A couple of weeks ago I received a phone call from a church member telling me that their pastor had recently announced his retirement. She was asking me to help the church find a new pastor, and then she told me their church was averaging about 10 people on a typical Sunday.
Not long after that a pastor called to ask for information on a church that had contacted him about becoming their new pastor. He said his current church had about six people attending.
A church that is down to about 20 people on Sunday mornings recently asked their pastor to leave. It will soon begin a search for a new pastor.
In my 30 plus years of working with churches, many of them smaller churches, this is a scene I've witnessed many times. But, we are seeing this kind of situation occurring more frequently now. In some situations, these are good churches that have seen a steady decline in attendance through no real fault of their own. The church I pastored saw half its congregation leave when the US Army took a large section of ground for a munitions testing range. People were uprooted from their homes and farms. Roads were blocked with military fencing. As the people moved away to begin their new lives they found new churches closer to their homes to attend.
Part of my ministry responsibility is to assist our churches in their search for a new pastor, but the reality is that this is becoming more and more difficult. This is even more true for these small churches that have been in decline for years. As I talk with leaders from other denominations I find the problem is not limited to our tribe.
What is the future for these churches? They are really down to two choices. They either have to find a fresh vision from God for ministry and determine they have the human and financial resources to fulfill that vision, or they will have to close. That closure might not happen right away. They may find a layperson in their congregation to provide pastoral leadership, but if they are not able to create new ministries in their church during that time they will eventually run out of people and have to lock their doors.
Some are so far down the decline side of their life cycle they may not be able to survive even if they do identify a new vision for ministry. Their current membership may not have the energy or skills to accomplish that ministry or the needed funding may not be available. In such a situation, perhaps the best thing to do is to celebrate the ministry of the church and turn their remaining resources over to their denomination to be used in new ministries elsewhere. That seems to be better stewardship than simply running through their finances while they try to keep their doors open.
Of course, it's not always easy to know which is the best decision for a church. I know one church that was down to three people when they began looking for a new pastor. They found a retired pastor who had a great reputation in their community who was willing to go there. Within a few weeks the church had about two dozen people attending services there, and it continued to grow from there.
Making the decision to close or to seek new ways of doing ministry is a difficult decision that requires much prayer and discernment. Approximately 5,000 churches in the US close their doors each year. If that is the decision of the church it is important to celebrate the ministry the church has provided over the many years it has been serving its community and to end its ministry with dignity.
Jesus said in John 12:24, "I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Sometimes a church must die in order for new life to spring forth.