I sat on a plane recently next to a retired military officer. He now trains Reserves forces to work in Afghanistan. “How do you teach them to deal with fear?” I asked him. He said, “It’s really not a problem. Of course everyone feels fear. But we are trained to work as a team. When you go on a trip with your daughter, if something goes wrong, you are prepared as a parent to overcome your fear and protect her. It’s the same in the military. On a team, everyone has a responsibility to protect everyone else on the team. You are never alone out there. You overcome your fear by focusing on the tasks you are responsible for so that you can protect the members of your team.”
I got it. A soldier alone on the battlefield would have reason to be afraid. But on a team with a mission, people focus on carrying out the mission and protecting each other from harm.
One of the key decisions that must be made by a congregation on the brink of closure is whether or not they will stay together as a group. Some congregations disperse to various churches, while others move en masse to a new church. Some congregations continue to meet together without a building. One congregation I studied split into two groups, and joined two neighborhood churches. How do you know what’s right for your church?
I believe God puts people together in congregations for a reason. The variety of spiritual gifts composed by your membership is part of what makes your church a holy place. If your group has worked together as a healthy team in the past, or is doing so now, you may want to avoid the temptation to scatter and instead look for ways to continue in ministry together, whether in an existing church or as a house church. In a declining congregation, the spiritual bond people have with one another may actually be strengthening. The fact that you are no longer able to maintain an institution, building and staff doesn’t mean you are not still God’s Church as a gathered people.
On the other hand, there are some churches that do not function as healthy teams, but more like dysfunctional, even abusive families. In these churches, staying together will only keep members chained to an emotional system that long ago may have ceased to be a vital church. Be honest in your assessment of your congregation’s functioning. Are you still focused on a mission and protecting each other as you carry it out? Or have you lost direction and turned against one another? Members who are cemented into old traditions, motivated by guilt, coercion, or the force of habit would be best served by going their separate ways, shedding their old roles and finding new ones in healthy churches. As they prepare to do so, they should enlist the help of a pastor to identify each person’s spiritual gifts and be welcomed into ministry in a new congregation.
If love lives between the few members left, the bond should not be broken. A lay leader may be able to organize reunions and simple fellowship with common prayer for even the “two are three who are gathered.” One church I know made provisions so that the old church building would be made available for the funerals of their elder members. Another congregation continues to meet once a month in a neighborhood church’s parlor on Sunday afternoons. A third church had so many homebound elderly that the judicatory enlisted the help of a lay pastor to make home visits for an indefinite period of time.
What is most important is that no one is abandoned. It is scary enough, especially for the frail, who are often the last ones left in a dying church, to lose their spiritual home. Encourage your spiritual family, if it is a healthy one, to be brave and move forward together in the adventure of serving God in new ways. In this way, you can continue in mission and protect one another from fear and abandonment.