for online options, the physical space congregations need is becoming a major question. Many congregations were already in buildings larger than they needed and the pandemic has only amplified that challenge. Many worship spaces now often seem half empty and, instead of a large room, meetings and classes only need an office for the Zoom facilitator.
Social scientists are unanimous that this pandemic will leave lasting cultural changes around the world. For churches, even when this pandemic fades into the background, there will be permanent changes in many people’s religious practices and attitudes. And this, of course, is on top of changes that have been underway for many years.
Those empty church buildings in Croatia didn’t just happen. In the UK, churches have been closing at a rate of 200/year for over a decade. One-third of American synagogues have closed in the past twenty years and Canada expects a third of its church buildings to close in the next ten years. But the issue is larger than property management and space utilization.
It’s been recognized for some time that people don’t belong to organizations the way they used to. Not just congregations but VFWs, PTAs, fraternal lodges, and many other groups have seen their memberships shrink. People’s social lives are changing. Also, for an increasing number of people having a faith and spiritual practices doesn’t necessarily mean belonging to a religious organization. Dramatic cultural shifts are underway, and the pandemic is only accelerating them.
While it is natural for us in the church to lament these changes, our energy would be better used in thinking imaginatively about how religious faith and life can best be expressed in the future. The spirit of experimentation that arose during the pandemic needs to continue.
Many previously unquestionable beliefs and practices likely need to be questioned. What is the purpose of a congregation? How can a church be a spiritual center for the whole community? And what kind of facility or property, if any, does it genuinely need? Letting a church building become an art studio isn’t the worst thing that can happen. The bigger issue is: How can the church become again a gracious and dynamic presence in the world today?
Shortly before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speculated that we were nearing the time of “religionless Christianity” because humanity was “coming of age.” In other words, human spiritual needs were changing and becoming more personal and less institutional. We may be seeing the fulfillment of his vision.
Blessings in your life and ministry.