This it seems is a trend. Just in my orbit (that is, things I have become aware of), three churches have closed and 5 opened. Moreover, this is neither unusual or unexplained. Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun.
But even these statistics are a little misleading, as first my orbit is not that large in terms of the bigger picture of say - in Australia, or New Zealand, or the United Kingdom, the Canada, United States, Norway, Sweden; and second the trends in church happening is in Africa and Asia and the figures for the home church movements are rarely exaggerated, rather quite the opposite. ABC Radio National Encounter Tuesday 3 December spoke of the Protestant Church in China larger than that of England and Europe combined.
None the less, here I am in disposition with my little local statistic but none the less it is a real statistic. I am reminded of how valid my statistic is when way back in 1979 as the Billy Graham Crusade was coming to town in a few weeks, that who should turn up on my door but the Gallop Poll lady.
I was the bright bushy tailed young minister at the Croydon Park Baptist Church with a wife and new baby in tow, and so I too became a person of survey-able etiquette for Gallop Poll. There were the obliquity questions about the car, the house and then came religion.
Did I attend church once a year? – YES
Did I attend church once a month? – YES
Did I attend church once a week? – YES
Did I attend church more frequently? – YES
Occupation? BAPTIST MINISTER
The Gallop Poll lady and I both had a good laugh, but she emphasised I was a legitimate part of the survey and when that particular Poll came out it showed that behind the Salvation Army, the Baptists had more people attend church % wise than all the major churches. 48% of those who called themselves Baptists, attended church. That was way back in 1979.
Why church closures?
Here we come to another tricky question. What is church? In Australia today the two largest church attending groups are the Catholics and Pentecostals.The Roman Catholics have a very different definition of what constitutes 'Church' as Pentecostals.
During the nationally televised 25 year old cricketer Phillip Hughes' funeral (Wednesday 3 December at Macksville) the Roman Catholic Priest pronounced that singularly, as he was baptisted into the 'Church' in 1993 he was now in heaven with God. Pentecostal theology requires a personal confession of faith for that kind of leap.
Many years ago now the Wallacia Anglican Church near Warragamba Dam west of Sydney, a 40 minute drive south west of Penrith, sold their church building to a Pentecostal group. We know about this as we lived in Wallacia at the time and my wife was part of the women's weekly bible study of the Pentecostal Christian group of women.
There were people living in the community whose family donated the land for the church (many years previously), the church building had to be de-consecrated and then deeds were drawn up for sale which restricted the use of the building and the land for Christian purposes. That church had been closed for over two decades.
Many Pentecostal churches now lease industrial space within an industrial block of units. With this kind of commercial setting and business, a church opening and then some time later where more space was required to meet practical outcomes and they relocated somewhere else, closing the building was the same event as ending the lease agreement.
Therefore some church buildings close their doors for a variety of reasons, these two examples illustrate lack of attendance and relocation. In my orbit all five closed their doors due to lack of attendance and not to put to fine a point on the pencil, they were very elderly congregations who on the most part saw no need to change. They died.
Denominations know when huge new developments are going ahead and so they too plan for the placement of churches. One example of this was when the planning of the Sydney Olympics took place and new suburbs were established at Homebush, initially to serve as as the Olympic Village.
The Baptist denomination sent in a church plant, and in what is now a virtual closed city within a city, under the one ministry have three separate congregations. One is an established type Baptist church, another an inner city type congregation and a third catering for young families. The three only ever meet for Christmas Carols as they are so different from each other and their philosophies of worship and what church is vary significantly.
Therefore, there is this carefully planned denominational church planting scenarios which all main line churches engage, and then there are the less structured Pentecostal church movement where a ministry couple believe there is an opportunity to establish a church and off they go, hang out their shingle, and with exciting music, lively activities - before you know it - a thriving congregation emerges.
There is nothing new about this for those within the life of the Australian Christian movement, it's just the way it happens. The usual pattern is to rent a school hall or some other community facility, the set up is a weekly affair but it's the norm. One of Press Service International young writers Josh Robbie recently did this on the Gold Coast at Currumbin.
The Reverend Russell Hinds has now on three separate occasions over a forty year ministry established Baptist churches with a handful of people and not only grew the church to 400-600 people but had a multi-purpose building constructed over a three day period with tradesmen coming from around the nation to erect it. He ministers to Australia's middle class aspirations.
There are many books out on the nature of church growth, how it happens, why it happens, the demographic conditions for it to happen and the like. One of the earliest Australian books of this nature was Rev Dr Gordon Moyes AC titled "How to grow your church". Now, there is plethora of such tomes.
There seems to be several ingredients for a church to be established and then grow:
- A willingness to follow
- Music ministry that touches the mood
- Preaching that speaks to their own generation
- The Spirit over-rules un-plyable governance
- Changeable programs that meet needs
Missions and para-church organisations have very similar outcomes which can be easily transliterated from the above list.
Just as the local supermaket knows which items are being purchased and which ones are left on the shelves, and therefore adjust to the market; so too the Pentecostal movement which has instinctively marketed itself with very similar determinations focusing on the people, not the institution.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html