Penticton United Church

The historic downtown Penticton United Church is in the early stages of being put up for sale.

Church attendance has declined. Sorry to be blunt so close to Christmas, but it’s not a secret. In his Focus on Faith column last week, Kelowna pastor Phil Collins noted the number of bums in pews has dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic.

Depending on the church, attendance is down by as much as one-third. People stayed home during COVID-19 and apparently got use to it.

Some older people are still cautious about the virus, but many others were anxious for the economy to open up again... to travel, go out to eat, go to concerts, hockey games and family functions with the grandkids.

I’m not sure why church attendance appears to be the exception.

(Full disclosure: I grew up in the Anglican church and it was a positive experience. The purpose of this column is not to debate the pros and cons of organized religion.)

The point Pastor Collins made hit home this week when it was announced Penticton United Church – a.k.a. The Big Blue Church – was for sale.

Tributes poured in on social media from people who have fond memories of the downtown church, never mind most hadn’t graced the front doors in years. They want a church for weddings, funerals, baptisms and Christmas Eve, but ignore it in between.

Even for people opposed to organized religion, they will miss the Penticton landmark.

The situation with Penticton United Church is not unique. Other denominations with small congregations are struggling to keep their doors open.

Believe it or not, a lack of parking is one of the reasons some no longer attend church. A study done in Ontario found many traditional churches were built in neighbourhoods, not in the suburbs. When seniors can’t find a spot to park, they move on.

My solution to keeping churches open may seem odd, but it’s worth considering.

Two different denominations can share a church building.

Most of the older churches don’t carry mortgages. Next to staff wages, building operations are by far the greatest expense. If you think of your home utility bill, I can’t imagine how much it costs to heat a building that’s 100-years old – certainly more than what’s taken in on the collection plate.

With two congregations occupying the same church building, costs could be divided equally. Another option would be a ratio based on the size of the parish lists.

There are far more similarities in the various Christian denominations than differences. Most churches are the same – a cross, an alter, pews, a pulpit. 

On even numbered months, church A could have a service at 9:30 a.m. and church B at 11 a.m. It then reverses on the odd-numbered months.

The savings would be incredible. Instead of two churches having to close their doors, this could possibly keep both going for another 20 years.

With social gatherings – fundraising teas, dinners, musical events – they could potentially double the attendance by inviting parishioners from both congregations.

My suggestion, of course, would never work because church goers are nostalgic and confuse the overall church with the building itself.

For most church people, and I say this with great respect, they don’t adapt well to change.

The church I grew up in lost members when they moved their Sunday service from a 10:30 a.m. start time to 10 a.m. to accommodate a rector from out of town.

The most common reason why this was a bad idea – “it’s always been 10:30.”

Societal values and trends change over time. Churches have been around for thousands of years.

I doubt they’ll disappear overnight. They can survive, but for this to happen, it must start with compromise.

James Miller is managing editor of the Penticton Herald. Email: james.miller@ok.bc.ca