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

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

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

Membership in the United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination, peaked in 1967 at 1.06 million. It's since fallen to 683,000 official members, said national church official Mary-Frances Denis.

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

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

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

Rather than dying quietly for lack of money and interest, like so many United Church congregations have chosen to do in the past three decades, Turner is one of many United Church clergy across the country putting up a creative fight to finance his church and help his denomination prosper again.

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

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

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

Typically, the congregations that closed or merged not only had to deal with a general Canadian trend to lower religious observance. They were also located in neighborhoods where families have moved out or large influxes of Asian immigrants have moved into once-predominantly Caucasian and Christian neighborhoods.

"They are invariably East End neighborhoods with many Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Chinese people, whom if they are Christian, are not United Church members but inclined to more conservative evangelical churches," said Brian Thorpe, former executive secretary of the British Columbia Conference of the United Church.

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

"We're less inclined to struggle to be the kind of pseudo-state church of the Canadian middle class. The people who remain tend to be much more intentional about their Christianity, about studying the Bible and 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 trickle of a few thousand a year. And Turner is among many United Church clergy who point to scores of thriving and expanding congregations across the country.

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

Turner expects revenue from his soon-to-be-built apartment tower will ensure his congregation's 300 families will carry on and grow. As well, he's excited the $300,000-a-year in projected earnings from his church's 204 apartment units will eventually provide, after the tower's 25-year mortgage is paid off, millions of dollars for the United Church's various programs for the poor.

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

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