The changing face of church

When Bishop Lynne McNaughton deconsecrated St. John the Evangelist Church in Fruitvale, B.C., she led a procession of parishioners to a motorhome. "It was the symbolism that we were on the move, and had a home worshipping," says the Rev. Elizabeth Lewis, deacon. Image: Adapted from Visual Generation
Published January 7, 2020

Across the Anglican Church of Canada, buildings are closing and congregations merging, or even meeting in houses. What will Sunday morning look like in the years to come?

On October 2, 2019, the congregants and friends of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Fruitvale, B.C., took a last look at the building that had served them well over the years. They fell in line behind Lynne McNaughton, bishop of the diocese of Kootenay; dressed in her cope and mitre, crosier in hand, McNaughton led the procession out of the church, and into a motorhome that was waiting outside.

“It was the symbolism that we were on the move, and had a home worshipping,” says the Rev. Elizabeth Lewis, St. John’s deacon. “There’s a lovely picture of her sitting in the driver’s seat,” she adds.

The October service was a deconsecration of the building that had housed the church until July of this year, after the United Church of Canada congregation that co-owned the building decided to close their church and wanted to sell the property, Lewis says. Without full ownership of the building, St. John’s had to sell.

Since then, however, the congregation has continued to meet, first in public parks and gardens throughout the summer months, and now in one of four parishioners’ houses (the location rotates weekly).

Some say that house churches may become an increasingly common solution to the problems of aging buildings, rising costs and diminishing finances that many of today’s shrinking congregations face. In 2017, then-bishop of the diocese of Huron Linda Nicholls told the Huron Church News that “God may be calling us back to being house churches in some areas.”

Today, Archbishop Nicholls, from her vantage point as primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, still sees home churches as a viable alternative for congregations unable to maintain their buildings. “I think our preoccupation with buildings has been to our detriment,” she said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “I’m not saying we don’t need buildings—absolutely, we need some, but do we need as many as we have?”

There is spiritual meaning in creating “beautiful spaces that are set apart and…filled with prayer,” she acknowledges. “You feel the prayer that’s been soaked into the walls of a cathedral or church that’s been there for a hundred years. That’s not to be discarded lightly, but it is to say, if it is getting in the way of the ministry and mission to which you are called, then we have to ask that question.”

Nicholls notes that the early church met in homes. “There’s no reason we couldn’t have people gathering in homes. We already do that for Bible study—nothing to say that we can’t do that in groups of 15 or 20 for worship…. It’s one possibility.” The gospel “doesn’t say anything about buildings,” she says. “It just says…‘whenever two or three are gathered.’”

From house to house

Since they began meeting in houses, Lewis says, church members seem happy. “We still have a community spirit, and we’re still known in the community here.”

The house church format has provided the opportunity to expand the way they worship. The Rev. Douglas Lewis, Elizabeth’s husband and the locally trained priest that pastors the congregation, has, on the days he presides, moved from a sermon to a more interactive style of discussion. He has also experimented with different services, drawing from the ecumenical Iona Community, Lutheran liturgies and the Book of Common Prayer. Since they lost their building, the community has actually grown by one parishioner.

Still, though, the congregation hopes to one day have some kind of regular accommodation to worship in, says Douglas. “We had 15 groups that used the facility, and we had to evict them all because it had to close. So we regret all of that. And the people that used the facility certainly have found it difficult to find anywhere else to meet.”

Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Girl Guides, a food pantry—even a local blues band that needed practice space—all used to rent space in the church. In a village with few community centres—the only other available space is a large hall with no small meeting rooms—the church building’s loss is being felt, Lewis says. She also notes that the church is less able, with no building of its own, to put on the community dinners and events it used to host (including an annual, popular Robbie Burns bash).

Still, Douglas says, the loss of the building presents an opportunity to “find new ways” to do outreach.

When asked if congregation members would recommend becoming a house church to other congregations in similar situations, Douglas replied, “It depends on people and circumstances. We’re lucky; we’ve got a couple of good lay readers, we’ve got myself and my wife, who are ordained…. If you don’t have some kind of leadership, it’s not going to work.”

The Lewises also note that theirs is an aging congregation. The 12-15 members that attend range in age from their 60s to their 80s. (The priest for their parish of Kootenay Summits, the Rev. Neil Elliot, is the General Synod statistician who released a report to the Council of General Synod this fall; the Lewises’ church is one of the congregations that collected demographic data mentioned in Elliot’s report.)

Such new ways of doing church could be important trends in the years to come, says the Rev. Judy Paulsen, professor of evangelism at Wycliffe College and former parish priest in Oshawa.

“I think we’re almost at that point [where] we can’t afford to care for these grand buildings,” says Paulsen, whose doctoral work involved studying Fresh Expressions, the U.K.-based initiative that launches new forms of church aimed at welcoming people who are not yet a member of any church congregation. “We’re realizing that we may actually have to revisit what church is and how we do it. So I think the rise of the house church is one of those really interesting phenomena.”

“There’s no reason we couldn’t have people gathering in homes,” Archbishop Linda Nicholls says. “We already do that for Bible study—nothing to say that we can’t do that in groups of 15 or 20 for worship … It’s one possibility.” Image: Adapted from Boyko Pictures

While the Anglican Church of Canada has very few home churches, Paulsen says that it is a growing category in other Christian denominations, along with church plants and new monastic-style intentional communities—or a hybrid of all three, like the communities of the MoveIn Movement. She even notes a case of a Baptist church in the state of Washington planting an Anglican church inside an Anglican building.

“[Church planters] are actually really interested in some things that Anglicans have to offer,” she says. “They don’t really need our buildings, but what they like is…our broad orthodoxy. They like that we’re creedal, they like that we are part of a worldwide communion. They like that we have a deep historical rootedness.”

The challenge, in Paulsen’s view, is that Anglican churches need to work on being apostolic. She notes that according to a 2017 Angus Reid poll, 30% of Canadians have no connection to a church but are “privately faithful,” and most of these would like their children to be taught by a faith community.

“The gold standard for me as a professor of evangelism is, in this age, are we baptizing adults? Are we offering a reaffirmation of faith to adults?” she asks. “Because if we’re not, then it means…we’re basically not taking the message out.”

While Paulsen says she believes in the importance of neighbourhood church buildings, she also says the building should be secondary to the work of the church. Paulsen says that the future of the Anglican Church of Canada will involve “figuring out how to do church without buildings.”

“When you start to study change theory, it’s always from the margins…. If you have some kind of organism that is exposed to a change of environment, it’s always the organisms on the edge, on the margins, that sort of begin to be able to adapt, and I think you see signs of this in organizational life as well…things that are brand new that nobody thought of. And then suddenly those are the things that thrive when everything else is kind of going belly-up.”

Joining together

A far more common practice for congregations struggling with mounting financial obligations, aging buildings, or dipping attendance numbers is the church merger. In recent years, many Anglican churches around the country have joined congregations with others nearby, or even with local Lutheran churches. In the diocese of Qu’Appelle, a merger has been proposed that would see seven churches in the Regina area possibly amalgamated into a single congregation.

In August of this year, the parish of St. Martin’s in Chester Basin, N.S., merged its four congregations into a single church: Grace Anglican Church.

According to church wardens Doug Ridgewell and Donna MacKinnon, the merging process began years ago when the parish began holding Reimagining Church discussions, workshops intended to get congregations thinking creatively about mission. What they found were churches that were increasingly using their resources to maintain century-old church buildings—and heavily relying on the volunteering abilities of their mostly senior congregations.

“You can’t rush it. You must do your homework, and be informed. But on the other hand, like I said, don’t prolong it— you’re going to have to put your faith in God and move forward.”—Donna MacKinnon

Between four different church councils (one for each church) and a parish council, Ridgewell says, they were struggling to fill 60 positions in a parish that had about 83 congregants.

Transportation was another factor.

“[The churches] were built at a time when…everybody in the community went to church. That was their social centre, it was their spiritual centre, it was everything. They’d walk to church…And now, we’re such a mobile society and not as many people are going to church…. From one end of the parish to the other, it was only a 15-minute drive by car. So you can see the situation where it didn’t make sense to have four churches, given our financial and human resources,” says MacKinnon. “It makes emotional sense for people to keep their churches. But it does not make practical sense.”

Discussions about merging the churches began in 2016. While the process was a smooth one, and was well-supported by the diocese and its parish vitality coordinator, the Rev. Lisa Vaughn, Ridgewell and MacKinnon say the process took too long. “We took far too much time to do it,” says Ridgewell. “It took us four years; it could have easily been done in two.”

In hindsight, MacKinnon agrees—though she adds, “We took our time to do it correctly…. You can’t rush it. You must do your homework, and be informed. But on the other hand, like I said, don’t prolong it—you’re going to have to put your faith in God and move forward.”

The most difficult part of the process, they say, was for the congregants to accept that their beloved church would close. As of press time, one of the closed churches has been sold, and another is in the midst of a sale.

Though no one left during the process, the number of parishioners has diminished by about 30% since the churches merged, MacKinnon and Ridgewell say, a number consistent with what the diocese told them to expect. But for those that continue to attend, the experience has been positive.

“The dynamics are different” when attending a church with 50-60 congregants, rather than 15-30, MacKinnon says. “The psalm, the prayer, the going for Eucharist and seeing so many people partaking…. There’s a joy of being together. We’ve had, already [since August], three major fundraisers. Instead of just a small group, you have a larger group all pulling together and working together, and they’ve been very successful, and there’s been a joy around it. Those who work together get along extremely well. And it’s been a coming together and getting to know one another more.”

Strategizing for the future

Reorganization, of course, is an option not only at the local level. Another Canadian mainline denomination, the United Church of Canada, recently underwent a massive restructuring process in the face of its own declining membership.

As of 2019, the church has simplified its governance structure, replacing two of its former layers of governance—presbyteries and conferences—with a new set of 16 regions. Accreditation, oversight and discipline issues now fall under a new national Office of Vocation.

Nora Sanders, general secretary of the United Church of Canada, says the process of restructuring began with a proposal first brought to the table in 2012, at General Council, the church’s national meeting held every three years. The comprehensive review task group appointed at that meeting consulted widely over the following three years. After proposed changes were approved at General Council in 2015, the restructuring plan was voted on by the church’s congregations and presbyteries, and enacted at General Council in 2018.

The ultimate purpose, Sanders says, was to simplify the church’s structure, “so that we weren’t spending a greater proportion of our resources on governance all the time.” With both financial resources and volunteer base diminishing, she says, it was important to find a way to keep those resources from being “swallowed up by governance processes.”

Re-evaluating customary ways of doing things—the “things that were just habit”—Sanders says, can spark interesting questions about what it really means to be church. Congregations were renamed “communities of faith,” Sanders says—a way of leaving the door open to a greater variety of expressions of worship outside of a traditional church building. “I think that’s our future. Not that we’ll ever be without congregations—I sure hope not—but that there will be more…ways of worshipping together.”

In the previous structure, congregations paid a portion of their income to their presbyteries, and each presbytery paid some to its conference. Now, communities of faith pay a single bill, which is collected by the national office and distributed by way of a grant back to the regions. Administrative and governance costs for the national church— which used to come out of Mission and Service donations (donations made directly to the service work of the church)—are now taken out before this redistribution.

The idea was to keep governance costs “tied to the size of the church,” says Sanders. “For example, if there were… fewer congregations that were paying an assessment, then our national and regional structures should probably be smaller, too…. It kind of forces us to respect the size of the church in how we think of the size of our governance and administration.”

Financial concerns are raising questions about structure in the Anglican Church of Canada also. Diocesan proportional gifts—portions of diocesan revenue, in turn largely made up of parish apportionments, that are sent to the national church—have been falling increasingly steeply, accounting for a significant drop in General Synod’s revenue.

When asked if there would ever come a time when it would be necessary to examine whether Anglicans need a national church, Nicholls told the Journal that part of the strategic planning process the church is embarking on would involve “asking questions about, ‘What is the role of the national church in relationship to the ecclesiastical provinces and the dioceses?’” However, she responded that she believed the national church to be important as a link to the wider Anglican Communion. She also noted the important work being done on the national level, including the work of the reconciliation animator, Global Relations, the department of Faith, Worship and Ministry, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and the Anglican Foundation of Canada.

Nicholls said strategic planning would help the Anglican Church of Canada assess, “based on the resources that we will have available, what can we best do at the national level…and what things do we let go of, because we can’t do them any longer? What things do we share in other ways with dioceses and individuals across the country?”

One of the things the national church does best, she said, is tell the stories of what is happening in the church across the country.

“We need to be listening to one another and finding the best practices, not simply taking something from here and plopping it down over here, because that doesn’t work,” she said. “You have to say, how does what they’re doing spark something in me that would fit here?”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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