By Bill Wilson
A friend recently shared with me an interesting story. When his church decided to replace its sign out front, it meant that the old one had to come down. For about a week, there was no sign in front of the church. During those days, no fewer than eight calls came into the church office asking, “Are you closing?” None came from church members; all were from members of the local community.
As we reflected on those calls, we agreed it was hard to know if they were calling out of concern or to gloat or to see if space might become available to rent. Whatever the motivation, the interesting dynamic is that closing would seem like such a viable option for those driving by. Actually, it should come as no surprise.
Numerous studies tell us that we are about to enter an era in which downsizing and closures of local churches become commonplace. Researcher David Olson tells us that 3,500 to 4,000 local churches in the United States go out of existence each year. Given the trajectory of attendance and financial support, we should expect this number to grow dramatically in the next two decades.
That is not new to us. On a trip to Turkey a few years ago, our group visited the archeological sites of each of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. One common theme from that amazing journey: none of them exist today. The congregations at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are no more. Across the centuries, each had met their demise as a local congregation.
At a recent interim ministry conference, one of the breakouts dealt with how to lead a congregation into and through their closing and dispersion. Frequently, interim ministers come into a situation which requires asking hard questions about a congregation’s future. Most mainline denominational entities deal with closing and congregational re-start or the sale of facilities on a daily basis.
What are we to learn from these phenomena?
Many congregations find that the crisis of declining membership and finances sparks a degree of innovation and creativity that remains dormant in seasons of plenty. It seems that congregations, like marriages and any other relationship, must come to the startling realization that the future is not a sure thing before they are willing to try something new or different.
Reading that 85 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining means little until you come to the awareness that such a pattern means your church may not be sustainable. Your church is probably in a more precarious state than you know. It is time to take seriously the notion that business as usual will not suffice in the future. Your survival may depend on your being able to invite thoughtful change into your life.
Others find that they can model a healthy process of decline and even closure. Reframing the issue from whether we will survive as a congregation toward a question of what will the church’s witness be in this place if we cease to exist can invite a broader view of the church. Many congregations have walked away from their former home proud of those who have been invited to take over the task. Blessing those who may come behind us and do church in a very different way from us is an admirable and desired spirit.
Some find that re-starting a church that has grown ineffective has the potential to energize and reach a community that has dramatically changed over time. Stories are emerging about congregations joining forces or merging with other struggling pilgrims to pool assets and create a fresh expression of God’s family.
Whatever your future, healthy leadership is critical. Someone needs to keep the focus on the larger issues in the midst of whatever is your local congregation’s current crisis. Part of what it means to be a Christ-follower is to ask the question at every turn: “What would this mean for the work of God’s kingdom?” Too often, our first question is: “What does this mean to me?” We all need to be reminded that we are part of something much larger and more resilient than our local church-house.
Finally, if your congregation is struggling to survive, get help. There are a multitude of resources available that can make your journey into this next season of your life more manageable and rewarding. Others have walked this path before you and can give you good counsel along the way. Once the shock of the new reality wears off, perhaps you will find yourself more attuned to God’s voice and leadership than ever before.
In the midst of great uncertainty, one thing we can know with certainty: the church of Jesus Christ will never close. What may shift are its meeting places and formats. God bless you as you seek to be his witness to a world in need.