When is it time for a church to call it quits?

Have you ever lived through the death of a church?

Since posting about photos of abandoned churches last week, “church death” has been on my mind. By chance, I came across a post at Mere Comments about church growth and church death:

To abbreviate a long and painful story, I joined the line of unsuccessful pastors, both liberal and conservative, who were not able to grow the church on the terms its traditions laid down—and at the end of the road it faced dissolution. [...]

I was reminded of this by a letter from someone sorrowfully anticipating the dissolution of her own congregation—a more “natural” death than mine died, for hers is not mortally diseased as mine was.  I think it’s just exhausted.  As a former pastor of a dying church, I feel quite strongly that such congregations should be allowed to die—that they, just like human beings, when they see the signs of impending death, need to take reasonable steps to dissolve in an orderly and peaceful way.  None should be assumed to last forever, and it may also be assumed that if God wanted them to keep going, he could easily and quickly supply the necessary resources, just as he could give any of us, if he chose, a greatly extended life span.  But as a rule he does not—in fact, he endorses happenings that lead us to death.  He expects us, when we are able, to make our preparations, and die well.

Does that resonate with you?

The default Christian advice to those facing adversity—whether in your personal spiritual life or in your church’s life—is to buckle down, keep the faith, and faithfully plug away in the hope that God will reward your persistence in the end. But is there a time in a church’s life when its failure to overcome the obstacles arrayed against it should be taken as a sign that it’s time to close it down and move on with our lives?

A friend of mine who is the pastor at a small local church recently went through a long and intense experience debating this question with his church. The church had, through a series of largely unavoidable spots of bad luck, experienced a major drop in membership and was faced with the question of whether or not it was worth continuing on with a greatly diminished community. After much prayer and debate, they decided not to call it quits just yet—but reaching that conclusion wasn’t simple or easy.

What about you? Have you experienced a church shutdown, and if so, was it graceful and prayerful… or was it characterized by denial? How do you tell the difference between obstacles that the church can and should work to overcome, and signs that it’s time to close down the church?

15 Responses to “When is it time for a church to call it quits?”

  • I think in a Christian community, if there’s a problem like this, the Christian community will try to extend their help to the church and somehow the problem will somehow be solved.

  • erin says:

    My church is facing these questions now. Like your friend, we have decided to continue for now “with a greatly diminished community.” I get sad and a little angry and confused about those that have left. I wonder what we could have done or could be doing differently. We’re not perfect, by far, but how much of this is God’s will and how much is due to some kind of negligence on our part? We also want to provide for our pastor and his family, who have served so faithfully all of these years. We’re non-denominational, so the support he might have gotten from a larger body is just not there. For my part, I have never belonged to any other church, since I became a Christian 12.5 years ago, and the phrase “church shopping” sickens me.

  • Leigh says:

    A church that my in-laws had pastored experienced this choice as well. The awesome result is that the church chose to dissolve and turn their property and other funds over to another church that was looking to plant a multi-site campus in the area. The way I see it, the decision to stop anything can sometimes mean an open door for the decision to start something better. The kingdom of God is bigger than any one church and as believers we should keep this perspective without shirking our commitment to our local congregation.

  • Here in Mexico, we dont have notices of evangelical christian churches
    who have to close their doors for any reason. I had lived in the United States some years ago. And I remember a lot of baptist churches with
    just old members. The youth and children runed away to another more modern temples, with different kind of liturgy, with young pastors,with
    modern music instruments.So they just left, I understand that our culture and american culture are different, but we had never think in
    left back our elder brothers. I really believe that God not like this
    american christian costume. We have to show love to every think that we are thinking to put away, and I talking about temples, furniture, our
    elders, our old pastors, and our parents, our old parents. Can you imagine they singin alone Victory in Jesus?What victory we cheer with
    out our loveones? My fellow american brother in Christ, you have to think about this…

    • Rochelle says:

      Dear Mexican Brother,
      I agree with you whole heartedly. Americans have a tendency to have to have something new and exciting all the time. My family and I live in the US and have seen a trend that continues to prevail. Quite frankly, I think Americans are so spoiled that they have forgotten what it is to wait on God for his power and glory instead of trying to work it up emotionally. I have been a part of several churches that have eventually died because the church is impatient. They want a thrill all the time or in other cases they want to stay in such control that God isn’t even allowed in anymore. They have scheduled the Holy Spirit out of the service. Pray for your fellow American brothers and sisters to wake up. God bless you and yes we do have Victory In Jesus if we only let Him do what He desires to do.

  • Hilda says:

    My husband and I pastor a small fellowship with about 50 members. We do church very differently and have for almost 20 years. We are a church that is comprised of small groups which meet weekly and also corporately every few months for worship services. when we first got started the vision of our church was Evangelism, community and unity among churches in the town we live. This was very successful for many years. Then about 8 years ago, during a time of prayer the Lord warned me that a time was coming when the churches biggest enemy would be busyness. That time is now upon us. Over the years we have seen many families choose to fill their lives so full with activities outside of the church that they are no longer building community, evangelising their neighbors and we have noticed a decline in spiritual vitality because of it. My husband and I have faithfully tried to model the vision, keep teaching and preaching it to no avail. This has caused great sadness in my heart and often frustration to the point of depression. We are seriously thinking of shutting things down. We ask ourselves…why are we putting so much energy into something that appears to be going no where….into trying to build a vision with people who have no passion or desire for it.
    I am trying not to allow other peoples choices to be a reflection of me as a leader, but deep down i can’t help but feel like we failed. So much of the world judges others on how successful they are.
    One person I ran into said to me that perhaps the vision we have for our church is outdated and God wants to give us a different one….this type of thinking boggles my mind….when has God’s desire for community, evangelism and unity among believers stopped being His heart for the church? At the moment we are just trying to wait and hear God’s heart…who knows, perhaps he has something different for us………

    • Penelope says:

      It is God’s will that they fill their lives with other activities outside of the church.

    • Peter says:

      I just read your short blog. I understand exactly what you are dealing with. Me being a pastor myself, it’s been hard. We run about 70 people but the problem is not enough people are giving of their time and money and so the church is suffering. Sad to say I am trying to make a decision myself about closing my church. The day that we live in is so full of the me me me attitude. Most have 2 cumputers 2 or 3 cars 3-4 televisions, cable internet and then we wonder why we can’t keep the church doors open.The majority of the church has forgotton that our lives revolve around Christ and his work not around us and our wants.
      Pastor Peter

  • Angela F. Day says:

    I remember when I was a child in the 1960′s the husband (head of the household) would bring their wife and child(ren) to Sunday school, Morning and Evening services at church and weekly evening bible studies and other church gatherings. They taught holiness, obstinance and Godly principles to follow. Today people are not excited about dying to self and living a life of denying to flesh to run amok. True compassion for the elderly, widows and fatherless was genuine. Many pastors or preachers go to colleges and seminaries to make big bucks in a easy way and prey on people who don’t discern Godliness from schemes. If a church alows people to be as worldly as they want and promise them prosperity most of these are mega churches. But who will have to answer for all of the souls they have led astray with erroneous teaching? If I were facing a church closer decision I would go on a fast,pray for God’s direction and take heed of the answer he provides. Sometimes God will broaden your ministry in a new direction or re-vamp what you already have.

    Stay strong in the LORD. God bless all Christians everywhere and do not let your prayers and servatide die. These are the times where there is a great falling away of belivers who don’t desire sound doctrine. They are operatinging in the flesh and not in the Holy Spirit of God.

    Have a very Blessed weekend.

    Sincerely,

    Angela F. Day
    Well, several reasons churches are closing in today’s generation.

  • MNS says:

    The American Car Makers went out of business because they didn’t stay close to their customers. The same applies to churches. When you refuse to innovate, fail to understand people’s needs, or reach out to new market….you die. Churches that are dying, because leadership is disconnected from the Holy Spirit.

  • Martha says:

    Good afternoon,

    What I gather from the situation is too many of us are trying to move in our time, but if God sent you, gave you a temple to praise and worship in, he will empty out those that are not truely connected to him. Those who do not really love God will be removed (The question most of us must ask ourselves–Do we love God, do we love his son?)For those whose hearts are not with God, they will wonder away, most are looking to be made happy by music and all forms of entertainment, but when you have given your heart to God (which is what he’s seeking from us in this day and time)you will stand on the word of God. For Gods will to be done, his kingdom has to come, this will not happen until we come into agreement with Gods plane for his kingdom, and we can’t make it to that destiny if our hearts are hardened, if we are full of sin, with no forgiveness in our heart.

    May you all be greatly blessed–Give God your heart–Totally surrender everything to him, and he will make what ever is needed to build his kingdom come to pass.

    Sincerely,

    Your sister in Christ.

  • Tina says:

    Before you close your doors …

    For those of you who are considering shutting down your church buildings, you are challenged to prayerfully hang in there for Christ sake until the very end. It may very well be the day that you officially shuts down as the day that the Lord anoints and honors your steadfastness with a growing congregation!!! Before you close your doors, are you willing to remain available?

    Upon reading the different responses, my heart saddens because so much emphasis is placed on the church building. I’m so glad that Jesus did not throw in the towel when He prayed in the garden, when He hung on the cross, when He went into a tomb, and when He rose on the third day. We are saved only through Jesus’ dedication to fulfilling His Father’s business. I have been in church as long as I can remember and recall certain events that occurred when I was only four years old. Being 59 years old now, I have been a member of three different churches of which the first one is my home church where I grew up. After leaving home at 19 and being over 250 miles from my home church, I remember crying on Sundays because I did not know where I could find a church. I was too immature to ask around. But even with that, God directed me to a little family church where I was able to grow for over nine years until favoritism kicked in by the leadership and alienated many of the members. I was lead to go to another church where I presently attend. The Education Ministry is absolutely AWESOME and I have been able to really grow in Christ. The church has grown. Favoritism has blatantly raised its ugly head again. But I am more mature to understand that as long as God does not condone this behavior, I can still rest in His goodness and mercy. I must admit that it really hurts sometimes because sometimes I go there already hurting. Sometimes during my weak moments, I question my worth to Christ. I have to remain strong in my faith. Acts, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, and James speak on God’s position when it comes to “favoritism”. Before you close your doors, does your church have the capacity to increase faith in Christ and not man?

    Being a member of a church is risky. The members and the church leadership do not always exemplify Who God is. You may be liked, loved, and honored. On the other hand, you may risk being ostracized, demeaned, or totally insignificant. Friendships are broken because one friend is elevated and the other is ostracized. Loving God is safe. When churches determine who are acceptable in God’s sight, the church becomes the Accuser which we all know to be Satan. We then are at the mercy of man; and, our worth does not equal to that of the birds of the air or the fish of the sea — for God cares for them all. Before you close your doors, does your church offer comfort?

    To be a member of a CHURCH, one must be strong in Christ. Believers do not find it strange that Church leadership and members may be more malicious than the unbelievers and the world. Before you close your doors, can your church make a difference?

  • MIke Hughes says:

    We are living in a time when many small organizations, not just churches, are having to close up. This includes granges, ethnic organizations, and various non-profits. Either due to people’s busyness or self-absorption organizations simply can not get enough people to volunteer and give of themselves. But there is another aspect. It is good to look back and see why a certain church started in the first place. Churches usually start to meet a need…is that need still present? Are there other churches that currently are meeting that need? For example, we attend a small Baptist church on a long peninsula. When that church started, people were still using horse and buggies…it was a long way to go to church anywhere else. Now with cars, people have more options. We are also living in a more secular age. Before a church closes, however, I would strongly encourage the members to have a period of time dedicated to prayer to discern what God’s will is.

  • art says:

    There are churches that should of never been started and those pastoring that are not called to pastor. This is a past and current problem.

  • Pastor A says:

    I pastor a denominational church in a small town, the church has been there for about 150 years. The town has about four churches one being ours and all of them have only about 15 people in each. At one time we had hundreds of people but now are down to 10 people. Besides my family the congregation is in there 80s and may not be around another five years. Thats right in five years most likely my family and I will be the only ones left. Its sad but its reality. I was called as a pastor first by God by a geniune call and then went to Bible college, at my church you will find the Bible preached, as well as love and mercy, you will find everything that a church should consist of. We are a family at our church, we have some traditions but also embrace the new but not to extent of throwing out truth, I am even a young pastor in my 30s with a family never been divorced and no more a sinner than anyone else. I say this as to make the point that my church is not under judgement, God doesnt want to rid the world of my church as it is just as good of church as any. But my area is dying and the population has decreased and the churches have only older members and very few of them. So my church will die, but I am a young man and I will pastor that church till I bury or see the last one to the nursing home. It is my home, my family, the Lord has taught me so much there and I will pastor it till the end and then some unless otherwise directed by God. Our building is paid for and if need be I will pay the bills myself if thats what the Lord calls for, you see that is the thing, He led me there and untill He opens the doors some place else and makes it very clear for me to leave I have to stay as it is my church and my home, sure I could leave or make plans to sell the church when we end up being the only ones left or talk the remaining congregation into dessolving but who am I to do that. If you are pastoring a dying church maybe the Lord has a plan for you in the death of the church, maybe you need to die with that church. Quiting and running away or dissolving just because you dont see the pews filled is not a very mature thing to do and is not gracfully dying with the church, dont shoot the wounded and dying before their time, let them gracfully take their last breathes till they breath no more, let it be a natural death. If you want to be a mature Christian and grow then pastor that church till the last member is gone. We are called to be steadfast and to persevere. I garrantee that in the process of the death of that church the Lord has a plan and the plan most likely involves the death of all your pride and stripping you to very core of why you became a pastor and what your motives are. If you were just in it for respect, success and money than sureley you will quit and want to close the church early. A dying church makes a pastor look bad and most pastor dont like to look bad.