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    A Good Death for Dying Churches

    When dwindling congregations decide to shutter, what happens to the surviving members?

    By Michelle Van Loon

    June 26, 2023
    • Wolf Paul

      «Catholic and Orthodox parishes close due to demographic decline, and the grief and pain may be no less, but a church still exists to belong to, and to care for those who remain.» If Evangelicals (and other Protestants) were more aware of and interacting in practical and fruitful ways with other, theologically likeminded congregations instead of living in the bubble of their own church, they would also recognize that the church still exists in the form of congregations to belong to and care for them. But this insularity needs to be recognized and addressed long before a congregation is about to disband.

    • charles schoendienst

      Althoug my church of 20+ years was not declining, neither was it flourshing. Pastor replaced pastor at five year intervals. But for the last half-decade, I was declining. I had warm feelings for fellow congregants, similar to how a individual appreciates comfortable old clothes. But I couldnt pick myself up by my bootstraps to find robust faith. And so gradually, as time passed, I skipped more sundays, lost interest in doctrine, and lagged in my personal devotions. I still receive emailed congregational prayer requests, but now I consider myself "alumni" at my church. Like the closure of a declining church, loss of a fervent personal faith is also sad. A person misses the old days of energy. Fortunately, there can be hope that is bigger than a congregation, or than an individual. Like Michelle Van Loon's belief that "the universal church of Jesus Christ marches on, and offers every believer a spiritual home", congregants may find a new invigoration.

    • Barry

      That last paragraph points to something important. When we have to get to know the people around us, then we will find opportunities and conflicts (which are often opportunities). What if we didn't have the luxury of walking (or running) away from disagreement, or cherry picking services? What if our spiritual survival depended on getting along, working through problems, clinging to one another, even in conflict, as if the people around us were the only ones who understood us and knew what we're up against out there? How many priorities would change if walking away weren't an option? I think the most logical and biblical organization for the church is "how far do you want to walk to attend a gathering?" I don't do this... I drive by two churches to get to a specific church, like most Christians I know. And I've seen two splits in my short time, like the one described in this article. There's something compelling and biblical about the idea of not being allowed to walk away faultless -- like family. You can stop talking to family, but it never goes away.

    • Raymond G. Falgui

      What was the doctrinal issue(s) that split the church? The author dances around it, as if very careful not to mention it. It is likely a serious issue if it caused half the congregation to leave.

    There was no funeral, no final ritual honoring a life that had ended. Most of the body was already buried in a dozen different places. 

    When the small church my family and I attended sputtered to an end, our final gathering as a community almost seemed like an afterthought. The experience taught me that those tasked with shepherding the end of a church’s life together need a vision for the process, which more congregations are facing than ever before.

    Grace Bible Fellowship, our small nondenominational congregation, had been devastated by a protracted power struggle masquerading as theological division. After months of conflict, one Sunday morning my family and I arrived for worship to discover that half the congregation didn’t show up. Without notice, the dissenters had decided to leave as a group. The nearly empty sanctuary echoed with their absence.

    In the following months, discouragement settled over those who remained. My husband was one of the elders, and he and the other leaders continued to reach out to those who’d left in an effort to pursue reconciliation even if they chose not to return to the congregation. A couple of leavers were open to those conversations, but the majority said there was nothing more to discuss.

    Meanwhile, we watched our numbers continue to dwindle. Some left in search of churches with more vibrant children’s programming. Others decided to join friends who’d already departed for another church in town. Some wished us well but said it was too demoralizing to be a part of a congregation on life support.

    Those of us who remained began to ask one another if it was time to pull the plug.

    Statistics reveal that our congregation was far from alone in facing this decision. Lifeway Research reports that in 2019, 3,000 new Protestant congregations launched while 4,500 churches closed their doors. (To add some perspective, there are about 314,000 Protestant congregations in the United States, so that’s about one in seventy.) Though we don’t yet have statistics that fully reflect Covid’s impact on already-struggling congregations, there seems to be an uptick in news stories with headlines like “After 128 Years, First Church Closes Its Doors” and “Central Christian’s Building Now on the Market.” The stressors of the last three years hastened the inevitable for some congregations that were already in decline.

    Church strategist Thom Rainer has suggested some markers that point to a congregation’s impending demise. These include a pattern of declining attendance, aging membership, a disconnect between the demographics of a congregation and those of the surrounding community, a resistance to change, a focus on the past, catering to the preferences of members rather than the mission of the church, dated facilities, and a shriveling budget. Rainer says, “If a church has four or more of these signs present, it is likely in deep trouble.” 

    Grace Bible Fellowship could tick the boxes on six items on that list – and this was before the doctrinal conflict that split the congregation. The split simply exposed the slow decay that had been under the surface for years.

    Not all churches shutter in a blizzard of acrimony. Some limp to a conclusion. “We attended our former church for more than ten years,” a friend told me. She noted that like her own family, many were commuting to the church from distant suburbs because they enjoyed the solid preaching. “We didn’t invite our local friends to church because it was so far away.” She added that as people from the congregation moved out of the area, new people did not take their places. The decline in member numbers and the lack of strong connection with the surrounding community led church leaders to the decision to shutter the church. “That ending was both sad and bittersweet,” she said, “but we were all ready for it to be over at the end.”

    Another friend, whose church closed its doors after only four years, described an ending that felt more like a sigh than an explosion. “We were a part of a larger English-speaking church for eleven years,” she said. A core group of Spanish-speakers within the church had been working to launch a Spanish-language church, and eventually were sent to do so with the blessing of the mother church. But after two of the core families departed two years later, the remaining group was weighed down under the workload. “We had lots of children and many outreaches that we couldn’t continue without more help,” my friend said. “The last two remaining elders met two weeks before the church closed and decided to not continue the work. It was a mutual decision but very difficult, because we had served together for years.”

    smoke from a blown out candle

    Photograph by Rob Wicks

    I found a measure of solace in the months leading into the closing of Grace Bible Fellowship as I reflected on how often the writers of the New Testament epistles focus on guiding these fledgling congregations through many different types of conflict. These new communities contained a wheat-and-tares mix of human sin and resurrection hope, just as the church has ever since. I also noticed the accounts of scattering. The Book of Acts highlights the movement of gospel seed-bearers far and wide, some sent out but others dispersed via persecution or as a result of internal conflict.

    Our final few weeks at Grace Bible Fellowship we worshiped in a basement classroom. We all agreed it was awkward to continue to gather in the nearly empty sanctuary. During that time, there was some talk about trying to “reboot” the church, as if it were an aging PC, but no one had any energy for such an attempt. We were emotionally and spiritually exhausted. We finally agreed that our time together had come to a conclusion.    

    Because we didn’t own a building or property, it was astonishingly simple to shutter the church. A missions organization owned the building, and when our congregation’s leaders approached the organization to let them know we were disbanding, they graciously released us from our lease arrangement. Our final Sunday morning together was a short, numb postscript: a hymn, some thank-yous, a prayer of thanksgiving for what God had done among us over the years, and then we scattered.  

    I don’t remember who turned out the lights or locked the door for the last time.    

    Though my family wasn’t there for the beginning of Grace Bible Fellowship, when we joined the church, we heard the stories of faith and God’s provision that fueled the congregation’s early years. We learned about the shared vision among the founders that the congregation would be a family of families that focused on meaningful teaching and building caring relationships both within and beyond the congregation.

    In the years since Grace Bible Fellowship came to an end, I now recognize is that it takes a different kind of vision to end a church well. We scrambled in those final weeks to make sense of what to do next and were mostly in reactive mode. We held on to the past in a way that didn’t allow us to open our empty hands to God to receive what the future might hold.

    A vision for our church community’s ending wouldn’t have made the hurt and sadness disappear, but it could have made space for lament, thanksgiving, and reorientation to the ongoing mission God has for each one of us. Ending well is a matter of good pastoral care. Perhaps it is a sad sign of the times, but many denominations now offer liturgies designed for the decommissioning and closing of a church. Those liturgies capture in formal ways what such congregations need most in the final moments. Those things include naming the good things God has done in the church over the years: the hospitality, the baptisms, the weddings, the weekly worship and preaching and sharing of communion. Ending well makes space for grief while at the same time offering hope. The Reformed Church in America’s liturgy for worship at the closing of a church contains this charge:

    Beloved sisters and brothers,
    the church is not this building;
    it is you who are called by God to be followers of Jesus Christ.
    The church of Jesus Christ needs you
    and the gifts the Spirit has instilled within you
    to build up Christ’s body.
    So we charge and encourage you
    to find a place of worship
    where you may be encouraged in your faith
    and where you may encourage others.

    When I remember the people who once gathered at Grace Bible Fellowship, I pray these words for all of us. They may be a requiem, and can feel as dispiriting as the divorce liturgies some denominations now offer. But they are also my song of hope. Local congregations and even denominations may come and go, but the universal church of Jesus Christ marches on, and offers every believer a spiritual home.

    Why, then, is our grief so intense and persistent? Yes, we know the church is not a building. We know the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But deep down we also know these deaths reveal something about the state of our churches: there are reasons more people are leaving than coming, and we can’t just blame secular culture. Even more unsettling, these closures bring into question our fundamental understanding of what the church is. The church is not a building, but it’s also not a social club you select for its family programming, or a place you drive once a week for solid teaching. Even a cursory look at historical Christianity reveals that the current American Protestant conception of religious consumerism – of shopping around for a church that suits one’s tastes and needs and even creeds – is an aberration, a far cry from what the church was to believers in other ages, and still is to believers in other places and traditions today. Catholic and Orthodox parishes close due to demographic decline, and the grief and pain may be no less, but a church still exists to belong to, and to care for those who remain.

    Every believer needs a spiritual home, but we also each need an embodied local community of faith. The closing of a church holds an invitation to other congregations in the area. What would it take for Christians in geographic proximity to lay aside their differences and preferences to provide that care and community for one another?

    Contributed By MichelleVanLoon Michelle Van Loon

    Michelle Van Loon is a freelance writer with articles in Christianity Today, In Touch, and Fathom, among others.

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