My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
I am frequently asked about why the churches in the West are in decline. An assumption often imbedded in the question is that the churches have in some way been deficient in their practice and/or doctrine. And a concomitant assumption is that such closures are signs that God’s blessing has been lifted from the churches. Some even refer to “ichabod” (“the glory has departed”) as a chief cause of decline.
Of course, the poor and unorthodox decisions of churches can and have led to their demise. Yet declining attendance and the closing of churches is a complex matter. And sometimes the dying of churches has nothing at all to do with the churches’ decisions.
What follows is a list of factors that have led to the closing of church doors. Some are obvious. Some are horribly violent and nefarious. Others are just “bad luck.” And some are simply a matter of “location, location, location.”
All things considered; my point is simply to say that the reality of churches closing is not always because “the glory has departed.”
Hostile governments can certainly lead to the demise of churches – even churches that are faithful to the gospel. As I note elsewhere, the history of Christianity is filled with accounts of churches that have been wiped out by dislocations and genocides. In such cases, thousands of churches have been eliminated, such as in North Africa, Asia Minor, or the Middle East.
Sometimes churches are targeted for destruction, but other times they are damaged or demolished in war simply like other buildings. And sometimes the people that inhabited the building are not able (or alive) to rebuild. In other cases, the war led to the diaspora of Christians (and the concomitant demise of the churches), such as in Iraq after the chaos of the American invasion of twenty years ago.
Some churches can be destroyed by mega building projects, such as dams. For instance, the recent exposure of a church building once covered in a reservoir reveals that some churches have disappeared by being covered by rising waters. In fact, the phenomenon is not so uncommon in the age of dam building. Perhaps the most extreme example of buildings being covered is that the Three Gorges Dam in China that drowned 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. No doubt there were some churches among those communities.
Another factor in a church closing is that of industry (and thus employment) leaving down. A most extreme example is that of a mining town that faces a crisis when the mine shuts down. In worst case scenarios, the town becomes a ghost town, with empty streets, empty buildings, and empty churches. Perhaps more common is the gradual move of people from the small town to the city, with a vicious cycle of fewer people leading to fewer jobs leading to fewer people...and so on… I recently talked with one person who said over the past thirty years his rural hometown of 2,000 had been reduced to barely 200 –the impact of that change on the churches is obvious.
Natural disasters can lead to the demise of a church. For instance, see the Cagsawa ruins for what is left of a church (and town) after the eruption of the Mayon volcano in 1814. More recently, a church in LaPalma was engulfed and collapsed due to advancing lava. In another case of nature’s impact on churches, rising sea waters flooded the town of Rungholt over 660 years ago, putting the church and town entirely under water. In yet another case, the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed over 12,000 buildings, many churches included (most were full at the time of the quake, killing thousands). In a different and less catastrophic instance, in my old stomping grounds of Nova Scotia a rural church in Falmouth was recently hit with lightening (fortunately it looks like it will survive).
Another natural factor in the demise of churches is that of pandemics. Churches suffered because of the Black Plague in the 14th century (a plague that waxed and waned for the next 400 years). And many contemporary churches did not survive the uncertainty, fear, deaths, and restrictions of Covid 19.
Back in the days when railway tracks were being built in Canada from east to west, fortunes were made or lost by guessing which town would have a station. And towns (and churches) prospered if they were lucky enough to have the tracks come to town or withered and died if they did not.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors for the decline of the churches in the West is that of a lack of babies. The declining birthrates in the West are striking, and the number of babies born is far from the amount needed to sustain the population. As a result, congregations are shrinking, and many churches are dying because there are simply not enough people in the next generation. Consider the fact that a few generations ago a church of ten families could have 60-80 children in it. Now, a church of ten families would be lucky to have 5-10 kids. Do the math, and you can see why the low birthrate in the West is leading to the demise of some churches.
In conclusion, the amount of closing churches in the West is striking. Most certainly the drift from orthodoxy and/or poor decisions can lead to the demise of a church. Yet, as I have noted above, there are a host of factors that can lead to the doors of a church being boarded up. Ichabod may be one explanation, but so may be the fact that invaders came, or the water rose, or the lava flowed, or the mine closed, or the earth shook, or the virus spread, or the people moved, or the trains went elsewhere, or not enough babies were born.
 For instance, see a previous blog entitled “The Decline of Methodism, the Rise of Post-Christendom, and Agency”: https://www.gordonlheath.com/blog/the-decline-of-methodism-the-rise-of-post-christendom-and-agency
 See Gordon L. Heath, “When the Blood of the Martyrs Was Not Enough: A Survey of Places Where the Church Was Wiped Out,” In The Church, Then and Now, editors Stanley E. Porter and Cynthia Westfall (Pickwick, 2012), 97-133 https://www.amazon.ca/Church-Then-Now-Stanley-Porter/dp/1610979214/ref=sr_1_2?crid=27ZVDN2904YAW&keywords=The+Church%2C+Then+and+Now&qid=1687405394&s=books&sprefix=the+church%2C+then+and+now%2Cstripbooks%2C147&sr=1-2. See also Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity https://www.amazon.ca/Lost-History-Christianity-Thousand-Year-Asia/dp/0061472816
 https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/2023/03/20/iraqi-christians-are-threatened-with-extinction-20-years-after-the-us-led-invasion/; https://www.theamericanconservative.com/how-the-iraq-war-became-a-war-on-christians/
 https://religiana.com/inspire-me/sunken-churches; https://www.203challenges.com/7-best-submerged-churches-to-amaze-you/
 https://www.atlasobscura.com/categories/abandoned-churches; https://globalnews.ca/news/2334415/ghost-town-mysteries-the-lonely-church-of-cassiar-b-c/
 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/august-web-only/birth-rates-church-attendance-decline-fertility-crisis.html. See also Philip Jenkins, Fertility and Faith: https://www.amazon.ca/Fertility-Faith-Demographic-Revolution-Transformation/dp/148131131X