The leadership of Grace Church was facing a pastoral vacancy, a recurring challenge in the life of a congregation. They were also challenged by declining worship attendance, the absence of new members (by birth or profession), insufficient resources to call a full-time pastor, and a tired but dwindling core-group of dedicated members who felt an obligation to keep the church going by calling a new pastor. So, they quickly organized a pastor search team, fearing that any delay would accelerate congregational decline.
Interestingly, the leadership of Grace Church, like that of most congregations, failed to ask a very important question before forming a search team: Is it time to close our doors?
Why is that? Well, it seems as though church folk assume their congregations should continue ministry until Christ returns.
Granted, Jesus did offer this promise: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:19). But the ‘it’ in that promise is the one, holy, universal, apostolic church. The big C Church that began on Pentecost and continues throughout eternity. We know that promise is not given to local congregations for one simple reason: nearly every congregation that has been birthed in the history of Christianity has died. Plus, those congregations that have not yet died will, unless Christ returns before they do so. In other words, there is no biblical or rational reason to believe a local congregation will continue forever. Just the opposite. There is every reason to believe that a local congregation, like yours, will close its doors, perhaps even in your lifetime.
What does this mean for you and your congregation? It means that a pastoral vacancy provides an opportunity to ask a tough question: Is it time to close our doors? That question can only be answered through time together in God’s Word. This is why over the past ten years I have led several congregations through a discernment process, bathed in prayer and saturated with Scripture, whereby a dedicated group of congregational members meet regularly for difficult conversations about the future of their congregation. They do so with hope founded in this promise of God: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Another question immediately follows: “How will we know when it’s time to close our doors?” Here is a list of indicators that the time may have arrived for your church.
- When your congregation has finished the race and kept the faith, that is, when you have completed your mission as a people. I think here of a church that was planted to serve a particular demographic, one that is no longer present in the community. It could be a congregation planted to serve college students or members of the military. It could be a church organized by an immigrant community for people who spoke a language unfamiliar to most in the community. One indicator that your congregation has finished its race is that your primary target audience is no longer represented in the community. As a result, few if any people in the community are “buying what you are selling.”
- When you can no longer do what you want to do because of limited resources (members and money). Some congregations, for example, desire a full-time pastor and, when they are no longer able to provide for one, they close their doors. Others, as another example, are unable to secure enough leaders for the congregation, so they close their doors.
- When your reputation in the community is damaged beyond repair. Your church is like the restaurant in town that you refuse to visit. Right or wrong, the perception of the community—your reputation as a church or that of a previous pastor—hinders you from impacting effective engagement with people in the community.
- When you have an opportunity to leave your remaining resources to another ministry; some refer to this as “seeding another work.” Maybe your church is sharing its space with another congregation. I’m thinking of a church whose 15 members gather for worship each Sunday at 9:00 a.m. while over 200 gather as another congregation at 11:00 a.m. In time, they finally concluded to pour into the vibrant ministry by handing over the keys of the building.
- When your congregation has lost its first love (Revelation 2:4). This doesn’t mean that each person in the church has lost his or her first love but rather, the church as a whole has developed a culture that prioritizes the church as an organization over love for the Lord. As one pastor told me, “My people love their culture more than Christ.” This is a tough one to admit for a church but not difficult to detect. You may recognize the “lost your first love” condition when congregational meetings sound more like a political gathering, filled with people and their agendas, rather than a gathering of Christ-like disciples with people seeking to maintain the unity of the Spirit. You may also recognize it when the congregation adopts less than biblical practices, such failing to doubly honor their pastors with a fair wage (I Timothy 5:17). Unfortunately, the list of illustrations is endless.
- When your mission as a congregation is survival and your vision for the future looks like the “glory days.” Pastors refer to this type of congregation as “Maintenance Churches.” They are almost, without exception, experiencing a steady decline of resources (members and money). On one hand, they are harmless and their people often enjoy meaningful fellowship. On the other hand, their priorities are skewed, as they often spend more money maintaining their buildings than they do on seeking to save the lost.
- When congregational leaders don’t receive permission to close the doors. Have you ever sat near the bedside of a loved one dying a slow death? Have you had the opportunity to say, “You have fought the good fight and finished the race”? Have you then given your loved one permission to close their eyes on earth and open them in heaven? If so, you have been richly blessed. I have had a similar blessing. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with dedicated congregational leaders seeking to discern the Lord’s good and perfect will for their church. While exploring the option to close the doors of their church, they needed permission. They feared disappointing those who have gone before them, including their parents. They didn’t want the church closing its doors “on their watch.” They needed to know that sometimes the most courageous and faith-filled decision is to close the doors.
- When there is another church in town doing what you are doing but doing it better. With the rise of the non-denominational church, many communities have churches with nearly identical missions, values, beliefs, ministries, and ministry styles. But there may be a church that is as similar to yours as Burger King is to McDonald’s. Add to that, they have a more functional facility, more resources, a well-respected pastor, and/or a better reputation in the community. Why not consider joining forces for the sake of the Gospel?
Is it time to close our doors as a church? That is a tough question, one that is best answered through time in God’s Word. This is why over the past ten years I have been privileged to lead several congregations through a discernment process, bathed in prayer and saturated with Scripture, whereby a dedicated group of congregational members meet regularly for difficult conversations about the future of their congregations. Let me know if I can be of any help to you and your congregation.