When Should We Close a Local Church?
It’s a sensitive topic. It’s an unpleasant reality. But many local churches seem to be dying right before our eyes. What was once a thriving center in a vibrant neighborhood is now a decaying island in a neighborhood long gone.
The signs are usually there. Some of them I mentioned in the blog, “What To Do When Your Church Is Dying?” and others can be found in works like Thom Rainer’s, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”
- There has been no appreciable growth, numerically or financially, in more than 5 years. Let’s make it 7 for the prophetic crowd.
- The neighborhood around the church has drastically changed but the church has not.
- The average age of the membership has risen sharply.
- The bills and the building are becoming harder to maintain.
- The goal of the church has become survival and maintenance rather than mission.
- The membership is not willing to change.
- The membership is not willing to accept their responsibility for the decline.
All is not lost. There are very few churches who have not struggled with some or all of those characteristics at some point. Dying churches are regularly revived but not without great sacrifice. These are some of the general characteristics of churches that survive:
- A crisis arises that forces the local congregation to face its real condition.
- The church engages outside, objective counsel to work through the crisis.
- The church admits that it is in crisis.
- The church confronts the problems and persons who contribute to the crisis.
- A gifted local leader arises or is appointed and takes the church through a radical restoration process.
- The church identifies a ministry or missional “niche” that allows it to make an ongoing contribution to the kingdom regardless of its size or age. Examples are: elder care ministries, social media ministries, child care ministries, legal aid ministries, Christian education ministries, etc.
But it seems to me that there is a point when some churches just need to be closed. Now, if you’re looking for some biblical instructions for closing a church, you’ll be disappointed. But living organisms, and a church is a living organism, go through predictable life stages: birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death.
I believe that’s true of churches also. At some point the best of churches will crumble. Looking for Ephesus? You’ll have to go on an archeological dig. Time will tumble some churches. Others are victims of geography. Some fall prey to apostasy.
There are many churches that have found ways to not only survive but thrive. Ultimately a church should be judged on its ability to fulfill the mission of the local church, which is to make disciples-developed and devoted followers of Christ. So, I believe we should consider closing local churches:
- When the local membership has not grown for 5-7 years and resists plans to change.
- When they refuse to submit to a thoughtful restoration process.
- When the local church is more successful at running souls off than bringing souls in.
- When other local churches are close enough to reach the souls the church in crisis refuses to reach.
Churches should be closed as a very last resort, but in some cases, they should be closed nonetheless. Church closures can actually be the grain of wheat spoken of in John 12 that dies but then brings forth much fruit. Churches can combine their memberships and resources for greater impact. Churches can resource new church plants and continue to live in other locations. Some churches can stop their perpetual search for the sixties and do a new thing. Some churches can stop reminiscing about the glory days and begin to tell a whole new story.
It’s a lot easier to talk about closing churches than it is to close them. Lives are impacted. Feelings are hurt. Hopes are dashed. But that’s also a description of what’s happening every week in many unhealthy churches.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, a time to be born and a time to die….” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
Is this true of local churches? What do you think?