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The other side of church growth

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Church growth is a very popular topic. Church death? Not so much.

A Google search for church growth returns millions of pages. You can find institutes, seminars, conferences, movements, and lots of books about starting or growing churches.

But how to close a church? Good luck finding much information on that subject.

Yet the fact is that churches not only get born – they die. Every year, hundreds of churches in Canada close their doors. The United Church of Canada alone is closing about one a week; in the U.S., it’s reported that 50 churches a week shut down.

Why are they closing? One reason is changing neighbourhood demographics – witness all the empty or struggling historic churches located in the core areas of major Canadian cities.

Another reason is rural depopulation. As small towns in rural Canada decline, churches can decline with them. One town I know used to have three vibrant churches; now only one is still open.

Theological disputes, or disagreement over worship style, can also lead to closure. One church I’m familiar with can trace its decline to a decision made about 20 years ago not to allow contemporary music in its services. The result? Young people, and young families, left in droves. Today it’s a small, aging congregation that wonders how long it can keep going.

Then there’s the simple matter of falling church attendance in Canada. Fewer people means fewer dollars in the offering plate, and also a need for fewer churches.

Church death

Despite all this, it’s rare to hear much about church death. But Philip Jenkins is trying to change that.

“I sometimes ask audiences how many people have ever read a book on the growth or establishment of a church, and many people raise their hands,” says Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died. “Then I ask how many people have ever read a book on the death or extinction of a church, and virtually nobody does. But in history, church death is a very common phenomenon.”

In the book, Jenkins explores the rich, but relatively unknown, history of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

“Its sheer scale is astonishing,” he writes of the Nestorian, Chaldean, and Jacobite churches that were thriving and growing at a time when Europe’s Christians were buffeted by pagan influences.

“Looking at the world in 850 or so, few observers would have doubted that the Christian future lay in the Middle East and Asia, rather than in the barbarian-ravaged lands of Western Europe.”

And yet, those ancient churches are gone. All that’s left are small remnants in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and – growing smaller every year – Palestine, home to the original Christian church.

Their disappearance points to a “major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction,” says Jenkins. “How do Christians explain the death of their religion in a particular time and place? Is that really part of God’s plan? Or maybe our time scale is just too short, and one day we will realize why this had to happen…. Nobody is really discussing these questions.”

For Jenkins, the experience of Christianity in that region is a springboard for a wider discussion about the topic of church death. “We have a theology of mission, not a theology of retreat,” he says.

Ultimately, the future of the church is not in our hands. It is Christ’s church – not ours. In the meantime, however, many congregations today struggle as their numbers decline, members age, giving decreases, and bills mount. It would be great if they could find renewed strength and energy, but they may also need guidance on how to successfully, and gracefully, close a church.

Maybe we need a theology of retreat, after all.

John Longhurst is a faith page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, and a member of River East Mennonite Brethren Church, Winnipeg.

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