At least one-fifth of the Netherlands’ 6,900 church buildings have been converted for secular use, a national Dutch newspaper reports ― and hundreds more are expected to follow suit in the coming years.
About 25% of Dutch churches built between 1800 and 1970 are now being used for nonreligious purposes, including as apartment complexes, offices and cultural centers, according to an investigation published by the Trouw in June. Around 20% of Dutch churches built before 1800 have also been redesigned, most often finding new life as community centers, museums or theaters.
Dutch church buildings are often located in central areas, Trouw reports. Old church buildings can be expensive for a dwindling congregation to maintain. Churches built before 1800 are often considered national monuments. All of this means that deciding how to repurpose these old buildings while maintaining their cultural legacy has become a key topic of concern for local communities.
Trouw’s investigation into converted church buildings comes during a time of increased secularization in Dutch society. In 2017, the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the Netherlands surpassed the number of religious folk for the first time in history (51% vs. 49%), according to government data.
Many formerly religious Dutch people say they left their religion because they no longer believe in its teachings, according to the Pew Research Center. A significant number also claimed they just “gradually drifted away.”
Secularization among Christians has been the trend in the Netherlands since the 1960s, according to Jeroen Dewulf, a professor of Dutch studies at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies. Dewulf said that the Catholic Church, which has a stronger presence in the Netherlands than Protestant denominations, has also been facing a serious priest shortage.
“Many churches have been standing empty for years and they are so costly to maintain that alternative destinations for these churches have been sought,” Dewulf said.
In the northern part of the country, a former Dutch Reformed church has been converted into a holiday vacation rental. In the south, a large neo-Gothic church has been transformed into a gym.
One of the most famous redevelopments occurred at a 13th-century Catholic cathedral in Maastricht, in the country’s southeast. Now known as the Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, the church has been converted into a bookstore. Before that, the cathedral was reportedly used as a warehouse, an archive and even a bicycle shed.