The Decline of the Church?

 I heard a speaker a few months ago who made the claim that, just as the church in Europe has declined dramatically in numbers in recent decades, the church in America is headed for the same kind of decline. He was not the first person I heard make this claim, but he used rather flimsy anecdotal evidence to support his claim: he flashed picture on the screen of church buildings in England that are no longer used for church meetings, but have become bookstores,  nightclubs, etc.

While the claims about the American church declining may well be true, the poor logic compelled me to put together some photos and words that would deconstruct the inadequate reasoning in his presentation. This post begins the analysis.

I thought that, perhaps, if I wandered the streets of my city – Tacoma, WA – looking for examples of what he was talking about, I could gain some material. The initial results could fill a few more slides in his presentation to support the idea of the church’s decline.

Just moments away from my home, I found this former church building.

The sign in front – “Abbey Ballroom” – shows that it is no longer being used as a church, but as a dance hall. Hmmm.

Just a few blocks away sits another structure that follows the classical design for an American church building – but the sign over the door belies its actual function. Is this yet another sign of the apostasy of American Christianity?

A short drive over to Tacoma’s 6th Ave neighborhood rewarded my search with yet another example – a beautiful stone building which formerly functioned as a Baptist church.

It is now adorned with the signs below:

Further signs of church decay? If I said so, I would be saying it with my tongue firmly in cheek.

More to come on where my journey led me next…on why these buildings are not the best indicator of church vitality, why scare tactics are not the best motivation for mission, and how amusing it can be when various people offer up their “pet issues” as solutions to the challenges the church faces.


4 thoughts on “The Decline of the Church?

  1. Did he have anything to say about the (anecdotal, I don’t have statistics, just experience) apparent rise in churches meeting in alternative venues? We meet in a converted warehouse, as does Mars Hill Ballard. With MH Oly we were in a college lecture hall and movie theater. Then MH FW at the middle shcool. There was a big thing with churches meeting in schools in New York. I’ve seen and heard of many churches meeting in schools and movie theaters. I saw a thing Easter morning on TV about a multi-site in DC that buys movie theaters to meet in and owns a non-profit coffee shop to support missions. I know of one near me that meets in a renovated store of some sort. Mars Hill (Michigan) meets in a converted mall… the list could go on and on.

    Isn’t there an argument to be made that Christian culture is, perhaps, changing its view on what the Church is and moving away from the notion of a building in favor of recognizing it as groups of believers who meet for worship and fellowship?

    1. He didn’t, but I immediately thought on the same lines you are. My next set of photos will have buildings where churches meet that weren’t built to be churches. Imagine: churches becoming part of the places and rythms of life shared with their community. How profound! Although, honestly, I kinda wish churches with good theology would start leasing the beautiful buildings that were abandoned by churches that didn’t make it. After all, does having sound doctrine mean you have to meet in an ugly building?

      1. Yeah, I figured that might be where you were going. Hope I didn’t steal any of your thunder… but it’s hit a little close to home for me over the past couple months.

        I’m kind of torn on the topic. I really like the idea of the church being an organic part of the community and especially the aspect of the space being useful beyond Sunday morning (and maybe evening and Wednesday for some churches). But at the same time, church buildings are usually pretty cool.

        As I said before, we meet in a converted warehouse at the International Aid building. But there’s a really big, cool old church in town that used to be a solid church called Christ Community Church. Then the pastor retired and a new guy came in started changing it into an “inclusive spiritual community.” They took down their cross and dropped the Christ from their name, shortening it to C3 exchange.

        Our church, which was just forming at the time (it had recently been planted from another larger church) offered to take the cross, so we have it in storage somewhere now. Anyway, C3 quickly went from just shy of a thousand a week to just shy of 200 per week. They lost the building to bankruptcy and now they meet in a community center and the church building stands abandoned.

        Our church has the opportunity to get the church, basically free after some rich folks front the cash, donate the building and get a tax write off for the cost. Right now we’re praying about it and considering it and it’s probably going to happen. But yeah, how cool is that to be able to put solid doctrine back into a church building and put the cross back up!

        Initially I was a little opposed to the idea because there’s a part of me that really takes a weird pride in going to an alternative-venue church. It feels a little rebellious, I guess. But reinvigorating a beautiful church building is really amazing! In then end, I came to the understanding that I don’t care where we meet, because what I really appreciate is the community of believers around me and I’d be content to meet for church at a dumpster behind a Denny’s. I think that’s what’s important.

      2. “…dumpster behind a Denny’s” – golden! I really appreciate either of the approaches you’re talking about, and feel a bit torn. I know that I am not big on church buildings that are pragmatic, box-like structures that fit the geography of nowhere. Let the church’s meeting place be aesthetically beautiful and connected to the liturgical heritage of the Universal Church, or let it be integrated with the daily life of the community in which it operates. But lets not accept the suburban uniformity that reflects nothing of the distinctiveness of the location or the beauty and longevity of the historical body of Christ.

        I think I just put half of my next post into a comment. Hum.

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