Declining membership and the either/or decision

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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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Rod Gillis
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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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C. Wingate
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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.

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tgflux
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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

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Execute
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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

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Malcolm+
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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+

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