No congregation aspires to close. When a church’s founding members first gather as a new church, they dream of great things. Maybe it was just 30 years ago or maybe it was 130 years ago, but those first members surely imagined classrooms filled with children and sanctuaries filled with people praising God with glorious worship. They imagined making a difference.
But churches eventually close. Every single church eventually closes.*
The oldest church still active in the United States is 388 years old. But consider all the congregations who have closed in the past 300 years.
As for our First Century sisters and brothers, note that The Church in Ephesus has closed. The Church in Philippi has closed. The Church is Rome is obviously open, but it no longer exists in its earliest forms.
Last Sunday I was honored to be with a congregation as it closed. They worshiped together for the last time.
Although tears were shed, the overwhelming feelings expressed were joy, hope, and gratitude. It was one of the best Easter celebrations I’ve ever experienced.
As congregations continue to close in the coming years, how do we encourage them to close well? Here are a few pro tips I’ve observed from churches who have closed faithfully:
- Don’t wait too long. Most dying churches wait until the point when a) only a handful of people remain, b) there’s no money left to pay utility bills, c) there hasn’t been a new visitor cross the threshold for many years, d) there hasn’t been a baptism for a long time, and/or e) most of the budget comes from rental income.
- Create a legacy that honors the historic ministry of the congregation. Before the coffers run out, make a prayerful act to fund those ministries that have special significance to the church. If some of the last members are now residents of a retirement community, for example, consider making a contribution to that retirement community.
- Honor the last members in meaningful ways. At last Sunday’s closing worship service, the American flag from the sanctuary was given to the oldest veteran in the congregation. A basketball from the weekend basketball team was given to a faithful team member.
- Thank the pastor well. She/he has labored extra hours during an especially emotional time.
Congregations who make the spiritually mature decision to close – because it’s time – are to be appreciated and honored. It’s not a sign of failure. It’s a sign of faithfulness. And it’s an excellent opportunity to allow resurrection to happen.
*Note: While individual congregations come and go, The Church of Jesus Christ will always be with us.