Once, people confessed their sins in these booths. Now the empty booths line the walls in Sacred Heart Church, a Roman Catholic church in Belgium. At least, it used to be a church. Now it’s turning into a café with a concert stage. Around the corner, another old church is a luxury hotel with stained glass windows.
This is happening across Europe. Churches and chapels stand empty. Over the past half century, church attendance has shriveled.
“That is painful,” says Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp in Belgium. For someone who cares about faith, it’s hard to watch churches turn into clothes shops, climbing walls, and libraries.
It happens in Germany, Italy, and many nations in between. But it really stands out in Flanders, in northern Belgium. Flanders has some of the greatest cathedrals on the continent.
What doesn’t it have? Enough worshippers. Only one out of 10 Belgians still goes to church regularly. Each of the 300 towns in Flanders has about six churches. Often, not a single one is full.
The churches still have valuable architecture though. People give them new purpose. Martin’s Patershof was once a church building in Mechelen, Belgium. Now it is a hotel. Workers gutted the church. Beds in some guest rooms have headboards that look like organ pipes. Visitors enjoy breakfast in a room next to the old altar. “We often hear that people come here to relax and enjoy the silence of its former identity,” says hotel manager Emilie De Preter.
But what’s a church without God’s people?
It’s just a building.
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the Earth is my footstool.” — Acts 7:48-49
Why? God’s church is not a building. It is the whole body of His people. He always protects it—even if it shrinks in some places.