Declining membership and the either/or decision

More congregations in the US and Canada are reluctantly facing the question posed a physical plant that suited a time when membership was much larger. Why not merge with another congregation in your denomination so that outreach is possible?

The Halifax Chronicle Herald

But the majestic brick building on Chebucto Road in Halifax may be sold once the congregation joins the parish of St. Philip’s, as the number of parishioners steadily declines. Abandoning historic — and more modern — churches has become an increasingly frequent reality not only for the Anglican church, but for a broad spectrum of faith communities that have watched their houses of worship grow progressively empty in the past 50 years.

The Roman Catholic faith shut down five churches in the Halifax diocese within the last four years: three older buildings closed in the Halifax Regional Municipality and two shut down in Amherst. The diocese built two new churches, Saint Benedict in Halifax and Holy Family Parish in Amherst, to house the newly amalgamated congregations, a spokeswoman for the diocese says. “In each case, the decision around combining (came from) a combination of the economic efficiencies of moving from older buildings to a newer building that would meet our needs,” said Marilyn Sweet. “The congregations were each getting smaller. So when we put them together, they’re a better size and we have new energy to attract more people.”


“It’s interesting that in the city of Halifax, churches of other traditions are making the same decisions (we are) in order to carry out the ministry of the church,” Sweet said.

“Everybody comes to understand that we cannot continue just to keep our church buildings open and meet the missions of the church, so it’s in that context that people have to make such a difficult decision.”

St. Matthew’s United Church has also had to adjust to declining attendance, and recently proposed to its congregation that it sell some of its surrounding land to developers so that the church could stay open. A member of the church’s board said in an email Tuesday that it had no plans to close.

It’s all here.

Not to be defeatist, but at some point the answer is not that a congregation and its clergy have failed at evangelism. Laying the blame of declining membership at the feet of the congregation or the clergy is not healthy when the reasons people stop going to church are beyond their control. The question for those left behind is how to be faithful stewards in these circumstances. How do you discern whether your church community has become an idol?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Ann Fontaine

    This is and has been a huge problem on the reservations where money from the East coast funded large physical plants and left them with no funds or source of income to maintain them. Unless they can be rented to some agency – they fall into ruin.

  2. Michael LaBelle

    I question the question about whether church community has become an idol. That’s like saying is your home an idol? Well…no it’s not. It’s where I live. Am I attached to my home? Sure. Who isn’t? Using the term “idol” is misleading and unhelpful. But to the larger point. The main reason Church membership is declining is so simple that it boggles the mind why people are puzzling about it. People are not coming because they don’t like the product the Church is selling. The best fix? In the liturigical tradition the best way to get people back is to totally revamp the liturgy. Move away from the Fall/Redemption language, which mostly people don’t relate to anymore, and get something more earth centered, more creation centered. Something like the Celtic style lituries they are using in places like Iona and Lindisfarne.

  3. Adam Spencer


    I must respectfully disagree. As a young person who didn’t grow up Christian, what attracted me to the Church and specifically to the Episcopal Church was its ancient liturgical heritage which included plenty of traditional language, imagery and theology. I find in solemn high masses, chant, the Daily Office, and “Fall/Redemption language” not something outmoded or outdated but a rich and vibrant way of thinking about and experiencing the Mystery and Majesty of God and the beautiful and painfully conflicted experience of being human in all of its light-filled joy and darkened sinfulness. What made me an Episcopalian (rather than a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian) was a combination of this commitment to liturgical tradition along with a progressive engagement in the world and the warm welcoming embrace that I experienced in the parish that I first attended. I don’t think the Church’s future lies in “selling a better product” or changing our way to be more in line with the latest cultural movement, focus group or opinion poll. I think we stay true to our tradition while being open, loving communities that welcome and embrace all who come to them and to strive constantly to be God’s people in this world. And then trust God to work it all out.

    But that’s just my two cents.


  4. Keith Nethery

    The article from Halifax is specifically about declining attendance and buildings. It is rather straight forward logic that if you have fewer people, you can’t support a large building. Too often I see small groups of people working themselves to the bone fundraising to keep the doors open, with no strength left to do ministry when the pies are baked, the bazaar is through, and dinner is served. At some point we need to ask ourselves why? If it is about keeping a whistlestop building open in every community, name it and pursue it, but don’t be surprised if the decline accelerates when you do. It’s a trite oft used question, but always worth asking. What kind of a building was it that Jesus ministered in? If it’s either or (which in many places it is) the building goes, the ministry continues. To me that is a no brainer – to many many small Anglican communities, the building is non negotiable.

  5. Adam,

    I grew up in a protestant, strongly Evangelical setting, and what attracted me to the Episcopal Church was certainly the riches of liturgy (and it was 1928 Prayer Book liturgy), music, art, movement, and the strong sense of tradition. I still care deeply about all of that and therefore am drawn to the broadest, most catholic look at pre-Guthenberg tradtions of music-making and participation and am also astonished, grateful and moved to find the substantial tradition of the first Christian centuries talked richly of our salvation and freedom in Christ and a Gospel of God’s ending the power of death and making all people one that could speak all that without a formulaic or predictable appeal to Fall/Redemption. Celtic traditions of original blessing seem to have come to Britain with missionary-monks from the middle Eastern and Egyptian desert. I suspect that the Fall/Redemption formula (and the church’s increasingly confident claim to controlling the sacramental and only means to Redemption) gained ground in the West as the church embraced an ordering and civilizing role in the early days of Rome’s collapse.

    The same deep longing for joining with something much bigger than our individual selves and local community that makes traditional practice so powerful can open our eyes to the breadth of what’s ‘traditional’ and invite us to look for and welcome the Spirit moving among traditions and in communities outside the church.

  6. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    The key to all of this, at least so it seems to me, is to ask in each context where the Spirit is at work. Where are people getting passionate about the grace of the Gospel and gathering to join in that work? Where are people’s needs most prescient, and how can we serve them with our message?

    If our building(s) can no longer serve our particular calling to follow the leading of the Spirit in our midst, then, yes, they have become something we’d best part with. But if they remain a place where vital ministry is happening, then they still matter.

  7. John B. Chilton

    “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

    Most often we accomplish at a place we call our church home. It’s the base camp.

    One of the powerful things about our church home is that we form a bond to the people and the building. The memories of weddings, baptisms, funerals, the memorials we makes implicitly and explicitly cause a strong attachment. It’s a gift of human nature, but it can also be a snare. Letting go of home is painful. There’s no doubt. But the question remains, what does faithful stewardship require? In some cases keeping the doors open is the right choice. But not always.

  8. I actually do think that is is usually at least part of the answer that the congregation has failed at evangelism. We really aren’t very good at inviting people to join us on the journey of faith, and we keep holding on to a failed strategy (If we build it, they will come) which never really worked anyway.

    But the other problem is that too many congregations end up in a situation where the physical plany has long since ceased to be an asset, but an impediment to mission.

    Malcolm French+

  9. Michael and Adam, I think you really illustrate that one liturgical style or the other isn’t really the definitive issue. In my own diocese I’ve heard the comments when one rector speaks to success of evangelical, “praise-oriented” worship, while another responds with the success of traditional, formal and solemn worship. The issue is, really, what might speak to this congregation in these circumstances, and what can I discover in the broad tradition of the Church that will seem to work here and now.

    Keith, in our diocese we’re trying to think about the meaning of the “whistlestop” church. Our bishop as he prepares to retire has challenged us to think about the value of maintaining those ministries, knowing that they are not likely to become self-supporting. What would it mean to support the ministries they can do, the presence they can provide, if we realize they will not pay for themselves? Are those ministries, that presence, valuable out of proportion to revenue? And if so, how can we help maintain them?

    We want a building because we want to control our own worship space. But, what building? And in a corollary question, how can we appreciate when we hear that “we live in the midst of things that are passing away,” that those things might also include our buildings (while not our communities)?

    Marshall Scott

  10. tgflux

    The main reason Church membership is declining is so simple that it boggles the mind why people are puzzling about it. People are not coming because they don’t like the product the Church is selling. The best fix?

    Um, no one can agree on that, Michael. How can you get a single “best fix” for ALL the people who aren’t attending members of TEC? It’s too broad a demographic to survey, w/ any meaningful results. (JMO)

    JC Fisher

  11. C. Wingate

    I’m not going to go into speculations about what is or is not causing decline. The fact of decline is there, and it is across the board. I took a minute here to look at the charts for the first two dozen or so parishes in the Diocese of Maryland (which is showing an overall slow decline in ASA since 2002) and there is not a single parish that shows any kind of steady growth. Most are holding their own; some show steady declines. The sample ranges from urban to suburban to rural to outlying city parishes, and the pattern is much the same regardless.

    I doubt that ECUSA is plagued with the RC pattern of big urban churches whose immigrant congregations have moved away; I doubt in my diocese there are as many Episcopal church which can seat 500 as there were RC churches built in Baltimore City alone. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that for every Episcopal parish in the state, there was an RC parish built in Baltimore that was three times the size.

    Obviously the pattern is going to be quite different in South Dakota. Nevertheless in this diocese parish viability is not that big an issue. And I do not accept the notion that a small church has less potential for evangelism than a large one has.

  12. Rod Gillis

    St. Matthias parish is one of several parishes on peninsular Halifax that are in crisis because of huge demographic shifts. Interestingly there is a new mosque and Islamic cultural center under construction next door to St. Matthias. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax has closed several parishes as the article indicates. However, they have also recently opened a new and very large Church in a still expanding end of Halifax. A new Anglican church opened last year just down the street from the new R.c. church. Plans for constructing a second R.C. building in the new burbs a couple of miles outside the city limits are well under way. A small but very new Anglican building opened in that same area just several years ago. The big challenge for Anglicans here in Nova Scotia is finding an effective way to make decisions about redundant buildings that serviced the baby boom generation in decades past.

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