“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That line is a paraphrase of a statement popularized by philosopher George Santayana. It was running through my mind a lot this week, with the news that Ottawa’s Northwestern United Church building is being sold to the mosque next door.
I assume the reason is dwindling numbers, with not enough people attend the church anymore for the congregation to be able to maintain the building. Eight years ago Northwestern amalgamated with two other local United Church congregations, so I guess their old building was superfluous to their needs. I wonder how long this new congregation will last.
You would have though they learned their lesson the first time, but obviously they didn’t. Northwestern United came into being a half century ago through the amalgamation of three churches that could no longer support themselves. Apparently whatever lessons were learned from that experience have been forgotten and once again the church has closed.
This doesn’t seem that uncommon. I hear of urban and rural church closings several times a year. I can almost understand rural churches struggling to stay open. There are far fewer people living outside the cities, and the percentage of Christians is not as high as it once was. Though that shouldn’t be the case. If people aren’t coming to church, if attendance is dropping, someone should be asking why. And fixing the problem if there is a problem.
In the cities there is no excuse. There are more people living in cities than ever before, the churches should be overflowing, not empty. The area served by Northwestern United easily has enough people for three United churches. And other denominations. But that is only if the church is being relevant to the people.
The Gospel remains the same today as it was 2,000 years ago: liberty to the captives, eyesight to the blind and a reconciliation in the relationship between humanity and God. This is indeed good news.
But while the message remains the same, what needs to change is the way it is presented. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a motto for church growth. The way we do church on Sunday morning in most of North America is firmly rooted in the 19th century – if we are lucky. That doesn’t work in what has become a post-Christian culture. Twenty-first century people who might accidentally wander into the building on a Sunday morning have no point of reference to understand what is going on. We need to consider how that timeless message of hope is being packaged and make the appropriate changes.
News of the sale of the Northwestern United Church building to the mosque next door also brought a song to mind, a classic from Steve Camp that starts:
“Some people want to live within the sound of chapel bells. But I want to run a mission a yard from the gates of Hell.”
I guess no-one at Northwestern United knows the song.