Zion United Church in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario at one time had 1,000 adherents and spawned two “daughter” congregations.

Today Sunday attendance at Zion United Church is usually fewer than 50, with no children or young families. The church is scheduled to close.

Catherine Thompson writing in the “Waterloo Region Record” describes Zion United Church saying,

The sprawling complex of yellow-brick buildings on Weber Street just west of Queen Street dates back to 1893. It includes two sanctuaries that can each seat about 750 people, a chapel, a full-service kitchen, a gym and a warren of classrooms and meeting rooms.

“To heat it is ridiculous,” Chamberlain said: a cold winter can mean heating costs of up to $5,000 a month.


 Zion United Church is not alone. Across Canada churches of many denominations are struggling with aging congregations, expensive buildings, and falling attendance. As a consequence Thompson points out a variety of approaches have been utilized to address the decline of many churches. She reports,

Churches have been transformed into community centres, condominiums, galleries, offices, even fitness centres and brew pubs.

A few blocks from Zion, Trinity United Church on Frederick Street chose a far more radical route: it is working with a developer to tear down the 1905 red-brick church and build one or more condo towers of 20 storeys or more, which would include flexible meeting space for the church.

Is this all bad news, sad news, tragic news?

Christians worship in churches because we understand that our awareness of God’s presence and action in life is deepened in part by joining together in a corporate act of worship in a setting that is beautiful and inspiring. For generations magnificent church buildings have been vehicles by which the majesty, mystery and wonder of the Divine have been communicated.

But, church buildings are also dedicated to instilling in the hearts and minds of those who gather in them for worship the principles and vision of the Gospel of Jesus. So those who worship in church buildings should know that, as Paul pointed out,

the present form of this world is passing away. (I Corinthians 7:31)

Church buildings are “forms”. They are beautiful and can perform a profound function in the lives of those who gather in them for worship. But, if they are to do their work effectively, church buildings must point beyond themselves. They must remind those who gather that “form” is always “passing away.” Form is governed by the law of entropy; form, by its nature, is in decline. All forms die.

Churches exist in part to encourage us to be willing to let go of “forms”. When we are overly attached to “form” we suffer. When we cling to “form” we hinder the new thing from arising that is coming into being. The biblical word for “forms” we are not willing to let go of is “idol.”

It is unrealistic to believe that in the foreseeable future any congregation is going to be able on a Sunday morning to fill the pews in a building that seats 1,000 people. For the time being, those days are gone. We can lament our changed circumstances. We can decry the secularization of society and the busy schedules that keep young families in a constant whirl of activity leaving little room for church. Or, we can open our hearts and ask ourselves what God may be saying to us in the new circumstances we face.

How may God be calling us to do church differently in our day?

What creative life-giving purposes may our under-utilized church buildings to used to serve?

In what new ways might we think about church allowing the situation in which we are called to minister to speak to us and move us forward to meet the future with hope and excitement?