Closing a church is deeply emotional for everyone involved. For members it is the end of their church family. It is nearly as difficult as losing a dear friend; because it is losing a dear friend in many ways. For pastors it is the end of a ministry that you enter with hope. When Mitch and I began ministry with our small congregation we all hoped there might be something we could do to stop the decline and perhaps restore the congregation. It was a group of loving, caring people with a deep love of God and a heart for mission; but the congregation was quite small and resources were very limited. There were other challenges, but in the end, the church ran out of options and was forced to close. It got me to thinking about the history of this church and so many others and I began making a list of "If only" statements.
If only the congregation had the foresight to make a few different financial choices. If only they had chosen to move when they had the chance. If only there hadn't been such conflict. If only they had had more support when they sought to merge with another congregation. If only they had worked harder to agree on a plan for the future. If only, if only...
What I've learned is that the life of a congregation is not fixed for all time. Congregations die. Critics will look at our little church and see it as a failure. They may make their own list of "if only" comments. There may be truth in them, but that is not certain. It may be that this congregation has lived it's life and done all it could to be faithful disciples. But it may also be true that choices matter and the actions of a congregation today will affect the future,
There are some key things that I wish every church would consider. This will be my prayer. It is my own kind of "if only" list for all congregations.
1. Don't lose sight of why the church exists. It is so easy to get sucked into the "family" of a congregation and focus on friendships and relationships as the most important part of being a church member. Others will look for programs, activities, and events as their priority for the church. Both of these attitudes lead to a consumer Christian attitude. A consumer Christian looks at the church for what it can do for me. Will I like the preaching, the Sunday school, the music program? Is there a youth group for my children? In other words, the church is here to serve me. But that is not what the church is about. The church exists to be the body of Christ. A Christian is a "little Christ" and is called to live and serve as Jesus did. The church exists to equip disciples and send them out in service. I can understand that there may be a variety of reasons for choosing a congregation, but none of them should be limited to "what's in it for me?" We should measure whether a church is right by asking, "Is this a place where I can grow and serve God?"
2. Remember that the church doesn't belong to you. This is just a step away from No. 1 and hard for most of us in the church. We all speak about "my" church. It is true that the church is deeply personal for many of us because our faith is deeply personal. Too often this leads members, pastors and staff to want to control the church. We like to think we know what is best. But the church doesn't belong to any of us, it is entrusted to all of us for this time and place. The church belongs to God in Christ. Remembering that we have been entrusted with this gift for a moment in time really helps keep a healthy perspective. It helps us remember that not one of us is more important than another and that the decisions we make need to be made collectively. When we pause to pray and discern God's leading together we will make more faithful decisions. God will speak when we quiet ourselves and our desires to listen for God's.
3. We are in this together. This is closely connected to No. 2, but in this case I am referring more to behavior and dealing with conflict. We all like our ego stroked and many of us want to be given leadership and power in the church. But my ego is going to disagree with your ego from time to time. One of the most detrimental problems in the Church is the way we handle our egos. Conflict is destructive and eats away at congregations until they die. We all need to abide by Jesus' teachings in Matthew 18:15-17. Holding a grudge and gossiping about it to church friends undermine's God's work in the community. Witholding your tithe to God as a protest hurts Christ's church. Our behavior matters and ignoring the teaching of Jesus while we perpetuate conflict is not only unfaithful discipleship, it will lead to a withered branch that God must prune from the vine. Building a strong community is a far better use of our energy. Taking the time to talk to someone who has hurt us can bring restoration. Offering forgiveness will bring healing and will bear witness to God's unconditional love and forgiveness.
4. Remember that discipleship must be nurtured. A seed cannot grow and flourish in soil that hasn't been tilled and fed. An artist must practice to hone their gifts. Being a Christian is a lifelong journey, not a free ticket to heaven. Jesus modeled a faithful life for us. His routine included worshiping with his faith community, going off to a private place to be alone with God, teaching those who would listen, taking care of the poor, hungry, blind, lame,and oppressed. A growing faith includes an ebb and flow among all of these. All of these things matter. Claiming to be a Christian without worshiping and studying with a faith community is like cutting a leg from a three legged stool. The same is true for personal prayer and service. A plant may grow and even bear some fruit without support, but a plant that is buttressed by a trellis and tended by the gardener can reach it's full potential. One of the greatest rewards from nurturing your faith is a deep sense of fulfillment and a deeper connection with God. That's a promise.
There are congregations that thrive and grow. Some will grow quickly and wither over time; but the ones that survive over time are those that understand that they exist to make and send out disciples, that the church belongs to God and is to follow Christ's leading, deal with differences in healthy ways, and remember that discipleship must be tended just as a gardener tends their garden. Popular culture in the church has taught us that we need contemporary music, lots of technology, flashy programs, and a lot of publicity in order to bring people into our congregations. Statistics and research has shown us that churches that become self-focused become broken, breed conflict and die. If only we could remember why we exist and the mission Jesus gave us, we might find ourselves transformed and bearing fruit. If only....