A CBC article citing a report from a non profit group called National Trust Canada (https://nationaltrustcanada.ca/), suggests that within 10 years 9000 Canadian churches will have to close. Most of these churches are from mainline denominations. They the ones who enjoyed inherited privilege at the centre of Canadian culture for generations. Privilege equates to wealth which contributed to the purchase of assets (land and buildings) across the country.

It’s not just beautiful, historic buildings that will be lost, but also the sense of community provided by worship spaces. Churches have not just been for Sunday, but for Girl Guides and political meetings, weddings and funerals, piano lessons and programs for the homeless.

The height of this prominence ended in the 1950s. That was the high watermark in church attendance with around 2/3s of all Canadians visiting a worship service weekly. Every major city in the country has a church building that spans entire city blocks, one each for every major denomination, as reigning monument of this era. Since then, Canada has been pushing the church to the margins. Dwindling congregations may not be new news. Yet as the once mighty denominations fall, there has been little urgency over the decades to innovate. The distinct absence of noteworthy shifts in thinking and function has led to the slow but consistent demise.

Which begs the question. What’s going to happen to the 9000 churches? 

I want to make a case that some (all?) should be given away.

Instead, the primary ways to deal with empty buildings and mounting debt have been:

  1. In a last gasp, try to revitalize the congregation.
  2. Sell the building to a bigger church.
  3. Sell the property to developers.

If new ideas haven’t already taken shape over the decades it’s unlikely #1 will work in time to save a dying congregation. Change is hard to embody for anybody, especially near death. Options one and two are also fundamentally flawed. They both centre on treating the building (the Sunday service) as the main attraction. That’s not a shift in thinking or function. We know Canadians don’t seek out the church (a Sunday service) for answers to life’s questions. Only Christians, and lifelong ones at that, care to participate in weekly services.

Number two may work if there’s a growing (often ethnic) congregation to takeover. In this case, the dying church may wish to gift their building to the new community. I’ve seen this happen, and successfully, many times. (As an aside, I’m sure it has happened, but I’ve never seen a white congregation/denomination gift a building to a burgeoning ethnic congregation.) However, this may simply be an exercise in delaying the inevitable. When a church centres its existence on the Sunday worship service, it will eventually succumb to the same cultural pressures that befell the original body.

Then there’s number three that most fledgling denominations use to stay afloat–they cannibalize themselves. If churches/denominations were businesses first, then selling land to the highest bidder would make sense. But they’re not. Selling off the dead and weak in order to pay for the slightly less dead is a way to prolong life, but it’s a band-aid that won’t prevent the inevitable. It also demonstrates a lack of leadership in good asset stewardship, and competency that leaves behind good legacy. Although #3 is the option of choice for most, it’s the least imaginative.

It also ensures that Traditionalist and Baby Boomers will have the dubious distinction of leaving far less behind than they inherited. It’s within the lifetime of most aging churchgoers where this country saw the height of their existence. And within the same life most of it will be gone. How’s that for legacy? More importantly, how’s that for embodying and participating in God’s mission? We need to expand our imagination.

Canada is indeed a secularized nation where revitalized and growing congregations, particularly mainline ones, are rare. Assets (buildings) have been under-utilized for decades. A business with the same predicament would have an auditor admonish them for the lack of proper use of the empty space. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It’s just that hope won’t come from within. Answers for what’s next to not only survive, but thrive, requires a re-thinking on how we “do church” and utilize the assets. Furthermore, the nature of institutions is one of self preservation. Although I’m submitting three ideas, the amount bureaucracy to make any of them happen would be substantial.

3 Ideas for Aging Church Buildings – “The 9000 Church Challenge”

1. Give the Land Back.

Land is central to indigenous identity. Land is also a mechanism colonizers employ to dominate. What would it look like to return the land to the Treaty holders in your territory?

Despite many mainline denominations claiming interest in activities such as racial reconciliation, ALL are centered in whiteness. That is to say that ALL still led by white leaders (usually men) who are defacto agents to perpetuate systemic oppression. Many of these denominations were active participants in evils that included the support for residential schooling. Most have property on reservations. Given there are so many buildings in disrepair, some beyond repair, in the middle of nowhere with no chance of sale or revitalization, why not just give the land back. I’m not suggesting that only the worst assets are worth considering to give away, but that may be an easier pill to swallow for the miser hoarding his coins. Obviously, this process is not simple. Particularly when that system (whiteness) is designed to do the opposite of gifting anything to the subjugated.

Nonetheless, if you preach racial reconciliation then do it. Reconcile by giving identity from those who had it stolen.

2. Gift the Emerging Generation.

Rather than opting for the least imaginative route of selling assets to developers, look to invest. There are growing congregations that somehow buck the prevailing trends and would relish the opportunity to inherit an asset. (Although assets cost money, and many buildings have deferred maintenance which can amount into the millions.) Given the economic climate in earnings, lending, and property value, emerging congregations, particularly ethnic and church planters, can’t afford land in the city. A dying church that has no chance for revival, and no generation waiting behind it, would do well to gift away their own gift.

This is kingdom work, one that should stretch beyond denominational affiliation, and towards the revitalization of neighborhood parish possibilities.

3. Become a Hub (Parish) with a Smaller Footprint.

It may be pointless to gift assets to new congregations who are essentially doing the same thing albeit with a younger demographic. The fundamental question about being a church in a new culture needs to be answered. We need new imagination and practices on everything. What is the church, how to gather, how to do mission, etc. Asking these questions should produce new ways of doing. For example, in selling land, many churches are looking at mixed-use property. Creating affordable housing or office space to generate income or address social needs. Simultaneously, they are retaining sacred space, but in a much smaller footprint (no longer do we need full city blocks.) This innovation operates by selling part of the under-utilized asset to fuel a re-imagined approach.

This seems like a no brainer but there are so few examples at work. (I seem to only hear over and over again the success of St. Jax in Montreal. There should be others doing similar things.)

There’s more that could be written, and has been written, on these three options. Do you have some others? Post them in the comments.

With these three, however, I want to extend a challenge to existing denominations who are faced with dwindling congregations and mounting debt to service buildings in disrepair. RETHINK what you do with your assets. Those assets were/are gifts given to a generation, and ones that can be gifted unto the next generation.

There’s supposedly 9000 church building out there ready for revitalization. Who’s going to take some risks and try new things? I want to hear more and more stories about these new ventures. We have the tough part in the bag–the buildings. Let’s use them.