On Wednesday I stopped in the little town of Dongara to refuel for the northbound trip. As I did I spotted a new cafe that had popped up since my last visit – a cafe that was working from a familiar looking old building. See the image above…
You know what building used to be. It was a ‘church’ building – no mega church, that’s for sure as there was barely enough room inside for a small kitchen and a few tables. This building used to serve a local community of Christians, but it had clearly seen it’s use by date. It was now being ‘re-purposed’ as a coffee shop. Based on the number of people there it seems to have been much more successful in this mode.
But this re-purposing of old church buildings is not a new thing – we just haven’t seen a lot of it in WA. Around this time 2 years ago we were passing thru South Oz and I saw an old church building for sale on Gumtree – $75K. Sounded like a bargain and I imagine someone snapped it up and converted it to an air bnb, a trendy cafe or maybe an art gallery. This isn’t happening with the same frequency in the cities where churches can survive that bit longer, but across our country towns we see most churches shrinking, especially smaller towns where the younger people leave for the city or for broader horizons. The proverbial ‘writing is on the wall’ for many of these churches.
What’s ironic is that in many of these towns there are at least 2 or 3 churches all in the same boat – small congregations struggling to survive, unable to attract a pastor and just doing the best they can with what they have. Some are in ‘limp’ mode, while others have a few more k’s in the tank before the red light warns that the end is nigh. As I have pondered how these churches move forward into the future it’s hard to see any easy solution. I even ask what the value is of 7 or 8 people gathering week after week in a large building while down the road the same thing happens. It seems absurd and to anyone looking on from the outside it would be utterly bewildering.
‘So you guys believe in the same God, read the same Bible and believe roughly the same things?’
‘So why not come together and do it!’
It’s so incredibly obvious to an outsider who doesn’t understand how these communities have been deeply formed by distinct cultural and theological practices over the years. My own experience in small towns is limited, and I think the theory of ‘merging’ is great, but I just can’t see it happening any time soon. Most smaller churches would rather march to their death entrenched in their own ways of worship than have to compromise their long held traditions in a merge.
And yes it looks absurd to those of us who are ‘insiders’ also, until we begin to scratch a little deeper. I was reading John 17 this morning – Jesus prayer for his followers to be ‘one’ – not a theory, but a genuine call to unity. And as I did I began to journal around what cultural and theological issues I would struggle to let go. Turns out there are a few.
Could I go to a KJV only, hat wearing, fire and brimstone church where attendance was expected at every service (like the church I grew up in) and allow my own preferences for informality and theological exploration to be curtailed? I honestly don’t think I could do that in the name of ‘unity’. What about a complementarian community where my wife and daughter would be always limited in the way they could express their gifts?… I don’t think so… If it meant life or death for the church could I give up an informality in our way of gathering and return to a more rigid and old fashioned way of meeting? Maybe… but if that culture carried over into the rest of the community life then I think I’d almost rather not be part of a church than subject myself to that again.
So while part of me says ‘hey we ought to just get over our differences’, I’m not actually sure that I could do that in practice. There are convictions I hold very deeply about how church is expressed that would be incredibly difficult to let go of.
And if it’s difficult to imagine two churches of the same denomination merging then what hope is there for Baptists, Anglicans and Salvos all throwing their hand in together in an ongoing way? Whose ‘way’ gets to shape the future? What would the church do with their existing buildings? What form of leadership would govern the church? Whose theology takes prescience?
It’s not hard to see how we have got to where we are today.
Perhaps a better path forward is for these smaller churches is to consciously and intentionally raise up leaders from within. We are working with a smaller country church at the moment, but if someone asked me if I’d like to live there and lead that church I would not be interested at all. I also don’t think I’d be a good fit for them – but I’d get very bored in that tiny town. It just wouldn’t be for me. But there are locals who love it there – who have no intention of ever moving! They love their town and are committed to it no matter what the future holds. So maybe the future leadership of these churches need to be found from within. Perhaps those who love the town and are committed to being there are the people who ought to lead the church into the future.
I’ve seen this happen in a couple of towns now, where local people have stepped up to the plate to lead the churches they once attended as members. And the great advantage of this is that they know and love the community, they know and love the church, they aren’t seeing it as a stepping stone to a ‘real’ ministry position. Of course unless they are diligent about raising up successors the hand of time will eventually catch up with them and the problem will re-surface. But perhaps this is the approach we should adopt with churches that still have life left in them. For others that are simply die hard, uncompromising and unwilling to change perhaps the easiest solution is to let them die.
And yeah I hear you Jesus… this isn’t what you had in mind in John 17, but I doubt we are gonna get close to that any time soon.