What Can We Learn From Europe’s Empty Churches?

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating story exploring the problems posed by the continuing decline of Christian worship in Europe and the challenge of the buildings that are left behind. The piece is behind a paywall but is worth the read if you get the WSJ.

The article focuses on the story of an underfunded Skate Hall that inhabits space once occupied by the Church of St. Joseph. The building is still owned by the Catholic church and its repurposing has caused a fair amount on consternation within the town of Arnhem. The video linked below offers a interesting look at what some see as a mixing of the sacred and the profane.

The article quickly pivots to recognize that this tension is common in Europe where many communities are left to struggle with large, costly, stone buildings with no clear, redeemable value. With property owners and local governments forced to get creative, the piece shares a variety of examples of how these once sacred spaces have been repurposed:

“As communities struggle to reinvent their old churches, some solutions are less dignified than others. In Holland, one ex-church has become a supermarket, another is a florist, a third is a bookstore and a fourth is a gym. In Arnhem, a fashionable store called Humanoid occupies a church building dating to 1889, with rack of stylish women’s clothing arrayed under stained-glass windows.

In Bristol, England, the former St. Paul’s church has become the Circomedia circus training school. Operators say the high ceilings are perfect for aerial equipment like trapezes.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight.”

The popular Frankenstein pub in Edinburgh resides in a transformed church building. Image: frankensteinedinburgh.co.uk

As the article notes, the closure of many of these churches, often part of the historic centers of these European towns, is an emotional thing for the remaining faithful. Ideally, efforts are undertaken to transition the once sacred space into something community-oriented like a library, museum, or performing arts center. But not every situation is amenable, and as the examples above display, perceived insult is sometimes added to emotional injury.

An undercurrent throughout the article is the likelihood that Europe’s current church problem is a foreshadowing of what we will see in the United States. It quotes Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, as predicting a situation as challenging as the one in Europe in coming decades. Of course, while the crescendo for us may still be in the future, that does not mean the problem isn’t already encountered, as this example of a New York church that served as a bacchanal disco and a Limelight-themed mall, on its way to becoming a gym illustrates.

The challenge of empty churches raise some interesting questions. Here are a few of mine.

  1. What makes a space sacred in your tradition? Is the formal understanding of such congruent with the practices and feelings of church members?
  2. Does the absence of a worshipping community remove this quality, in your humble opinion? If not, what does remove sacredness?
  3. How clear are the lines of delineation between the sacrality of a building and its historic value? Is it easier to let go of sacred space without historic significance and what does that say about the relationship between the two?
  4. Even for those traditions that have developed rites to decommission sacred space, how can we personally, and as communities, navigate lingering emotional attachment to spaces that were once set apart for worship?
  5. Is there an element of architectural design at play in how we denote space as sacred? Will the stark, and even industrial, settings of some protestant churches raise the same conversations regarding preservation?
  6. How can the church move proactively to mitigate this challenge in the United States? What lessons might we draw from the experience of those in Europe?
  7. Can shrinking faith communities increase the likelihood of redeemable usage by seeking partnerships in closure before they are forced to do so?
  8. Is there an entrepreneurial opportunity for existing churches and denominations in repurposing their own property toward for-profit endeavors that might fund new ministry?

So what are your thoughts and questions? If Europe’s present is truly predictive of our imminent future, how we respond to this challenge will have a significant impact on the church’s ability to share the Gospel in both word and deed. Proactive actions on the part of denominational structures and individual churches alike could go a long way toward preserving some agency during challenging times of transition and, hopefully, rebirth.

 Thanks for your comments and for your sharing!

Featured Image Credit: Merlijn Doomernik for the Wall Street Journal.

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