I got a phone call a couple weeks ago from a sweet lady who told me that her church had decided to close. They’d been struggling to keep going for some time but the part-time preacher had quit, the part-time musician had quit, a couple elders had quit and she (the caller) was in no shape “at her age” to keep things going.
When does a church reach the point of no return? When we look at the life cycle of congregations and we know churches that are 100, 200, 300 (yes, there are some of those in the United States), it’s clear that – during that life cycle – those oldest of congregations made a choice that renewed them and moved them into a period of growth again.
Churches grow and slow and some die and some find rebirth. Again – how do we know when a congregation has reached that point when nothing will bring them back to life – even in a new semblance of life? Here are some choices that seem to prompt certain death:
- Leaders choose to keep more money in The Cemetery Fund than in the general fund for ministry and mission.
- Everyone – and I mean everyone – has their own pet project/thing they love and they’ve stopped asking “What does God want from our church?” It’s become what we want and we argue about that.
- The same people have been serving in the same leadership roles for over 10 years.
- The surrounding area is brimming with new people, new commercial projects, even new public transportation options and the church is not growing.
- The congregation does not look like or sound like the neighborhood and there are no efforts to change this.
- Not one leader in the congregation knows the names of: the principal of the closest school, any of the cashiers at the closest stores/gas stations/diners, the names of the people who live in the house/farm/apartment building closest to the church building.
- The majority of every meeting of the governing board is spent talking about Attendance, Building, and Cash.
- Sunday morning worship is the #1 portal through which people participate in the life of the church.
- Nobody prays out loud or talks about Jesus except for the pastor.
- The majority of people are fine with changing things as long as it happens after their own funerals.
Sometimes by the time a church contacts me for support, it’s too late – at least in a worldly sense. They no longer have the capacity to stay alive whether they want to close or not.
At what point has a church reached the point of no recovery? It depends on the church.
But my hunch is that – in the next five to ten years – most of our small congregations will close. By “small” I mean our congregations with 1 to 25 regular participants whose vision and energy has dried up.
There are congregations with a handful of members who love and serve their neighbors with a lavish faithfulness that makes their ministry quite large. Those congregations will be fine. If they die, they will rise again in glory serving their communities in a new way. It will be beautiful.
The Good News is that Jesus will always have a Church. It just won’t be the Church we have experienced for the past 500 years. And – as much as we loved that church – this too is Good News.
Jan, this is a good word. Thank you!
I would add one addition to your list:
– when the most active members doing ministry in the church are a completely different circle of volunteers than the ones serving on the Board (or Board members are not participating in any of the active ministries of the church).
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I think we need training not only for transitional ministry, instruction on how to close churches so that they can leave a legacy-not every Presbytery offers that. Perhaps at the Synod level.
Having lived through a Church closing I would say you have hit the nail on the head. The most important one in your list is the second half of #2. “stop asking what does God want from us, me, the Church. The church cannot sustain itself if it does not Listen to what God says. Listening to God means caring for the community around you, not just the one within your walls. Praying doesn’t mean only asking for something. Praying must also include listening and waiting and the church does not do that well. In addition prayer is not effective unless you carry out into the world by caring for those around us. These things are the soul killers of the church, when listening and waiting for God stop, when prayer doesn’t reach into the world the church loses it’s way and dies.
So glad I read this! Good to know in the thoughts of where God is equipping us to move as the Changing Church.