Friday, May 9, 2008

Death Of A Church

True Story: My friend Bill Morrison (founder of LiMiT ministries) was asked to take over the pastorship of his Dad's ailing church in Thunder Bay, ON. This little baptist church had been faithfully shepherded by Bill's dad for many years. It was a small church and Bill knew that it had problems but he also likes challenges. He signed up and moved out to Ontario.

When he arrived, things at the church were worse then he had imagined. Morale was in the toilet, gossip reigned supreme, people weren't speaking to each other, and the baggage of the church was preventing it from seeing pretty much any fruit. Within a week, Bill made a decision; something drastic had to be done. He called together the whole church membership for an important meeting. He summarized all the ills that the church had and gently but firmly let them know that he didn't think that anything but a complete miracle from God could bring it to health again. Instead of waiting for that to happen, he recommend something radical. The only way to restore health to the members of the church was to shut it down. He gave them all of his reasons and outlined the good that he foresaw if the church was dissolved. Hurting and damaged parishioners would have a good chance to find healing and health in other churches in the area. He stepped back and waited to see how they would respond.

Surprisingly they all agreed! Bill shut down the church, the people went elsewhere, and things got better for everyone.

Think he did the right thing? I often think about this story. Some people think that a church dieing (or being put out of their misery) is always a great tragedy and a result of lack of faith, patience, and trusting God. Yet it happens all the time. Think of all the church communities in the New Testament; none of them survives to this day. They all had a life and eventually they died, were shut down, or amalgamated into new communities. Yes, grieving should be done when a church dies, but it's not the end of the world. It's natural. And life (even church life) will go one elsewhere.

Just like when a loved one passes away, some circumstances are easier to accept then others. When discord kills a church, it stings and hurts terribly, leaving terrible wounds. When demographics change and people leave an area there is sadness and pessimism. And when a church amalgamates with another there is both grief and excitement at a new chapter being written. What saddens me is when churches can't accept defeat and instead of bowing out gracefully and celebrating the past, hold on stubbornly to a church that should just be put out of its misery. Let it go! Granted, knowing when to "give it up" is not always an easy decision but sometimes I think it's more about a church's insecurity then it is about if the church is producing fruit and achieving it's purposes. The financial strain of a church depleted of members harms the people. A slanderous and gossiping congregation is a light to no one in the area. And when two or more churches can't see past their differences to amalgamate and share resources it can be more about identity, pride and convenience then it is about the light of Christ shining in the local city or area.

Ministries also come and go and I have seen way to many on life support, kept alive by the use of guilt and fond memories of the past that no longer exists. Ministries within a church have a shelf life - they are like a technology and eventually they will become obsolete as needs and priorities change. Sometimes we should just let them go - if they are really needed they'll be resurrected. Ministries depend on the people being excited and committed to running them - if these things are lost its only a matter of time. Think about your own church; are there any ministries on life support? Are you or others hoping against reality that they are savable? Are they draining the time and resources of the church and no one is excited about them? These are of course my opinions but sometimes its OK to put something out of it's misery. This may be just my farm upbringing, but I think it applies to churches too. BTW, the image is a an abandoned church in Texas. It may look sad, but at one time it was bustling with life and ministry. I choose to focus on that part of it's history and smile.

May Light increase!


Mark said...

I thought I would add some context to this post so that no one (from my church, my parents church, or past church families) reads anything into them! I know of at least 7 or 8 churches right now (whom I have some sort of personal connection) to who are "in pastoral transition." Usually this is a pretty difficult time for any church, but I'm interested in the fear that sometimes comes out of it. Not everyone, but some people get really scared by it.

I think some of the fear is based on the belief that it would be a disaster if their church couldn't find someone (or even if the church closed). Instead of having rational thoughts like "yes, this will be a tough time, it will be stressful but we will get through it" some people think irrationally "it is the end of the world if we can't find another pastor/if the church closes. I couldn't stand it!"

I wonder if such people's anxiety,fear, etc would go down if they just brought themselves to fully challenge their irrational thoughts and replace them with more rational ones? "It wouldn't be the end of the world if we don't get another pastor for awhile (or even ever) and even if the church closed I could survive." Sometimes we are afraid to face our fears, but when we do we find that God has and will give us the strength to get through our circumstances . . . and we realize that it wasn't nearly as bad as we feared.

Michele said...

We've had the same senior pastor in our church for 25 years. He is such an original personality, I'm not sure that anyone could fit in his shoes. I know that I would have a really hard time attending that church if he wasn't there. It just wouldn't be the same. On the up side, the core people at our church have been there a long time and are living out what God is teaching through our pastor. They are an open group, full of flaws, who are honest and easy to talk to. In short, they are family. If they all stayed, I think we could get through a time without a pastor, but it would have to be a very special person that came to fill Barry's shoes!

Michele said...
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