Why should churches ever have to close? If you have found this blog, you have probably already given considerable energy to keeping a church open: stewardship programs, fund-raisers, a re-structure, renting out space or sharing a pastor with another congregation. Many committed Christians will do whatever it takes to keep their church open when faced with a decline in membership, financial resources or spiritual energy. We do these things because we love our churches and are wired as Christians to maintain them for ourselves and for future generations.
If the Church is a gift Christ gave us, is it a sacrilege to talk about closing churches? I don’t believe so. First of all, churches have always been closing. David Schoen, Minister for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship for the UCC, said to me in a recent interview, “All the early churches Paul started have closed.” In practical terms, church closure is part of our history.
But I do think we need to be careful in considering the conditions under which churches should close. I’ve thought of two reasons, and I invite your response to these.
In some cases, the church’s building no longer promotes the mission of the congregation. Some buildings become a ball and chain that hold the ministry back because of size, maintenance or location. Property is to be used as an extension of the mission. Is the building located in a mission field the congregation is called to engage with, and is it being utilized in positive ways? Or is the building more of a liability than an asset to the ministry?
I once encountered a church that was cutting its pastoral staff from full time to half time, but still maintained a custodian for 20 hours per week. Assuming the building was heavily used, I asked what groups used it during the week. After a pause, someone said, “I think there’s a quilting group”. Another one said, “No, they stopped meeting here. They finished their quilt.”
Who was the custodian cleaning for?
If the building no longer serves the mission, maybe it’s time for us to “finish our quilt” and close the doors. However, I would not define this as a “church closure”, per se. Freed from its building, a congregation may have new energy to continue ministry in another venue. They can rent space, nest in another church building, merge with another congregation, meet in homes, or purchase a space elsewhere, depending on what their mission is. Although it could be said that the church “closed its doors”, it would more accurately be defined as a relocation, maybe even with a new mission focus.
Sometimes, a congregation loses its ability to operate as a functional mission. The group becomes so low energy or dysfunctional, they can no longer govern themselves in accordance with their mission.
Let’s be clear: every church is dysfunctional in some way, just like families. They are all made up of crazy little humans. But, by the grace of God, many churches can worship, perform mission tasks, make decisions and pay bills together with an ebb and flow of spiritual energy that keeps them connected to God and each other without going insane.
Some churches have lost this ability. They may have lost “critical mass”—there just aren’t enough healthy people to run the organization anymore. Or stress and anxiety may be causing them to operate in ways that deplete the energy of the membership instead of feeding them spiritually.
They are not “bad churches”. It’s not anyone’s fault. Churches have a life span like people do, and serve the world as they are called by God for a particular place and time. They decline because of a combination of demographic change, migration, the quality of pastoral and lay leadership, responses to stress, historical character and other factors. Churches are living organisms, and living things always die.
The good news is: we are people of the resurrection and we don’t have to be afraid of this.
There are probably other reasons why churches sometimes needs to close. What’s important to me is that the call to closure comes from God, not just a bunch of stressed out Christians.
What do you think?