One of the reasons it is difficult to even talk about closing a church is because we love our churches so much. Since I have been recently without a church “home”, I’ve reflected on what I really value about life in a local church.
I love the feeling you get when you see familiar faces in one place at one time. I may not like every person I encounter in my church, but I love who we are when we all get together and sing hymns, cry at a funeral, or flip burgers at a fundraiser. I love the fellowship of a faith family.
I love the discipline of giving. Not just the weekly financial offering, but all the giving traditions: the food pantry items I pick up at the grocery store; clipping soup labels for the mission school; the annual CROP Walk; the special offerings for Pakistan flood victims; taking homemade applesauce on a visit to a homebound person . Anyone can read the news and hear about tragedy. At church, I am always reminded that I am part of the solution, not just part of the problem.
I love singing with a group. Even if we sing that sappy hymn that makes me sick, I may know someone who really loves that hymn, and I will sing it out of love for them, and for God—a small sacrifice!
I love hearing the prayers called out during community prayer time. Everyone brings their burden or gratitude to the altar: Aunt Marie who has Alzheimer’s, the unemployed spouse, the 50th anniversary, the war across the ocean, the newborn child. Each person praying strips a layer of the cold world off and reveals a little of their humanness to the rest of us, and to God. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we say, because in one person’s vulnerability, we are all bound together.
Knowing what I love about my own local church has helped me learn what I truly value about church life that I would never want to surrender. If my church is discerning whether to merge, move or close, I need to know why it matters to me. What history and heroes shaped it for me? What purpose has my life found because of what I learned there? What friendships have I formed? If the church–or some part of the ministry–must die, what is important to preserve or re-claim in some new place? What legacies should be passed on to others?
These are questions that should be answered not by one or two influential leaders, but by the collective wisdom of the group. I imagine it like the task of preparing to move to a new home. The family makes three piles: things to keep, things to toss, and things to give away.
I interviewed one church that was started by Chinese immigrants in the 1920’s. Starting in the 70’s, mobility of younger members and demographic changes led to the church’s gradual decline. The congregation shed its building, downsized its staff and even changed its denominational affiliation as it adapted to decline. Today, they meet once a month in a church lounge with a supply preacher. They have lost many of the traditional “trappings” of institutional life.
But they chose to preserve two highly valued ministries: the unique Christian fellowship of their oldest generation, and a scholarship fund for Chinese American college students, which will be maintained by their judicatory after they close.
This church has chosen what it values most to preserve as it enters its last stage of life. Its mission was primarily about providing a welcoming community for new Chinese immigrants, and education for young Chinese American Christians. They will be maintaining these legacies until their last day.
What do you love about your church? If your church could no longer meet in its current format, what would be the most valuable gifts you would want to have preserved for your own members or future generations?