Is a church’s death inevitable? Who can give congregations permission to die? Should church members feel guilty for closing their facility’s doors?
Peter Bush, author of In Dying We are Born: The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations, believes every church must “be prepared to die” because each will die in one of two ways. Each church must die to “deeply held understandings of life and the purpose of the congregation” or it will close its doors.
Congregations are organisms, subject to an organism’s lifecycle — birth, development, plateau and aging — and that cycle is inevitable, Bob Dale, author of To Dream Again, Seeds for the Future and Cultivating Perennial Churches, believes.
“Living things don’t live forever, but there are some living things that last a long, long time,” he said.
Les Robinson, vice president of interim ministry resources for the Center for Congregational Health, also sees the cycle of life. “Churches are human institutions. Why shouldn’t they complete the same cycle?” he asked.
Some point out the Bible reveals the pattern, as well. A kernel of wheat must die before it can produce a plant and new seeds, according to John 12:24. The verse usually is interpreted in the light of Jesus’ death. But the verse has broader application, Bush believes.
“We have tended to read that as an individual … but I also think it applies to the corporate body,” Bush said. “The pattern of dying and rising is continual.”
Even churches important to the early Christians faced death, Glenn Akins, associate executive director for the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said. The seven churches in the New Testament book of Revelation no longer exist, he pointed out.
Causes of death
What causes a church to die? Akins believes lack of leadership and denial of decline contribute to a church’s demise. “When multiple people are involved, the church doesn’t have to die. But without adequate leadership, without wise decisions, it will die,” he said.
Change — or failure to keep pace with it — can be the major factor in church deaths.
“Churches are birthed because of a need,” noted Jim Hill, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. “On the frontier, churches were birthed as communities sprang up. But some of those communities are gone, and that’s not the fault of the church.”
Communities often change complexion and cultural makeup. Differences in the ways cultural and age groups define the community concept also determine the type of church that will survive.
“Many churches were started with a sense of neighborhood … a geographical community,” Akins said. “The hitch is with all the cultural changes going on, we don’t find it that way anymore. ... Those (churches) that are ‘parish-based’ and have never changed their ministry model will not make it.”
Closure or revitalization
What indicators might signal a church should close or rethink its ministry? What questions might congregations ask themselves as they face change?
Churches most frequently use traditional indicators — membership numbers and weekly receipts — to determine success. Congregations should begin to ask hard questions as soon as they recognize decline, Hill insisted.
Robinson agreed that those traditional markers catch churches’ attention. “Money, membership and attendance are usually what get our attention first. Those are the practical things,” he said.
But the more abstract aspects of church life often determine whether a church should close. “We must be very clear about our mission and our vision … who we are at this place, at this time, at this moment in history,” Robinson said.
Clarity of identity is critical, he believes, emphasizing that today’s congregations can’t hang onto the vision they had in the 1950s and ’60s. “We can’t fulfill that,” he said.
“Sometimes churches lose their identity or their clarity. Churches need to ask themselves on a regular basis to keep their identity clear. That doesn’t automatically eliminate the struggle with the practical, but it helps the congregation be able to look at their future.”
A church’s identity can be expressed in its mission, Dale said. A vibrant understanding of mission can help a congregation determine whether it should close or find a new way to move forward.
“One question churches might ask: Is our sense of calling, our sense of mission still alive in this place?” the author said.
Hill also believes congregations must focus on mission first. “Perhaps the most critical questions are: Are there people who need to be reached, and who are not being reached? Can we adapt our ministry to those who are not being reached? Can we build ministry that will help us respond to needs?” he said.
Morale is important as well, Dale noted. Churches often will do what their members “believe they can do,” he said.
Closing with hope
Members and even denominations often view church closure as failure. Baptists do not have a system in place to help churches prepare to close. “We need to do better at helping churches recognize new possibilities or to help them close,” Robinson said.
Celebration can mitigate guilt and help the congregation recognize the church’s contribution to God’s kingdom.
“Find a time of storytelling. Sharing is the way to celebrate, to look at the ministry as having done what God called us to do,” Robinson added. “That’s success, not failure.”
Hill agreed celebration can help heal, especially if it is followed by rebirth. “Celebrate the ministry, conclude it, and then focus on birthing a church where a new one is needed,” he said.
“Bodies die, but the body of Christ doesn’t,” Dale stressed. “It may wane in one place but will rise up in another.”