Earlier this month I wrote an article titled Disband with Dignity regarding the closure of the Columbia Church of Christ, whom I served with as the minister. Now that the article is out, I want to blog some more about the subject of deciding to close a church. With the reality that Churches of Christ are declining, there will be other congregations facing this issue. In fact, I have already talked with six other ministers wondering if it is time for the congregation they serve to close.
I want to say upfront this is a discernment issue. No matter the circumstances, churches are called to discernment… discerning the where and how of God’s work among the church. That is, the leaders along with the rest of the church must discern where God is leading their church as participants in the mission of God and how the church is called to serve as participants in the mission of God. This is true, I believe, just as much for a church that is outgrowing its current facility as it is for a small church struggling in decline.
Here is what is important: The question of discernment is about participating in the mission of God, not preserving the church. Having declined to about 25 members, this was the question the Columbia Church of Christ was asking and had to ask… “how is God leading each of us to participate in his mission?” This is not a question that any church should fear, no matter the outcome. God is still God and our salvation in Christ remains, no matter how and where such discernment leads.
Seeking to participate in the mission of God may lead to renewal of the current church or maybe God is leading that church to disband so that through the pruning and scattering, greater fruit is produced. Remember, in Acts 8:1, it must have seemed like a bad dream come true as the Jerusalem church was scattered abroad due to local persecution. However, one chapter later in Acts 9:31, we see that the church was now growing throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Likewise, God may want to “close” a church so that the members are scattered where they may further participate in the spreading of the gospel (how that happens must be entrusted to God).
I will not say that every small church should consider closure as an option. There are some small churches with very vibrant gospel ministries. Yet there are some churches that are shrinking in number, are unsure of their identity (purpose and calling), have suffered from unhealthy conflict, and are living with other circumstances that call into question their long-term viability. In another post I will spend some time on what it might take for declining church to find renewal in the mission of God. But at the same time, for the churches that I am broadly describing in this paragraph, the discerning question of closure should also be considered and in another post I will share why.
For this introductory post on closing a church out, let me share with two book recommendations. The first book is Legacy Churches, written by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond. This book written from the perspective of mainline denominations, tells some of the practical issues that churches have to deal with in closing a church and how they can still leave a legacy in doing so. The second book is Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, written by Ruth Haley Barton. This book will help either the leadership or even the church as a whole learn how practice discernment together as a spiritual discipline that seeks the will of God.
Let me close by saying that helping close the Columbia Church of Christ has been a bittersweet experience. It is never something I dreamed of doing when I was called into ministry and preparing for ministry as a seminary student. Further more, it has been a very stressful season of life for me. I know it was for the church as well. Yet at the same time, it was a season of amazing community in which the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. The church faithfully extended grace toward each other in the midst of a difficult season and drank deeply from the promise of hope that God has blessed us with in Christ. My hope now is that by extending this journey into a series of blog posts, it might help other churches faithfully face difficult times with grace and hope.