We often read figures that tell us that 3,000-5,000 churches in the US close their doors every year. When I share this figure in some of my seminars people's eyes open wide in shock. Some of them fear their church could be next. Others believe that it is a terrible thing for a church to close its doors. Perhaps it is, but for some churches it's probably the best thing that could happen.
I argue that no church closes because there's no work for it to do. They close because they have lost any sense of vision for ministry. Every church began because someone or group had a vision for a church in that community. They could see a spiritual need that only a church could address. Such a vision drives the direction of the church, but if that vision is lost or new visions are not discerned, the church soon loses its sense of purpose or mission. It begins to drift and soon will find itself drifting towards a survival mentality.
Such churches can exist for an extended period of time, even decades. As we know, small churches don't need a lot to remain open. As long as they can pay their utilities and find someone to serve as their pastor for what they can pay, they can remain open. But, one needs to ask if that is good stewardship of God's resources. Is keeping the lights on and the doors open good stewardship, or does God expect more from His church?
These churches are often already dead but are being kept alive by means of life support. Perhaps such support comes from denominational support. Sometimes they are kept alive thanks to endowments they received in better times. However, the reality is that there is no life in these churches. The Bible tells us that without a vision the people perish. A church without a vision needs to either spend time seeking a fresh vision from God or it needs to consider closing its doors and turning its assets over to a ministry that is better serving its community.
Several years ago I read an interesting book by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond titled Legacy Churches. They describe how a struggling church can give birth to a new church that will carry on the values and beliefs they hold that will continue to bless and impact the community. A legacy church views its closing not as a failure, but as an opportunity to start something new that will continue to bring hope and life to the community. It takes wisdom and courage on the part of the leadership and congregation to become a legacy church, but to leave such a legacy is a great act of love to the community your church has served for many years.