Have you ever lived through the death of a church?
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?