VANCOUVER, B.C., July 24 (RNS)--The minister at Greater Vancouver'slargest mainline Christian sanctuary has kicked off the grandestbuilding project in United Church of Canada history for one key reason--survival.

The Rev. Gordon Turner said his neo-Gothic heritage sanctuary, whichroutinely filled all its 1,500 seats for each Sunday service in thehalcyon 1960s, now draws a total of about 500 worshippers to its fourSunday services, which include a jazz vespers.

Faced with nation-wide church membership declines causedmainly by rising secularism and high immigration from non-Christiancountries, Turner and others started almost a decade ago to obtainapproval to construct and obtain revenue from a market-rental tower onchurch-owned property that butts up against his sanctuary.

Membership in the United Church of Canada, the country's largestProtestant denomination, peaked in 1967 at 1.06 million. It's sincefallen to 683,000 official members, said national church officialMary-Frances Denis.

The number of "preaching places," or congregations, in thedenomination has also dropped to fewer than 4,000 from a high of 5,741in the 1960s, said Denis, who notes the United Church keeps rigorousmembership figures, unlike many denominations.

At St. Andrew's Wesley, Turner says repairing his edifice'sstonework and roof recently drained more than $1 million out of thechurch's trust fund.

"It costs $1,500 a day just to turn the key in this building--forstaff and maintenance costs," he said.

Rather than dying quietly for lack of money and interest, like somany United Church congregations have chosen to do in the past threedecades, Turner is one of many United Church clergy across the countryputting up a creative fight to finance his church and help hisdenomination prosper again.

"This is the biggest development project the United Church has evertaken on. There's nothing that compares to this in Canada," he said,adding that he's also reaching out to downtown Vancouver residents byexperimenting with jazz and gospel services, plus workshops onmeditation, Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, African storytelling and even"spiritual" gardening.

The city of Vancouver provides a microcosm of the membership erosionthat's hit the United Church across Canada.

Vancouver proper has seen almost a dozen United Church congregationsshut their doors in the past decade alone.

Typically, the congregations that closed or merged not only had todeal with a general Canadian trend to lower religious observance. Theywere also located in neighborhoods where families have moved out orlarge influxes of Asian immigrants have moved into once-predominantlyCaucasian and Christian neighborhoods.

"They are invariably East End neighborhoods with many Sikhs andHindus, as well as Chinese people, whom if they are Christian, are notUnited Church members but inclined to more conservative evangelicalchurches," said Brian Thorpe, former executive secretary of the BritishColumbia Conference of the United Church.

"It's caused a profound identity crisis for the church. It would bedishonest to say there isn't frustration. At the same time, I think thefact we're significantly diminished in stature has its advantages,"Thorpe said.

"We're less inclined to struggle to be the kind of pseudo-statechurch of the Canadian middle class. The people who remain tend to bemuch more intentional about their Christianity, about studying the Bibleand about the church's mission."

Turner said the worst appears to be over for the United Church.

The flood of declining memberships has been now reduced to a trickleof a few thousand a year. And Turner is among many United Church clergywho point to scores of thriving and expanding congregations across thecountry.

While Turner admits many of the mainline Protestant churches hevisits are boring, he's among those who believe that people areattracted to congregations that are trying new things, being innovativein worship and getting involved in worthy building projects.

Turner expects revenue from his soon-to-be-built apartment towerwill ensure his congregation's 300 families will carry on and grow. Aswell, he's excited the $300,000-a-year in projected earnings from hischurch's 204 apartment units will eventually provide, after the tower's25-year mortgage is paid off, millions of dollars for the UnitedChurch's various programs for the poor.

"When there's signs of life in a church, people stick to it," hesaid. "I predict we'll grow by 10 to 20 per cent a year as a result ofthis apartment tower."

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