Several months ago as I was worshipping with a congregation for their last gathering together after voting to close several months before, I introduced myself to a former member as the General Presbyter and she said, “Oh you’re the one who closed our church.”
Actually the members closed their own church. Not only had they voted to do this, but – and it grieves me to say this – they made choices over the past 20 years that ensured that they would close. I wrote about this 7 years ago but it warrants another post.
Church leaders often don’t believe me when I say things like, “Unless you ______ your church will close in less than five years.” They don’t want to imagine it. They are unrealistic about sustainability. They are a people of hope and so – against all facts – they continue to hope.
Hope is good. Yes, we are all people of hope.
But hope is not magic. We are called to live in hope, not shut down in hope.
Living in hope looks like this:
- We will invest in a young pastor who will need to support a family on the salary we offer instead of calling a retired pastor who will work for half the salary.
- We will partner with another church to share leadership so that – between the two congregations – we can pay an energetic pastor a liveable salary with benefits.
- We will get to know our neighbors and find out what they need without expecting them to become members.
- We will go big or go home.*
Shutting down in hope looks like this:
- We’ll sit here and change nothing hoping “young families” will find us.
- We’ll paint the door bright red but not change the way we welcome strangers who don’t look like us.
- We’ll pray Mrs. Smith leaves us money to keep going after she dies.
- We’ll keep the cemetery maintenance contract but cancel the parish nurse contract.
I don’t want your church to close. And yet the truth is that it might be too late to try to shift the culture from a 1970s model to a 2022 model of ministry. It might be too late to do all the deferred maintenance that should have been done 20 years ago. It might be too late to energize a weary congregation of 70 year olds.
God will use even our closed churches for good whether a new congregation is born in their place or the proceeds from the property sale goes to bless people in need. In the next 10-15 years more and more of our churches will be closing and the property will be sold because they made decisions that were de facto decisions to close.
*Last weekend when I visited the congregation I served over 11 years ago, a devoted elder shared that the Sunday after I left, the guest preacher said to her privately, “How long do you think before this church closes?” She was outraged and she knew that the church would not close under her watch – not because she was in denial but because she knew there was still a vision. They decided – in the words of a different elder – to go big or home. And so they built affordable housing in a part of the parking lot that was no longer needed for parking.
Your church doesn’t have to close in these increasingly secular days. But it will if we continue to make faithless choices.