Discernment for Dying Churches

We love to talk about life but death is another matter. When it comes to churches, this aversion to talking about death is much greater. I have encountered many small struggling churches that are living in maintenance mode, unsure of how or even if they even have the capacity to become a church moving forward on mission with God. But few of the churches want to consider that it might be time for their church to die.

I don’t think it should be like this. Though I realize that death is never a pleasant subject, it is a fact of life. However, for Christians, death is never the end. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore we believe that God raises new life out of death. God does so whenever a person is baptized into Christ where they are crucified with Christ — buried into death with Christ — and then raised into new life with Christ (cf. Rom 6:3-4). And God can do so even when a particular church decides that it is time to close (death).

The local church always exists to serve a purpose within the mission of God. One church may serve to minister among an emerging inner-city Latino neighborhood while another may serve exist to serve near a university among  college age young adults. Each church, with its purpose for existence, is valid and necessary but neither church is bigger than the mission of God that has been revealed in Christ and is now being lived out in the universal body of Christ. Over time and for various reasons, the purpose which the local church served within the mission of God no longer exists. Maybe its a church that once grew though a great Sunday School outreach program in a neighborhood of young families but now has discovered that as the neighborhood has changed with the young families being replaced by Asian immagrants who do not speak English as their primary language, their purpose is has run its course. Or maybe the church once grew because it was a safe community for people who were trying to discover the grace of God but as more and more other local churches discovered the grace of God, their purpose has been fulfilled.

Without finding a new purpose for existence, one that participates in the mission of God, the church begins to decline as it shifts into maintenance mode. Sadly, many churches linger in such mode until they are forced to close because their are few members left, financial resources have disappeared, etc… Sometimes, if not many times, this is very taxing and detrimental to the spiritual health of the members in this church. But what if the church decided that it was time to close the church for good, effectually letting the church die (rather than trying to keep it on life support)?

I think there are at least several good results that could come from a church deciding to close for good. First, the members could then become a part of another church where they continue growing in faith as they serve with this church using their spiritual gifts. In such a case, God is breathing new life into their own souls as well as the new church they are joining. Also, the remaining assets of the church that closed could be contributed to other churches or para-church ministries that are serving a needed purpose within God’s mission. Second, the members could call a missionary/evangelist leader to plant a new church with a new purpose. The members may even choose to be a part of this new church (but they must let it be a new church and not just a reinvention of the old church). In this scenario, where one church is closing, another is being planted… where one church has died, another one has been born.

So what should be done? This is where discernment is necessary. The declining and dying church must come together in prayer and in conversation in order to listen to what God is trying to say about the way forward. The church I serve in as a minister is starting to have such conversations right now. This isn’t the sort of ministry I ever envisioned myself helping a church work through but it is a necessary one. I’m convinced that many other churches need to discern the same question as well and that’s why I’m writing this blog post.

Here is a prayer that I wrote for our church which we prayed together yesterday. The prayer is structured around the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 and it is a prayer as we move forward trying to discern the will of God:

Our Father in heaven, you are holy, the one true living God. There is no one like you, who loves us beyond our ability to fully understand.

We desire for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. And as we discern together the future, we want to discern your will so that it can be done in us and by us.

We ask for you to provide all our needs, our daily bread, with full trust that you will do that just as you always have in the past. Should we relaunch, we know that you will provide the way. Should we close and scatter, we know that you will provide the way.

Whatever the course is, we know that we are mortals and that we have and will continue to make mistakes, so we ask for your forgiveness as we forgive each other of our mistakes, short-comings, and sins. Whatever grievances we hold toward each other and toward past decisions made in this church, we release.

We know that our enemy, Satan, will try to distract us and steer us from your will, so we pray for your deliverance from Satan influence, that we may be filled with the power of the Spirit to hear your will and obey your will.

The kingdom belongs to you, our God. You reign through you Son, Jesus, who was crucified, who has been raised from death and has ascended to the throne. Through him alone, we ascribe to you the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!

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4 responses to “Discernment for Dying Churches

  1. I’ve been part of a dying congregation. I tell part of the story here: http://blog.jimgrey.net/2010/03/15/renewing-a-170-year-heritage/. It is very hard not only for church leadership to discern God’s leading in such a time, but it was, in my experience, even harder for the congregation to accept it.

    In that congregation’s situation, what forced our hand was a cash-flow problem — offering no longer covered expenses, and we were burning through savings. With six months before we could no longer pay our bills, we put our building up for sale. We’d been on that land since 1837, so it was a hard, hard choice for us. But it started us on a journey in which we relied deeply on God; we had no choice. Which might just be where he wanted us in the first place!

  2. Thank you for posting this. I closed a small church plant a few years ago. It was necessary for a variety of reasons. It is a challenging decision.

    I appreciate your honesty and take on the situation in your own location. I most appreciate your adaptation of the Disciples’ prayer/Lord’s prayer: beautifully applied.

    Blessings and peace!

  3. It is so sad to hear of a church “dying”, but it is usually due to the congregation dying because they are not willing to changing with the times. As most of them have been there since church opened or their family started this church.
    If we don’t save the lives of youth and teach them, all churches will die.
    If you need a new purpose, a new type of music, or a new way of presenting the gospel, then do it. The message will always be the same, Jesus is and always be the king of Kings and Lord of Lords and the Savior of the world.
    Reach out to your communities and see what they need and/or expect from a church, then do it and spread the good news to all.

  4. I have held these ideas about the lifespan of local churches for over twenty years now. Thanks for your articulation of these, and how the advancement of the kingdom continues on. And, thanks for sharing the beautiful elaboration prayer on the Lord’s prayer.

    Rus Hooper

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