When you hear about ramps being built in sanctuaries, it’s usually to provide easier access for wheelchairs. Outside of Amsterdam, however, the ramps in one abandoned church are there to help young skaters get gnarly air.
“Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints,” writes Wall Street Journal reporter Naftali Bendavid. “It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?”
Bendavid was reporting from amongst the well-used skate ramps and the distressed religious imagery at the Church of St. Joseph. The sacred décor that once had been center stage now serves only as a faint reminder of yesteryear’s 1,000 congregants praying and singing at the cathedral in Arnhem, Netherlands – an hour train ride south from Amsterdam.
“At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn’t sung in 10 years,” Bendavid reports. “Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded.”
The years of abandonment and water damage have made the building’s upkeep financially impossible. While it searches for potential buyers, church leaders have allowed skateboarders to take refuge in the sanctuary.
“It creates a lot of atmosphere — it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” Puck Smit, 21, one of the Dutch skaters observed about skating in the gothic cathedral. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”
For those not raised in the church, a cathedral can be awe-inspiring. For those raised in the church, however, abandoned sanctuaries are unsettling. There can be a disconcerting feeling when browsing through an antique store that used to house a Presbyterian congregation or sitting down in a restaurant that once was an Episcopal sanctuary. Where prayers and hymns and sermons were once offered, now appetizers and gourmet coffees are served. Where once the Bread of Life was broken on an altar, now gluten-free scones are sold with brambleberry jam.
The news of gutted churches is as painful as driving through the upper Midwest and seeing the dilapidated factories that served as the work places for droves of men and women from a previous generation. Time shifts, technology evolves, populations migrate. All the while, the Church attempts to proclaim a message of redemption that is translatable in all languages, in all neighborhoods, for all eras. Sometimes, however, the message gets stifled, sidetracked, and eventually muted.
“For Christians, a church’s closure — often the centerpiece of the town square — is an emotional event,” writes Bendavid. “Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God.” Those closures are now moving at a clipper pace. Roman Catholic leaders in the Netherlands report that “two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.”
In Europe, ex-churches are being repurposed in many ways. They have become supermarkets, floral shops, bookstores, gymnasiums, and high-end fashion boutiques. One cathedral is now a circus training school for trapeze artists. Another houses a Frankenstein-themed bar that features lasers, bubbling test tubes, and a creepy monster descending from the ceiling at midnight (one assumes there is a poignant sermon illustration in this example).
Communities are scrambling to see how best to transpose these empty houses of God into community centers, libraries, art museums, and even homes. The widespread nature of this crisis is Europe’s modern day reality.
For the happily secular, it is a civic issue about empty buildings. For the faithful, however, the abandoned chapels are prophetic illustrations of a nation’s empty soul.
“These buildings were designed to be places of wonder, mystery, countercultural adventure, risky intensity, places of freedom and joy,” Dr. Duffy Robbins observed when I shared the Journal story with him. “Sadly, what they became over time were places of safety, predictability, blandness and irrelevance.” Robbins is a prolific author and professor of youth ministry at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
Pelle Klomp, 14, another of the Dutch skaters said visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he said. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”
That last line should be read twice. “But they weren’t using it.”
“What I think a lot of these kids have settled for in these empty buildings are cheaper answers to the authentic and deep cravings of their souls,” Robbins said. “Let’s don’t blame the kids for this outcome; they have a (Jesus-shaped) hunger in their hearts. Let’s blame the churches that have removed most of the Water and Bread and salt from the menu.”
This is not just a European problem. Between 2012 and 2013, United Methodism in the United States closed the doors of more than 300 churches. Part of the United Methodist ritual for deconsecrating a church building is to be reminded of its purpose: “It has been consecrated for the ministry of God’s Holy Word and Sacraments. It has provided refuge and comfort for God’s people. It has served our holy faith,” reads part of the litany in the Book of Worship.
There is also thanks given for mutually shared experiences: “We have celebrated the Lord’s Supper here and been nurtured by it through our journey of faith. We have rejoiced here as believers have confessed faith in Christ. Here we have baptized our children and mourned our dead.”
After the prayers have been uttered and the hymns sung, it is eventually proclaimed: “We now deconsecrate and release [this building] for any honorable use.” This may not seem like a profound ritual, but it signals important closure to those with deep roots and long memories invested in a particular sanctuary – whether it is a gothic cathedral or a rough-hewn tabernacle at a campmeeting.
Of course, behind every cathedral is a message. When the doors are padlocked and the roof is leaking and the pews are barren and the pulpit is empty, the message about the love of God through Jesus Christ is silenced. In the case of the Church of St. Joseph, the tragedy of the broken down cathedral is compounded by the missed opportunity to reach out to young skateboarders.
“Ironically, skaters are notoriously told to leave every place they try to skate,” observed Kit Tomlinson, Pastor of Recreation at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, when I shared the Journal article with him. “The church isn’t even having to work to get these skaters on the premises – but they aren’t offering the Gospel to them. They don’t see this a mission opportunity.”
Tomlinson spearheads a ministry at University UM Church to expose every skater in San Antonio to the message of Christ. More than 2,500 different skaters have been exposed to the church’s ministry, and 175 skaters have committed their lives to Christ within the last seven years.
“Because skateboarders are almost always being chased around by security guards and authorities,” Tomlinson said, “we wanted to be different than the rest of the world and invite them in and share the Gospel with them.”
And what should be done with all these abandoned churches? “I don’t know why they don’t turn them into skateparks,” he said. “Seems like exactly the demographic the church needs.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.