Sustainability is increasingly difficult for the ever increasing number of churches worshipping small numbers each week. Lovett Weems captures the dilemma for church leaders and draws from Carey Nieuwhof some reasons why a church may need to close.
In the last few years, we at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership have observed an increasing interest in information regarding the closure of churches. The limited resources available on the topic are getting far more attention than we had seen previously.
This development should not be surprising. For about 40 years in the United Methodist Church, the number of churches with fewer than 100 in attendance has increased each year. Likewise, the number of churches with 50 or fewer in worship increases each year despite church closures that take some churches out of that count. The median worship attendance in the United Methodist Church has been below 50 for several years now. In one state with over 1,000 United Methodist churches, the median worship attendance is 35.
Another figure the Lewis Center tracks each year is how many churches that averaged 50 or fewer in the previous year will increase their attendance in the subsequent year to 51 or more. For several years, that percentage tended to be either three or four percent. In the most recent years, it is more likely to be two percent. It is very hard to grow once critical mass is lost, especially if the few people remaining come from one or two generations rather than a more multi-generational mix.
Most of us have mixed feelings about church closings. While we know that many are inevitable, we still long for ways these churches might have re-engaged their communities, some of which still have people to reach. We are sometimes reminded of that fact when another church takes the same location and connects with those neighbors. Many of us as pastors have served churches that no longer exist. It makes us sad to think of those people and places.
However, death is part of life even if we do not always make a place for it in our ecclesiology. Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian pastor whose writing is followed by many U.S. pastors, has named “5 Good Reasons a Church Should Close” that make sense and deserve consideration.
- The real mission is lost.
- The church cares more about itself than the people it’s called to reach.
- Its members hate the world.
- Preserving the past is more attractive than embracing the future.
- The money isn’t remotely tied to the mission.
While we may grieve the closing of churches, especially those dear to us, it is helpful to acknowledge that there may well be good reasons, such as these, for the ministry of a congregation to come to an end.
- “Dying to Restart: Choosing a Strategic Death for a Resurrected Life,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Dan Turner
- Closing a Congregation as an Act of Faithfulness by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
- Ending with Hope: A Resource For Closing Congregations (Alban, 2002) by Beth Gaede
- The Case of a Small Church in an Oversized Building by Lewis A. Parks