Some thoughts about dying churches

Last week I preached in a small church in the university city of Umeå in the north of Sweden.  In this city of some 75.000 inhabitants each week a small core of Seventh-day Adventist members gather–with a group of mostly foreign students joining them during the academic year.  I was told that here is the most northern Swedish Seventh-day Adventist presence. When I mentioned this on my Facebook page, it was quickly pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a group of Adventist believers in Slussfors, which is some 300 kilometers North-West of Umeå. And I was told that there is an isolated church member in Kiruna, which is the northernmost town in Sweden.  However, looking at the Adventist presence in most of Sweden north of Stockholm, it seems that for years Adventism has been on a steady retreat in this region.

The former president of the Adventist world church, Dr. Jan Paulsen, grew up as a boy in the North of Norway, where he was baptized as a member of the Narvik church, some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic circle. This church no longer exists, and quite a few churches in the northern part of Norway have suffered the same fate.

But it is not only in the North of Scandinavia where Adventists are an endangered species. In many places in Western Europe (and elsewhere in the Western world) countless churches that have not experienced the (often mixed) blessings of an influx of members from developing countries, have a hard time staying alive.

In my own country, the Netherlands, quite a few churches have closed in the past few decades. To mention a few: Sneek, Veendam, Goes, Den Helder, Ede, Hengelo, Kampen. Some churches have merged.  And some churches are struggling to survive, as e.g. Haarlem and Enkhuizen. The number of Adventists in the big cities has increased, but this has been only due to immigration, while the number of ‘indigenous’ members has been steadily declining.

What can be done to revert this trend? Do we give up and just accept that ‘what goes up must also go down’?  Must we simply accept that we are not immune to the factors that also caused a drastic decline in membership in other denominations?  Must we patiently wait for the moment when the last members will turn off the light?

I refuse to believe this. And that is not only because I have invested so much of myself in this church. It is because I believe this church has some ‘unique selling points’.  However, I realize that we in many cases must do better in translating and communicating these ‘truths’ in ways that show their relevancy for this century. And that we must do better in showing that we are an open and welcoming community of Christians, that also wants to be a part of the wider community.

I believe that we should do all we can to save the small local churches that are in danger of disappearing.  That may be even more difficult in places like northern Scandinavia, where distances between population centers and Adventist churches are huge, than it might be in the Netherlands where distances are mostly small.  Sometimes, all it takes to save a small congregation is to add 5-10 active members. Can nearby, more ‘healthy], churches come to the rescue? Can they encourage some of their members to commit a number of years of their church life to one of these churches in need? Can the national umbrella organization be more pro-active in stimulating such a process?

I know that many church planting experts will say that reviving a dying church is much more difficult than planting a new one. That may be so, but it is also true that giving up on the Adventist presence in a particular place is usually permanent. We must not let that happen.