(The United Church of Canada has released a report about its future as denomination. In it, 31% of respondents say they fear their church will close in the near future. The United Church isn’t alone; other denominations are also struggling. The situation reminded me of a column I wrote in 2009 about the disappearance of the historic churches of the Middle East--and what lessons it might offer for today.)
Church growth is a popular topic. A Google search for that topic returns millions of pages. You can find institutes, seminars, conferences, movements and lots and lots of books about starting or growing churches.
But church death? It's not as popular a subject.
Yet the fact of the matter is that churches not only get born—they die. Every year hundreds of churches in Canada close their doors.
The United Church of Canada alone is closing about one a week; in the U.S., it’s reported that 50 churches a week shut down.
Despite this, it’s rare to hear much about church death. And that, says Philip Jenkins, is unfortunate.
“I sometimes ask audiences how many people have ever read a book on the growth or establishment of a church, and many people raise their hands,” says the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in theMiddle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.
“Then I ask how many people have ever read a book on the death or extinction of a church, and virtually nobody does. But in history, church death is a very common phenomenon.”
In his book, Jenkins explores the rich history of Christianity in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
“Its sheer scale is astonishing,” he writes of the Nestorian, Chaldean and Jacobite churches that were thriving and growing at a time when Europe was emerging from the dark ages.
“Looking at the world in 850 or so, few observers would have doubted that the Christian future lay in the Middle East and Asia, rather than in the barbarian-ravaged lands of Western Europe.”
And yet, those ancient churches are gone. All that’s left are small remnants in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and—growing smaller every year—Palestine, home to the original Christian church.
“There is a major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction,” says Jenkins.
“How do Christians explain the death of their religion in a particular time and place? Is that really part of God's plan?”
Or maybe, he adds, “our time scale is just too short, and one day we will realize why this had to happen.”
Whatever the reason, “nobody is really discussing these questions,” he says.
The disappearance of these ancient churches runs counter to conventional thinking about Christianity. Christians, especially in North America, are accustomed to thinking about their faith in terms of growth and outreach and mission.
But churches also die. And when they die, very little is usually said about it. It’s sort of embarrassing—after all, nobody likes to admit failure.
“We have a theology of mission, not a theology of retreat,” states Jenkins, adding that this “is a major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction.”
A central tenet of Christian faith is that the church belongs to God. Whether it lives or dies is not up to us. But that may not be very comforting to people who are seeing their membership decline. How can denominations help them makes sense of it all?
Maybe Jenkins is right; perhaps we need a theology of retreat, after all.