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Redistributed life: When a church closes its doors

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Archives / 2019 / July

 

 

Redistributed life: When a church closes its doors

Len Hjalmarson

Len Hjalmarson, DMin, previously a pastor, resides in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He serves as an adjunct professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada, and a leadership advisor at Portland Seminary, George Fox University, Portland, Oregon, United States

 

 

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance"

(Eccl. 3:1–4, ESV).

Birth and death are normal parts of life—but normal does not mean easy. Death takes collective forms, too, such as the end of life for an entire church family. Organizations, like people, have life cycles—they are born, they mature, and they die. In this third phase, the best of them rebrand so that the third phase is not the final phase. Churches have cycles or seasons too. As living systems, churches partake in predictable structural dynamics that we can observe and describe. Genesis 8:22 states, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (NIV). In other words, winter can turn into spring (see Song of Sol. 2:11, 12). Winter may signal death, but it can also spark a resurrection. The more difficult challenge is recognizing the work of the Spirit in and through such patterns of change. 

A church is more than a human system because it enthrones the Spirit, who works in ways beyond our understanding. In this brief examination of the demise of a church, we will consider how using different lenses can shed unique light on the experience of church closure.

Is revival possible?

Before closing a church, the local pastor, church administrators, and church members should prayerfully analyze all possible options that might have the potential to revive it. They should consider community involvement activities, a variety of outreach activities, Bible studies, planting a new congregation, or moving to a new location where they can start with new vision and activities. Dedicated prayer and careful planning may give them options besides closing the doors. The simple act of coming together to pray and brainstorm many times bears unexpected results. However, if the church does not seem to grow and the limited number of local members cannot sustain the programs and expenses, eventually they need to consider shutting the doors.

People of the dream

A faith community faces a unique question in such moments because we are people of the dream. We know that the end is never the end, and we realize that our God is a God of deliverance. He is able to do miraculous things! But that awareness can make facing reality more difficult. We always hope that God will come through in amazing ways.

Realizing that He can raise the dead, we live in a strange space between the real and ideal, between our hopes and fears. What is required is a clear and discerning spirit to see what God is doing in such transitional spaces. It helps to know that God loves transitional spaces—both endings and beginnings—because of the way they shape us. His deliverance of Israel, after all, was a long, slow process through the desert. He did not instantly transport them from Egypt to the land of promise. It was step by painful step as a new generation was born in the desert.

How we started

In 2013 my wife and I arrived in Thunder Bay in North Ontario to pastor a church that had experienced some difficult leadership dynamics but was ready to make another start. We came to a graying and small, but hopeful, congregation who occupied a building that the church had called home for 128 years. My wife and I shared the pastoral work while I also taught at a couple of theological schools. From the beginning, we knew that our opportunities and time were limited. It was change or die. The aging building was a particular challenge because, as a symbol of the past, it anchored a particular approach to congregational life and a set of traditions and ways of being the church. Those traditions shaped a culture that did not feel so welcoming in the modern world. And the building came with the challenges of any old structure—a need for maintenance, insurance, and heating—while the membership that had to carry those costs had shrunk dramatically.

Our first task was to determine whether any hope existed for renewal in the building. That would be impossible without greater numbers, but we also discovered that people were tired. They had little energy for outreach and, thus, growth. That raised a new necessity: get rid of the building. After 18 months of visioning and processing, we found a new ministry who needed the space. That change launched us into a new location. But the energy level remained the same, and we lost two key couples when they retired and moved. Suddenly we realized that with only a few members— clearly not enough to support all church services and expenses—we could not maintain our current ministry with the people we had, and my and my wife’s job descriptions had suddenly expanded to fill new gaps. Our ministry was no longer sustainable. We had a year to 18 months to prepare for our church’s funeral.

Planning the end

As our leadership team began to plan for the closing of our church, we discussed what needs our people would have. We talked about theological perspectives on death and about endings, beginnings, and legacies. Soon we felt that the Lord gave us John 12:24 as an anchor point: “‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ ” (ESV). Eventually, we realized that the closing of a church requires some kind of funeral. Something real but hard to define will die, and it has scattered survivors. There is much to grieve and, yet, much to celebrate.

Our first step was to map out a timeline. We set a tentative date for our final service eight months down the road. The second step was to consider what Bible narratives would be most helpful for our people as they faced the transition together. What encouragement would they require? What did they need to know about transition, grief and loss, new beginnings? During our departure from the building, where some had worshiped for 75 years, we had already cycled through some of this. Now we would do it again, for a different kind of loss.

The announcement

The most important phase of the transition would begin in January, when we would share the need to close the church and announce the date of the final service. The closure would mean very different things for various people. Some embrace change, and some avoid it. We anticipated a particular kind of pain and trauma for some who had made the church family the center of their Christian experience for decades. The reality was that the congregation fell into at least three broad groups in its orientation to endings and beginnings.

The first group was our elderly, ranging in age from the late 60s into the 90s. Perhaps because this group has less energy to invest in change and learning new ways of being takes energy, most of our elderly members did not easily welcome change.

Our middle-aged members found it easier. Middle-agers, in general, are more likely to adjust well to new spaces and faces. Because social and other networks are generally maximized in our middle years, this group seems to have more options. Middle-agers have friends in other congregations, and their children may attend other churches. The closing of a church is generally easier on those in middle age.

The young adults adapted most readily to change. For most young adults, the church is not the center of their social life. It tends to be another spoke on the wheel. They will most easily find a place to land after this ending.

Another consideration was the process of grief itself. The speed at which people move through grief, like their orientation to change, is highly personal and depends in part on the way they have negotiated earlier losses. Some move through grief quite rapidly. Others will get stuck and may never completely let go. The latter will require our help and encouragement the most. We need to do a lot of listening, and they may require the assistance of a grief counselor.

The final weeks

The six weeks before the last service were the most critical. Realizing the strength of our congregation leaning on each other, in our final month, we offered two extended fellowship times after the service, including a light meal. By Easter, we were in the final stretch.

The first worship service following Easter, we considered Jesus’ dispatching the disciples in John 20. The great sending of the church was at its dispersal after the fall of Jerusalem. The temple, which had anchored Jewish worship for centuries, was no more. Although an earth-shattering shift, it was also an invitation to God’s people to realize concretely that He does not dwell in buildings made by human hands. We were reminded that our fellowship is a spiritual reality, not a human institution.

In the last worship service of April, we considered the theme of failure from John 21. Some of our people felt that they were complicit in the doors closing. Had we failed as a church? What might that mean? We needed perspective. Even the cross can look like a failure, but in the weakness of God, we find our strength. In this transitional space, we heard Jesus asking us, “Do you love Me?” Our most important call was not our preservation of the building for God but our participation in the mystery of God. (And, of course, we should continue that participation in another congregation.)

The following service, we considered the concept of transitions. Opening with Ecclesiastes 3, we talked about Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. We discussed grief and loss and the tension of living in between. Finally, we ended with Philippians 3 and how Paul suffered the loss of all things for the sake of knowing Jesus better.

The next service, we discussed Pentecost. Jesus ascended and rules over heaven and earth as King and one day will return to rule in a physical kingdom. But His rule begins now and manifests itself in a special way through the church as a sign and a foretaste of His kingdom. Then we explored the place of the church in God’s plan and our need to continue to participate in the life of the Spirit. The church in our city would continue to thrive.

The last service

The final service was a lengthy one. We opened it by lighting a large candle, representing the life of our little church community. We then asked for some of our oldest members to share memories. Both my wife and I spoke from Scripture, offering formal words of encouragement. Structured readings served as prayers of confession, faith, and hope. I spoke from Philippians 3 with an emphasis on the “one thing [we continue to] do” (see v. 13).

At the close of the service, we asked everyone to stand and form a large circle. After we handed out small candles, three of our older members lit their candles from the large one at the front; then one individual blew it out. The life of our church was over. The elders then passed the light of the large candle, now gone, on to every small candle. The life of our congregation had come to an end, but the life of Christ burned brightly in each of us.

Moving on

We gave members hope and options to chose from. People who have been connected to a church for a long time can get hurt or discouraged. Not only do they need time to process, accept, and heal, they also require ideas on how to start over again. When a church closes, it is important to offer the members a variety of solutions that they can consider. It is also vital to offer emotional sup-port for a period. We encouraged them to phone each other and pray together, and we constantly checked on them and prayed with them. Fellowship meals took place occasionally, during which they could see and support each other. We suggested a variety of ideas, including the possibility of attending another congregation; the idea of starting a small study, prayer, or fellowship group; and so on.

David Whyte writes that “courage is the ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown; to create a form of friendship with what lies around the corner over the horizon—with those things that have not yet fully come into being.”1

Churches come and go, but the body of Christ endures in the world. A helpful image for me is the mushroom. The mushroom is a rhizome. Rhizomes spread by sending out networks of roots in the soil. You water your lawn one evening, and it’s all green grass. The next morning a full-grown mushroom appears. Where did it come from? Its life was hidden below the soil.

When the conditions were right, it emerged. Tomorrow it will be gone. But the hidden life endures, sustained by the creative power of God.

When a neighborhood church closes its doors, its life is not lost— only redistributed. Older members become pillars in another church and find new missions and ministries. Likewise, the fruit of years of faithfulness endures, manifest in lives changed, believers grown to maturity, neighborhoods transformed by the love of Jesus. Truly, as Robert Browning put it, “All that is at all, lasts ever, past recall; Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure.”

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1  David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York, NY: RiverheadBooks, 2001), 102.

2  Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43775/rabbi-ben-ezra.

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