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What Would Jesus Say?
Would Jesus lament the decline and closure of church buildings? Perhaps not, but losing a building could put God's people in danger of losing contact with each other.

It's no secret that the Christ revealed in the Bible worried a lot more about saving people than preserving architecture.

Photo, courtesy, The Guardian.
Time may be running out for some church buildings. They can require as much as $1 million in repairs — too much for small family-based parishes.
Photo, courtesy, The Guardian.

Carpentry may have been His early vocation, but Jesus's lasting work was the rescuing and repairing of lost souls.

What would the Lord make of the current state of church buildings and church attendance? Is the instinct to save P.E.I.'s fading chapels rooted in the protection of the faith? Or is it some kind of idolatry that has Christians distracted by the trappings of religious practice and missing the real significance of fellowship with God?

It's not that simple to separate the church building from the church body, according to the president of Maritime Christian College.

"I think if Jesus was here today He wouldn't be mourning the loss of church buildings themselves. We know that when He was on Earth He didn't worry about those kind of things, He worried about reaching people," says Fred Osborne. "But I think what Christ would be saddened by is the loss of a place where people could come together and support each other and grow spiritually."

Osborne sees a danger in the loss of church buildings. He says a dropping congregation may not necessarily mean that people have lost their contact with God, but that God's people may be in danger of losing contact with each other.

"In a small healthy church, people are involved in each other's lives, often to a very great extent. That's something new people to a country church can find hard to deal with," he said. "The people in the church want to know about you, they're very curious and it can be uncomfortable. But under that is a genuine caring. I don't know if that's possible if you have a congregation that gets much larger than about 85 people."

Joe Valeidum, director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture at UPEI, said changes to church buildings are often as much related to population shifts as they are to changes in people's faith. "The talk about rural churches is the same as debate about rural hospitals or small schools or people selling off the family farm. These are emotional subjects, often times for the people who are left behind by the change there is a real feeling of abandonment. It's very sad."

But Valeidum says it's a product of broader trend of people moving from rural to urban lifestyles. "That urbanization is something that happened in a lot of places 20 years ago. The interesting thing is that in a lot of places that move was accompanied by falling away of people from religious belief. That's not happening on P.E.I. The Island is a place where faith, really Christianity, is very strong."

Valeidum said some 34 percent of Islanders identify themselves as Protestant Christians, while 47 percent adhere to Roman Catholic Christianity. He said the evidence is that belief is surviving the loss of traditional livelihoods, community roots and extended family ties. "My question is what, if anything, does faith have to offer in the modern world?" he said.

"I think people have real needs that are met by faith. Once you've taken care of some of your basic needs — you've chosen a career, maybe started a family and you feel a little secure, you start to look for something beyond yourself. Some people find that something in a sports team or a hobby or a passion. That's fine. But I think most people when they look beyond themselves look to faith because they have a sense that there is something greater that they are a part of."

Valeidum said that hunger for a sense of purpose is making itself felt in urban centres, where new breeds of Evangelical Christianity are reaching city dwellers who left traditional churches decades ago. He said it's also showing up at universities, where reason and faith were once seen as mutually exclusive, as academics find a meeting place for science, ethics and religion.

"The most exciting work happening right now is in theology," Valeidum said. "The new Evangelical thinking is what is leading religious thought and is highly intellectual."

… the church is an institution. It is not God

Valeidum said change is part of Christian history. The United Church itself grew out of a union of Methodists, Congregationalists and most of Canada's Presbyterian churches. "From the beginning the church has been in flux," he said.

"I go to Europe and I see the ruins of great churches that were the hearts of their own communities for years. The important thing for people to remember is that the church is an institution. It is not God … . The most lamentable thing when a church closes is that some people lose their connection to each other and to the faith that brought them there."

Osborne said it is that sense of mission that can save churches, whether the mission is articulated by a leadership eager to see its church reach out into the community or by a church community that isn't willing to say goodbye. "Someone has to come into that church, it may just be a new member, and stir it up," he said. "It doesn't have to be the preacher, it often isn't, but they have to be someone who believes there should be church there for us.

"People want to belong to something at an intimate level. In a small community church that can still be had."

Ron Ryder is a reporter for The Guardian, Prince Edward Island.

Originally published in The Guardian, June 10, 2006.




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