A few days ago I read in my newspaper that the Roman-Catholic Church in the Netherlands considers it inevitable that the Catharina-cathedral in Utrecht will cease to be a place of worship. It has simply become too expensive, as the number of worshippers continues to drop. There is an annual deficit of more than half a million dollars to maintain the building and the Catholic community that uses the church is no longer able to cover this. Perhaps the church will become an exposition hall that is connected with the adjacent Museum for Ecclesiastical Antiquities and Art (the Catharijne Convent). Remarkably enough, this cathedral is the church of the Dutch cardinal, Wim Eijk, the head of the Utrecht diocese. The pope will yet have to give his approval, since it concerns a cathedral being desecrated. The plan is to transfer the ‘cathedral’ functions to the St. Augustine church in Utrecht.
It is no exception that churches must close their doors and a must search for another destination of the building. In some cases real estate developers line up to purchase church buildings, since these usually are at prime locations. Sometimes church buildings can retain their function, when other faith communities are ready to move in. The Adventist Church quite frequently profits from such a situation. Last week I participated in a conference held in an Adventist church building in Rynfield, close to Johannesburg in South-Africa. When I complimented the organizer of the conference with the excellent facilities, I was told that the church had been the spiritual home of a Reformed congregation, which had to sell the church when its membership began to hemorrhage. The president of the Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxembourg told me a few weeks ago that the Adventists in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg have just bought a church building from the Apostolic Church, who could no longer afford to keep it. In quite a few countries the Adventists have been able to buy properties from other faith communities. As a rule this a lot cheaper than buying a piece of land and building a new church. In recent years the Adventist Church in the Netherlands bought Roman Catholic church buildings in Zeeland and in the Hague, and were able to acquire excellent churches in Almere and Utrecht, that the Protestant Church in the Netherlands was forced to sell.
Some will say: This is good news. Apparently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still growing, while many other denominations are shrinking. However, this seems too easy a conclusion, and even if the statement were correct, there is no reason to be self-congratulary. Firstly, because it is clear that in the western world the number of active Christians is constantly diminishing. In the past (and unfortunately this is still the case in segments of the church) Adventists looked at other Christians mostly as their enemies (‘Babylon’ and ‘the whore and her daughters’). I have totally abandoned that idea. Other Christians—Catholics and Protestants—are my brothers and sisters! Of course, we may disagree with several of their viewpoints, but we must stick together and uphold each other, in a combined effort to make sure that a clear Christian sound may still be heard in our world. Sure, our own specific melody must also be heard–not detached from the message of other Christian believers, but rather to supplement it, and, if needs be, to correct it.
Secondly, there is another aspect we should not forget. The Adventist Church is still able to hold its ground or has in recent years shown some growth in many western countries. But honesty demands to admit that, in almost all cases, this is due to the immigration of fellow-believers from elsewhere in the world. When we discount these immigration statistics, the situation if far less positive. Without the arrival of these immigrants, Adventists would in many places also have been forced to close and sell church buildings. And, as I have said in earlier blogs: Adventists usually follow the trends that we see in other denominations—albeit with a delay of a few decades. There is plenty of reason to be worried and to do all we can to escape this trend. We will only be able to do so, if we can create open and creative communities that learn to package their message in ways that will appeal to the people—young and older—of our times. This continues to present an enormous challenge.