The last one turns off the light?

The last one turns off the light?

They are used as daycare centers, retirement homes or galleries: Churches that are abandoned as places of worship. There are tricky questions ahead for congregations: When in doubt, should churches be sold to fast-food chains or rather torn down?

Churches shape the landscape in Germany. For some they are cultural assets, for others they are relics of a bygone era. Some people associate a vague sense of home with the buildings. "A church is not just any building," wrote Cardinal Karl Lehmann as early as 2003 in a working aid of the German bishops. "Something of the presence of God is palpable in our churches, they are spaces of reverence and worship".

Due to the financial situation of the church, declining attendance at services, a lack of pastors and the formation of larger pastoral units, many congregations are having to think about converting their places of worship. Since the turn of the millennium, of the approximately 24.500 Catholic churches in Germany have been abandoned, 140 demolished – a development that is not yet complete.

The Essen diocese in particular is affected by cost-cutting measures. In recent years, some 105 churches have been abandoned there, 31 of them demolished.

Study of the Evangelical Bank

A study by the Evangelische Bank presented in Kassel on Friday showed that 90 percent of the administrative units surveyed had already sold church properties within the past five years – in addition to churches, for example, parish and community centers or kindergartens. 69 percent of the real estate managers surveyed, including twelve representatives of regional churches with around 10 million believers alone, ame that there will be more real estate sales from church hands in the future.

The demolition of a church that is no longer in use is considered "ultima ratio" according to the Bishops' Conference's working guide; a limited liturgical use or a sale of the building is preferable. So theoretically, a McDonald's branch could open in a former church building? It all depends on how the contract is drawn up, says Bonn liturgy scholar Albert Gerhards. In the long run, the church has little influence on the future use of the building – which is a thorn in the side of many believers.

In addition, there is another problem: "The more churches are used for other purposes, the less the buildings will be identified with their original meaning in the future."That's why some bishops preferred demolition, the theologian explains. Parishes are often left alone with such decisions, Gerhards criticizes. There is a lack of a superordinate authority that systematically approaches the problems. "Instead, every diocese is muddling along on its own."

Not all churches could be preserved

"These are difficult times," admits Gerhards. Not all churches could be preserved. Still, the theologian sees current developments as a process of "self-destruction" and warns, "If the bishops continue like this, in a few years the church will only be in select locations."

Intra-church developments are not the only cause of building loss, however. Churches have also been demolished in the three large lignite mining areas in the Rhine-Ruhr region, Lusatia and the Leipzig-Halle region, most recently the Immerather Cathedral. Three more demolitions are planned for the Garzweiler II open pit mine.

A church being demolished with excavators – the image is polarizing. Online there is encouragement from anti-church voices. On the other hand, not only churchgoers but also people interested in culture and local history are campaigning for the preservation of the buildings. For the vast majority of the population, churches are important – regardless of religion, Gerhards emphasizes.

Therefore, the theologian also sees an "opportunity for the church to position itself in society, where it is otherwise in retreat.". It is important, she says, to establish places of communication and community and to get non-religious people on board as well. "As beacons, church buildings make a district interesting," says Gerhards. At present, however, it seems as if the motto is: "The last one turns off the lights."

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