Nearly three years ago when the church building for St. Paul’s, Prince Albert, Sask., was structurally condemned, the congregation moved into the local Masonic Lodge. “We have a few members of our congregation who are Masons, and they suggested the lodge as a potential space for us,” said Sharon Shynkaruk, a congregation member. “It’s a nice place, the room we meet in has these high backed chairs, and an altar already set up, so it’s almost like having a church again.”
The repair costs were about $1.5 million—too high for the small congregation. So they sold the church building and moved into the lodge’s basement. It may not look like church to the common imagination, but adapting to situations and surviving is a new skill many congregations are developing in the post-Christendom age.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada has been in decline for decades. From 2004-2014 it lost about 14.5 per cent of its members, or upwards of 18,000 people. As numbers continue their downward slide, and congregations begin to feel the shrinking pains, many are being forced to seek out new alternatives to the traditional church model.
Sometimes that requires giving up a building. Other times, it might require a new approach to attracting young people, or a hard revision on community outreach. For others, like St. Andrew’s, Chatsworth, Ont., they didn’t so much lose one building as gain three.
Within Chatsworth, four struggling churches in the same area chose to come together in order to survive, rather than die out alone. They are now one congregation in four buildings.
“At first, people were very resistant to the idea, because that’s not how it’s done, having three ministers for four churches, and being spread around like that,” said Eric MacLeod, the clerk of session for St. Andrew’s. “But it’s enabled us to do things we couldn’t do on our own, like start a youth group. None of the churches had enough youth for one before, but with cooperation, now we can do it.
“The thing is, people want church to be like it was back in the 1960s, but they’re forgetting the 2,000 years of church history that we’re built on. The church has always been changing.”
Indeed, the view of churches nowadays is a far cry from what the apostles would have dealt with back in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our stereotypical churches are tall buildings full of people in Sunday dress, with a preacher giving a sermon in between bouts of the choir singing. In comparison, the early church existed in communities set up by believers where they shared belongings, and worshipped in their houses, often over meals.
As the world changed, so too did the church, evolving to serve the needs of the community, and to better preach God’s message to the rest of the world. In the same way, churches today need to evolve how they preach the gospel and interact with their communities if they want to grow congregations. There is no one-size-fits-all manual on what to do to save a struggling church. Even if a solution is found, many times that solution will bring its own set of challenges.
St. Andrew’s has found a lot of unique problems with being one congregation with four buildings.
“Our three ministers are constantly running around to church,” MacLeod said. “Trying to balance all four locations isn’t easy. They’re doing a lot of commuting, so it’s hard for them to get time to connect with the parish.”
Or take Hummingbird Ministries in Richmond, B.C. The ministry of healing and reconciliation, which seeks to help repair relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people by establishing circle ministries, is in itself a challenge. “Native people can be really turned off by the church because of the long history of residential schools in this country,” says elder Dorothy Visser. “Oftentimes it can be hard to reach out when they already have all this bad history, and have no desire to get involved with churches after what they’ve been through.”
But for these churches, and many others, there are ways to find help and support. Canadian Ministries, for example, offers supporting grants to congregations in need through Presbyterians Sharing.
Not only do they offer financial support, they also offer workshops, which can help church leaders in discerning how to move forward in their ministries, as well as strategies to continue to grow their missions. For many though, these workshops are about more than learning strategic tips on mission growth.
“We’re here [at the workshop] to renew our vision, yes, but it also helps to get affirmation and advice from others in specialized ministry,” said Rev. Deb Rapport, founder and director of ARISE Ministries. ARISE offers street level outreach to sex workers in Toronto, as well as counselling and assistance to those who choose to come in for oneon-one case management. “Especially in the beginning, we had issues of acceptance and how we were serving, and it’s really helpful to come here and get advice from people who know what it’s like to be in a specialized ministry.”
For many churches, the slow loss of members may sometimes feel like an unfixable leak. But even as church membership declines, there are hopeful, growing ministries all around us, challenging what it means to be a church, and what outreach can be. Their different approaches can appear odd and nontraditional at first, but churches need to adapt in order to thrive.
To learn more about the types of support the PCC offers, contact Jennifer de Combe, associate secretary of Canadian Ministries, at jdecombe@ presbyterian.ca