A church is choosing to close. But, does that mean it dies? This is the question we have been wrestling with at the congregation where I serve as pastor. Choice appears to be the greatest value in our society. Wishful thinking is second to it. Is this discussion an exercise in the latter. So many people are prematurely dancing on the grave of The United Methodist Church. And there are indeed a few former members of the congregation who are satisfied with this development. There are many people in this world who believe if they cannot control some thing, it must be killed. However, in the case of my congregation, a conscious choice to discontinue our ministry as a body is being made despite the stark choices being offered. A new choice was proposed. The choice is to take who we are to other places.
A not so famous document from America’s early frontier, The Last Will And Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, makes a bold assertion. “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is one body and one Spirit, even as we are called into one hop of our calling.” The first item of the document holds that the Presbytery is successful as the world sees success. But, there is something wrong with their success. It perpetuates division in the body of Christ. As a body, the authors of the document, see it should become one with the body and Spirit of Christ. In other words, the principle involved is dying in order to live into a larger life.
Choosing life is wonderful if we see clearly to do it. The authors of The Last Will and Testament decided to step forward in faith into greater body of believers. They did not cease to be church or Christians. Some of the authors returned to Presbyterianism, some became Shakers, and some stayed with the ideals expressed in the document. No one sought to create separate bodies of believers. They died as one body to become something greater.
There is one death congregations should avoid. It is a death that is nothing but loss – the Death of Hope. It is a death that sees no hope in achieving goals that are unsustainable. Nothing is sadder than empty shells of buildings that once served as the base of thriving ministries. What makes them so sad is that somewhere the vision of the congregation became self-perpetuation. Jesus says, “Those who seek to preserve their lives will lose them.” (Matthew 16:25) The church dies while looking healthy.
Ironically, this is the very reason the churches seek political and social influence. Showing themselves to be alive and active, they fail to heal and give hope. Guilt coupled with the threat of ostracism for not maintaining the image ultimately destroys the community that was supposed to be preserved.
Choosing To Seek God
Choosing to close for us is choosing to seek God. I am not saying God could not be found in our church. Our church listened to each other, prayed together for a month, continued listening to each other and the denominational leadership. And some even looked at churches that chose to move their places of ministry. I really wanted to find another place. Yet, choosing to make seeking God more than lip service, meant letting my wants and visions for the future go for the sake of the needs of others. So we looked honestly, clearly, and spiritually at our situation. We stepped forward faithfully trusting God and each other. The vote demonstrated the recognition of our grief. And it demonstrated our resolve to continue the ministry in other places.
I often thought nothing could be worse than closing a church. It is simply hard to let go and to do it. Did the congregation die? If so, it is a good death. And yet, the congregation that became of place of love and acceptance is now going to live that message where it may be most needed.