Helping Churches Die Right

Helping Churches Die Right July 17, 2012

I was having lunch with another couple in ministry that shared a disturbing story with us. The problem isn’t so much in the uniqueness of the story they told, but rather in how incredibly common it is.

The couple had connections to a congregations several hours away that is located in the heart of a thriving urban center. The aging congregation was down to only 40 regular attendees, and had released all of their paid staff, opting instead for volunteers to lead worship for them when they could secure them.

Meanwhile, they gathered in a building, valued at roughly $9 million, which they could not afford to maintain.

This church, like so many others, seeks answers to questions about how to survive in an increasingly secular, disparate and religiously wary culture. Their hope, like plenty of other churches, is that something or someone will come along to save them, keep the institution going and propel them into the future for another century.

Oh, as long as they don’t have to change.

I’ve had some conversations like this with congregations who think they’re well-meaning, but who are actually standing in the way of God’s Kingdom being more fully realize,d as I understand it. What is said is that they want the church to continue so it can serve the community, but in truth, many of these congregations have ceased to serve anyone other than themselves for some time. Instead, they sit on piles of money, disguised as dirt, stone and stained glass, wondering why things can’t just go back to the way they used to be.

This kind of situation reminds me of the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do in order to find salvation. Jesus’ response: it’s easy. Just let go of everything here in this world that is holding you back. The path is laid out before you, yet you’re so bogged down with your baggage that you can’t even move forward.

It also make me think of the famous experiment with the Rhesus monkeys, where the scientists put a banana inside a jar with a narrow mouth. The opening is big enough for the monkeys to stick their hand in, but not large enough to pull it out while also keeping a grip on the banana. The story goes that the monkeys are so intent on keeping the banana that they remain trapped by the jar, even though all they have to do to be free is to let go.

Such is the state of many of our churches today.

Having been a partner in a new church plant nearly a decade ago, I think of how many dozens of new congregations could be seeded with $9 million. Or maybe that’s not what the community there needs most. Perhaps they need an affordable housing complex, or emergency services, a low-cost childcare facility or an emergency food bank.

Think of how many meals could be provided with $9 million. The problem is, the monkey has to let go of the banana first.

It’s a tough discussion to have, helping churches plan their own death with dignity. And not all churches would do more good dead rather than alive – at least that’s my opinion. There are lots of congregations offering hope, community, service, healing and discipleship that would be terribly missed without them.

But money, as they say, is a lot like manure. Spread it around, and things start to grow from it. Keep it hoarded in a big pile, and all it does is stink up the place.

Even the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything has its time, place and cycle in life. There’s a time to be born, and a time to accept that death is the best, right thing. Yes, we have much invested in our communities of faith: in the facilities; the history; the relationship and the vision for what they could be. But these can’t stand in the way of living out the call to selflessly serve the world to which Jesus points us.

Sometimes, all you have to do to serve is die.

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  • Ondergard

    As a Methodist Superintendent Minister in the UK, I shall be closing four chapels in the next six weeks – four out of a Circuit which numbered fourteen when I came here four years ago, having closed two last summer.
    It isn’t easy to close chapels, especially when the people who are closing them are direct descendants of the Victorians who built them:  even more difficult when the next one up to the plate for closure is likely to be the one for which my own great-grandfather ferried the stone across the river to build, back in 1878.
    It has to be done, though – resources have to be liberated, and used, not hoarded, to fund the ministry of people, not of buildings.

  • A parallel to that exists here in the south. We spend
    millions building “family life centers.” The church I attend has one of these
    beautiful centers. In it, we host one of our outreach ministries: the community
    care fund. The community care fund was set up to help people pay for their
    medical prescriptions. On certain days of the week, people can come into the
    center, fill out some forms to prove the need, and we would get them their
    prescriptions. My confusion comes in when we have a sign on our $2 million
    building that says we don’t have any more money for the community care fund
    this month. I know that is a very simplistic view and we have to have a nice place
    to come so the wealthy will unload their bucks for a placard with their father’s
    name on it…but really? Wouldn’t it be a lot nicer if you had a placard on a
    Habitat house? Does Jesus really need a basketball court, stage, and a sound

  • Christian, the church your friends told you about could just as easily have been the church I am currently serving at–this time a year ago, the church was down to about 30 active attendees meeting a beautiful, historic church building valued in the seven figures, wondering why it came to this.

    But the thing is, they did realize they needed change, and they were very thoughtful and deliberate in how they went about it.  As a result, we have started two new mission projects in our community in the past year, both of which have been organized entirely by our now-growing number of laypeople–all I’ve had to do is provide support and encouragement.

    If a church has such assets and no desire to change, then yes, the congregation should probably begin discussing how to close its doors with dignity for the good of the wider church.  But what if there is a desire to change, and to find new ways to serve the community?  I think that perhaps terminal illness then becomes much harder to diagnose in a congregation, and I am so grateful that the church I serve decided not to throw in the towel just yet.

  • Being a seminarian, working in a nonprofit, and having spent 4 years serving in a ministry situation that resulted in a merger & creation of a multicultural congregation, you are right on the money.  In the nonprofit world, we talk about the fact that if the mission has been achieved or the ability to achieve the mission isn’t possible, then its time for the nonprofit to go away.  The church needs to recognize this, but is deathly afraid to.  The halcyon days of the past are gone, people, and the church needs to recognize this.  

  • Paul Freeman

     I’ve been in a number of churches where the people who are members there claim that it is “MY CHURCH” as if they own it, as if it didn’t exist without them.  My last sermon I had with one of those churches I bluntly asked them where was God in all of this? I thought it was Christ who called us to do the mission of the church and it is not just the building that sits here on the corner of 3rd and Center Streets.

    I had several people came up to me after that service and apologize for some of their actions.  It’s sad how so called followers of Christ get hooked up on a structure that only becomes a monument if not used for it’s intended purpose.

  • Yep. My church died 2 years ago and the rest of the  mainline churches in Tucson appear to be on the same track. I’m eagerly watching and waiting to notice how the Spirit is moving outside the institution of church to jump on board whatever is next. Thanks for drawing more attention to this subject.

  • Suzzyq1982

    What an extraordinarily Western, protestant perspective…. I don’t think I have a place to file this.  The House of God, a Church, is not a pile of money… nor could it ever be. I would most likely refer you to Mark 14:3…. or maybe to the long description of the cares Solomon took to build the Temple in Jerusalem.  Many old churches do need to change. They need to show more love to their neighbors. They need to reexamine what God has called them to do as a church.  30 is more than 2…. God is present in their worship no matter how many people show up.  Even the small congregations in the huge buildings are relevant. While the West is harping on declining, dying churches, the East is experiencing a revival of church buildings. They have fought very hard to reclaim their churches and are working to restore them. I grew up in mission/”newly planted” churches. 30 is more than enough to run a church… but it does require commitment and a willingness to serve and sacrifice. Maybe this article is less about a church building, and more about a change in Christian theology. Maybe we aren’t raising a generation of Christian martyrs….

  • Clare Fb

    Manure, when piled up properly, actually composts, dying to its former self, by overheating to the point of destroying weed seeds, and ferrel plants, etc., THEN is returned onto the field or garden, as well composted, non-stinky fertilizer, giving new life and fresh nutrients TI the new growth which comes.

    The time of stinky manure is in its relatively fresh, or uncomposted stage. The metaphor intended is well taken, but it reveals minor lack of comprehension of reality, in it’s presentation. Fresh manure must first die, decompose in the heat of composting, preparing to live again, free of noxious weed seeds, roots, etc.

    If fresh manure is spread, it mostly spreads bad seeds, weeds, and roots, with little value nutritionally. Go figure.

    So I encourage the use of the metaphor, but for discerning readers, it’s impact will be enhanced if you tell it accurately.