The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light



Do churches “need” to die sometimes?

An Indispensable Churches post.

Here’s a blog I ran across the other day.  Please read it before you go on.

Sometimes, churches need to ‘die’ |

So let’s think about some of the things Rudnick says in this post:

(1)  Rudnick seems to say that two defining characteristics of a “dead” church seem to be that the building’s doors are closed and that the membership has been disbanded.  But just a few years ago the Cleveland (Ohio) Catholic Diocese closed several churches and told the congregation members that they would have to relocate to other churches.  Many of these members protested all the way to the Vatican, and this summer some of those churches are reopening with great joy and celebration by the returning members.  Of course, this may simply illustrate the possibility that a congregation isn’t really dead until its own members say it’s dead – despite the analysis and even decree of something like “the wider church.”

(2)  If a congregation completely disbands so that its members are assimilated into other congregations, and if the building is reopened by a new ministry, how can this be called a “restart” or a “resurrection”?  In a more extreme example, if the building is sold so that a completely different denomination can begin a ministry there, that may clearly not be a “restart.”  But if the original denomination continues to own the building and implants a new ministry there, do we do that ministry a disservice by calling it a “restart” or “resurrection” rather than something entirely new and different?  In calling it a “restart” do we (unintentionally) burden it with ghosts of the past that may end up hampering its efforts to be truly new?

(3)  Rudnick asserts “that living churches have a life-cycle, too.”  I’ve heard this before, frequently accompanied by the “observation” that the life-cycle of a congregation resembles the life-cycle of a person in terms of time as well as in terms of stages.  But I think this may be a particularly American attitude that fails to take at least two matters into account.  The first is that the church in Scripture is compared to the human body only metaphorically, but identified with the body of Christ.  Might we not then infer that since the resurrected body of Christ is characterized as immortal, perfected, glorified, and eternal, so also is the church – even when there aren’t enough “members” to pay the bills to keep the building open?  The second is the observation that some churches have existed and even thrived in Europe, portions of Asia, and even Africa for centuries, well beyond the life-cycle of the normal human life span.  Village churches that have been around for hundreds of years.  Cathedrals in which the faithful have gathered to worship for a thousand years.  Sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and other places where Christian congregations have been in continuous existence since perhaps the time of the disciples.

(4)  Rudnick suggests that some churches may need to “die a death of institutionalism in order that it be resurrected into a Christ-centered faith community with a new calling.”  To this I heartily agree!  Over time it seems that many congregations “lose their first love” and devolve into a bounded-set mentality, drawing boundary lines and defining who’s in and who’s not.  How much better would it be if they could forget about the boundaries, focus on Christ and center all their activity on Him – their worship, their spiritual growth, their ministries to others?

(5)  Rudnick asks “Why must we insist that churches cannot change or be reborn into new life?”  I ask “MUST they change or be reborn into new life?”  Are there sufficient and necessary reasons why churches in Europe have lasted for centuries?  Are there important reasons why a world in swirling confusion needs the consistency the church can provide?  Granted, stubbornness and reluctance are not sufficient reasons to avoid change; but the traditions of liturgy, Sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, art and architecture, community and many other aspects of the church have been anchors to its people and its community through wars, plagues, destructions, turmoils, prosperity, health, and everything life brings.

Let me summarize:  There is more to the life of a church than a building and a membership roster.  There are also memories, traditions, and history.  Most importantly, each church is the body of Christ not only for the local communio sanctorum, but also in  the local community of believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, redeemed and unsaved.  Do churches sometimes need to die?  Not without taking all these into consideration.


An “Indispensable Churches” Post


At our recent District Convention I proposed a resolution that suggested we (the church at large) need more vigorous definitions of the descriptors we use of local congregations.

We seem to want to determine whether a congregation is “growing”, and the only criteria we use for that is to compare worship attendance numbers from year to year.  We haven’t made up our minds whether “growing” is a good thing (like an economy) or a bad thing (like a malignant tumor).  To compound the problem, we have tended to label churches that are not “growing” (their worship attendance is not increasing from year to year) as either “plateaued” (their worship attendance is the same as last year’s) or “declining” (their worship attendance is less than last year’s).  Finally, we use these three words as sort of diagnoses when we talk about congregations – this one is “growing”; that one is “plateaued”; the one over there is “declining” – so let’s figure out a way to turn it around!

I see several problems with this methodology:

  1. The diagnoses are each based on only one criterion – weekend worship attendance.  Nothing else in the life of the congregation is taken into account – mission consciousness, outreach, care for one another, Word-based preaching, frequency of Sacraments, or others.  The result is that based on this one criterion we presume to tell a congregation whether it’s healthy or dying.
  2. We assume that congregations that are “growing” are healthy, while those that are “plateaued” or “declining” are dying.  Since our set of diagnostic criteria is so flimsy, we really have no way of telling why and how a “growing” congregation is growing, or whether that growth is healthy or malignant.  We also have no way of telling by these criteria alone whether a “declining” congregation is declining because of its own ill health or for some other reason.
  3. Denominations and judicatories put such an emphasis on “growth” that when they see a congregation that is not “growing” they are quick to inject consultants, district executives, or other elixirs without thoroughly understanding the congregation and its situation.  Many times these individuals come in with the equivalent of patent medicines to “fix the problems” without taking the time to listen to the congregation and the people in the first place.  The result is that so often congregations say “we paid all this money for a consultant and not much has changed.”

There are other problems with this methodology; let these suffice for the time being.  By the way, the resolution did not pass, but was referred back to the District Board of Directors for further study and definition before sending it to our Missouri Synod.  But I was content with that decision.  What I was asking for was the beginning of a discussion of these issues and questions that might result in more vigorous definitions of these diagnostic criteria and, who knows, maybe a whole different and more workable set of criteria than these.

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