In the previous two posts on closing a church, we looked at why this is a necessary conversation that some declining churches must deal with and what the actual question of discernment is for this conversation. In short, we must realize that there are some churches in such decline that it may be time for them to consider closing and this has to do with participation in the mission of God rather than preserving a local church. The question then is how does a church determine if God is telling them that it is time to close as a local church so that the members can find other healthy churches to worship and serve with?
The simple answer is prayer and listening, as we hear God speaking through the conversations with each other. However, we need to unpack this or else we might misunderstand and in the worst case, never listen to anyone except our own voice.
To begin with, we must keep in mind that the question of discernment is an open-ended question. In asking how is God leading the church to participate in the mission of God, closing might be part of the answer but the church must also remain open to the idea that God may be calling then into a new chapter of participation together. I actually know of a church that was considering closure and in the process discovered that God was calling them to remain together, and now they are discovering once again how to participate in the mission of God together.
Where the question of discernment begins is with the realization that the church cannot continue as it has, that the church is declining and something must change. This alone is a hard reality for many church members to accept. In fact, I found in my experience with the Columbia Churches of Christ that accepting this reality was a grieving process that went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). So coming to the realization that the church cannot continue business as usual is necessary for discerning the way forward. For that to happen, time and space along with pastoral leadership are absolutely necessary.
Coming to terms with reality and discerning the way forward can create a lot of anxiety, so the ministers and other leaders must have a non-anxious presence. This means serving in a pastoral role, having compassion as the church struggles in grief but speak candidly about the reality of the church. There are two other factors that I believe are very important:
- Give the church as much time as necessary for processing the grief. Any attempt to rush the process will only cause further problems. Yet in giving as much time as necessary, the minister and other leaders must hold the conversation about the state of the church before others. That requires sensitive pastoral wisdom and decisiveness that encourages people towards prayer, listening to others, and dealing with the painful emotions.
- The space for such a conversation is gathering around a table for a meal together. When a church gathers together for a meal a more relaxed atmosphere is created. In a conversation where there will be some disagreements, people are more likely to listen and respond in manner that allows for healthy and meaningful dialogue. With the Columbia Church of Christ, we positioned the tables so that everyone was facing each other.
I want to end by saying that in discerning where God is leading, churches must remember that they are loved by God. I’ll say more about this in the last installment of this series on closing a church but this needs emphasized here… God loves these churches as much as he loves the large and vibrant churches.