For the past eight years, the bluestone church, built-in 1854, has been abandoned. In front of the Batesford Presbyterian Church, a 6-foot-high “Auction” sign is visible on a dirt road leading to a vineyard. The Batesford and Anakie Presbyterian churches of the Bannockburn Presbyterian Church are being sold. The pastors of the three churches used to alternate Sundays, but in 2014, the two smaller congregations held their final services. On April 9, a residential real estate agent will put the properties up for auction.
In the Bannockburn congregation, Bert Strasse holds the position of elder. According to him, “the Bannockburn church is growing quite well.” “The Bannockburn building’s proceeds will be used for development.”
Sellers and buyers in Australia’s church-building market tend to follow the same patterns over time. Selling rural church buildings to support the expansion of urban congregations is a common practice. To turn the buildings into homes, community halls, galleries, or churches, buyers are paying record prices.
In the United States and elsewhere, the story of a church building being repurposed is a familiar one, but in Australia, the church’s unique history and current mindset about Christianity add a new dimension.
When the Church Act of 1836 was passed by the Australian Parliament, the Anglican church’s monopoly on building and paying pastors was effectively broken. Almost overnight, churches sprang up all over Victoria after the 1851 gold rush. Almost every small town in Australia has a church built of bluestone, brick, or weatherboard.
Most of Australia’s Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational denominations came together to form the Uniting Church of Australia back in 1977. Both towns’ churches were taken over by the joint congregations, which vacated and sold the rest.
Congregations in rural areas are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain and ensure their aging church buildings as more people move to urban areas and cultural Christians choose “no religion” in surveys.
The number of churches sold in Victoria each year has increased from 18 in 2018 to nearly 30 in 2019. To preserve the history or because it is well-built and has a lot of lands, people buy older buildings.
Previously, Chris Ambrose was a Uniting Church pastor. At Irriwillipe, he and his wife Mary bought an 1886 Bible Christian Church/Uniting Church building to use as a home, with north-facing windows and a lot of wall space for their books.
The fields surrounding the abandoned church were once home to potato and dairy farms. Trevor, a red bull, has taken over a large beef farm in the area. After the congregation’s 100th anniversary, the wooden church was shut down.
Keeping a church open because it’s a church is pointless, according to Ambrose. “It breaks my heart that every church in town is closing.” The building’s history is important, but without worshippers, it’s nothing more than a shell.
Colin and Angela Carter live three miles down the road in the “Notorious Blue Church” because of its proximity to a dangerous intersection that leads to the Great Ocean Road. The 1904 Presbyterian/Uniting Church building was “cheap, derelict, and exactly what we needed,” says Colin of the building.
Even though they host the parody religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and have “pilgrims” pose with pirate hats in front of their building and sign, the Carters see themselves as caretakers and want to honor the “church feeling.”
Some people have bought churches to hide from COVID-19 or to use as a vacation spot.
A church building has not yet been bought by Richard Wilson. But Wilson has plenty of experience with church planting as an evangelist for the Presbyterian Church in Victoria (PCV). He was raised in the woods. He and his family would rather drive 20 miles to attend a church with a strong children’s ministry than attend a church with a few older people.
Those in financial difficulty are being forced to close their doors. Australians who describe themselves as “Christian” dropped from 68 percent to 44 percent between 2003 and 2020, according to Roy Morgan. There was an increase in the percentage of people who say they have no religion from 26% to 45.5% over the same time period.
When Wilson sees churches being used as “dance halls and homes,” it “breaks my heart,” but “the reality is, Jesus died for people, not buildings.” People may have strong emotional attachments to their local churches, but the deteriorating infrastructure is becoming a liability. Australia’s cities, on the other hand, are expected to grow at an astronomical rate. There must be an effort to bring churches into people’s homes, says Wilson.
Selling underperforming churches, putting the money into church planting, and bolstering strong churches in growth corridors are all options that must be considered.
However, despite the widespread perception that Christianity is on its way out, as evidenced by “For Sale” signs posted outside church buildings, Cameron Garrett, clerk of the PCV’s Gippsland Presbytery, says that despite a 50% reduction in membership, actual attendance has increased. Today’s churches are arguably more powerful.
At least 64% of Australians would attend a church service if a friend or family member invited them to one, according to McCrindle researchers. The openness Wilson found in his new neighborhood was evident when he knocked on 2,000 doors in the area. One thousand and eight hundred and eighty-nine of the doors were opened by cheerleaders. They came to the new church. Only two people were unfavorably critical.
Wilson believes that a wooden church in a nearby suburb would be an ideal location for a new church to be planted. However, Wilson hopes to plant another church and build a new one on the same piece of land where the old one stood.