A lot of church properties are for sale. Some more are going to be on the market soon - in South Canterbury where I am archdeacon. The Sunday Star Times tells the story of some currently up for sale here.
It is all very well saying that church is the people and church buildings do not matter but invariably the people of God have sought a house for themselves, if not for God to dwell in and the sale of churches means one of three things.
One: just possibly the 'church is the people not the buildings' mantra has led to a radical re-think re the use of buildings and, say, the congregation now meets solely in each other's houses.
Two: the church is being sold because of congregational growth. A bigger building is required. (This seems never to be the case with country churches which feature in the majority of cases the article touches on).
Three: the church is being sold because it is surplus to requirements. The existing Presbyterian church, say, may be surplus to requirements as the joint congregation now meets comfortably in the local Anglican church (or vice versa).
Three matters! The Sunday Star Times is correct: congregational numbers in many parts of the country are dwindling.
Are the churches alarmed about this decline?
Yes and No.
Yes, because we are seeing many initiatives being taken to respond to changing circumstances. The Sunday Star Times article does not tell us, for instance, of the growing congregations which are renting school halls, or even building new buildings. Many of these growing congregations are 'new' churches - a denomination or network unheard of a few decades back, or a new expression of an older denomination filled with new immigrants. Yesterday, for instance, I drove up Papanui Road past the new 'Chinese Methodist' church arising on the site of a previously damaged older Methodist building. Then there is the rising interest in Fresh Expressions of church.
No, because (just to take one denomination I know slightly well) you will struggle to find in Anglican synods, let alone our General Synod, great signs of urgency or anxiety about decline. I say no 'great signs' because there are small signs of concern as we find motions re evangelism, mission, baptisms and confirmations. But aren't the signs of the times warranting us spending, say, two whole days of a General Synod examining with great urgency, frankness and well prepared statistics the challenges we face going forward?
Church buildings matter at least in this way: when they are up for sale they are telling us something about what is happening to the people of God.