Can You Help Me Here? Re: Dying Churches

Both of my parents died of cancer.  I’ve lost friends to cancer.  The one (and only) advantage to having terminal cancer is that you get time to prepare to die.  You get to say good bye and put your affairs in order and arrange things the way you’d like them arranged.  You have a bit of control for what happens after you die.

There are moments when – even when facing the inevitable – we live in denial.  I remember talking with my brother about Christmas plans to be spent with Dad who was in treatment with terminal non-Hodgkins.  It was August, and my brother was stunned that I believed Dad would still be alive in December.  And I was shocked that my brother thought Dad would be not be with us.  Dad died later that week.

So today, I work with many churches that are dying.  Some are clearly in the 4th Quadrant of the Life Cycle of the Church.  Others are in the 3rd Quadrant.

Here’s my question:

What do we do with churches that are in denial that they are dying?  Or maybe they understand that death will happen, but it’s years away – maybe after their pastor retires or the roof caves in or after they themselves die.

As with human beings, death for churches can happen suddenly or very slowly.  But usually it’s slow.

Dying well involves:

  • Accepting that death is coming.
  • Dividing up our resources and treasures so that others can enjoy them.
  • Saying good-bye and celebrating the life that has been lived.

How do we know a church is really dying?

  • The struggle for survival overwhelms all other activities and plans.
  • The purpose for the congregation’s existence cannot be articulated by most of the congregation.
  • Too few people are living out the mission of the church in their own daily lives, much less as a community.
  • People have forgotten that the church belongs to God (and not to the members.)

Sometimes I sit in sanctuaries during worship gatherings and think to myself, “This church is dying and they don’t even know it.”

So, how do I convey – in as loving a way as possible – that they are dying and I want them to have a good death –  in a way that they can hear me?  I would love your answers on this.


8 responses to “Can You Help Me Here? Re: Dying Churches

  1. I believe that all of us who are charged with the responsibility of assisting dying churches bear a responsibility to share your observations with them. The lament that accompanies the acknowledgment of dying can be complemented by the comfort of being able to make plans to die with dignity. Thanks for this great post!

  2. Denial is alive and well in so many of our churches. We need to help churches come face to face with the conditions of their ministry and discern together what their next step should be. Most allow the memories of their past to cloud their perceptions of the present and thus find ways to minimize the reality that they face. By helping the whole congregation (not just the session or a powerful few) see the present realities and participate in the process of discerning what the next step of ministry might be, you allow them to open up to the possibility that their mission as a church might have just been completed and they could leave a legacy that would continue the mission of the church in another form. Or it could give them the permission to be creative and they find some form of new life together that helps them move forward toward a new vision for ministry. The worst case is that they do nothing or make no decision in which case there is little you can do other than let them go until a real crisis hits where they are forced to make the tough decision.

  3. Mary Marcotte

    I don’t have much to add more than thank you. Spent the morning with leaders of a church that would be the envy of many but they are concerned about steady aging and programmatic exhaustion. Truth of the matter is that they are asking the right questions…. And listening to guidance… In a way that most smaller churches no longer have the energy to tackle

  4. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of dying churches (and may well be worshipping at one now…), but I’ve only seen three die well. My mom’s church, when they had declined to fewer than 50 members, gave their property to a congregation primarily made of up refugees who had been using their sanctuary for years. They had no debt, and could therefore afford to do that.

    Another congregation I know of had to face a change in their local demographics. People were moving to the suburbs, and didn’t want to drive all that way for church. They sold their property and set up a foundation to help new ministry initiatives. Yet another was unable to recover after a devastating hurricane (they were already an aging congregation), and gave their property to a church camp to turn into a retreat center.

    Unfortunately, these churches are the exception to the rule. I knew a church that was literally down to five members, with another church in the same denomination only two miles away, but they stubbornly held on to their status and property. In my congregation, some people recognize the problem, but they are “new” people (meaning they have been worshipping their less than 20 years), and therefore their observations must be wrong.

    You know, my pastor preached this morning about how, more often than not, the message of the prophets was not, “Everything is just fine, and is going to be just fine for the foreseeable future.” They preached messages that were hard to hear, an often very unpopular (and sometimes life-threatening). It sounds to me like that is the position you find yourself in.

    I would first of all challenge the congregations to celebrate their history, and the good things they have done both internally and in the community and larger world. Then I’d ask them to think about how those things fit their mission as a Christian community. Finally, I’d ask them how the current activities of the congregation fit that mission – or if they still do. Based on what they say, encourage them to think about the legacy they want for their congregation, and how they can acheive it.

    You know, I wish someone would write a book called, “Hospice for Congregations” or something like that, because that is precisely what you are talking about. Recognizing that the end is near, and doing everything possible to have a good death and leave a legacy in keeping with their mission.

  5. Pingback: The Death of Liberal Churches? | achurchforstarvingartists

  6. This is very timely. We have a session meeting tonight. A long time member is coming to tell the session the church is dying ( based on Sunday head count and giving patterns) and it is all their fault. Mid week worship, multiple lay led outreach activities and a community meal ministry that served over 4000 meals with 250 volunteers last year are in her opinion a waste of time and money. Her solution – She wants to write a survey to ask people what they are upset about and what the church can do to make them happy. If all the people who are upset about community ministry and that we don’t use the organ and the “real hymnals” every week came back – then the church would be just fine… sigh. The church may well be dying – but not for the reasons she has spent years and much energy working to convince everyone within her circle.

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