We Christians have always had our taboos; there are things we just don’t discuss. As a member of Generation X, I remember bans on drinking, dancing, and tattoos since each of these would absolutely lead to other things that would terminate your relationship with God. I was a teenager the first time I heard someone attempting to rightly classify a smoker by noting it’s better to be smoking on this side of death than the other. It was funny at the time. You had to be there.
We still have our taboos today. We may be more lenient toward tattoos and dancing, but we must never speak of closing a church. Closing a church is so counterintuitive that most people assume it’s sacrilegious. How could it be God’s will for a local church to die?
Lifeway research completed a substantial research project in the spring of 2021 in which it concluded: “approximately 3,000 Protestant churches were started in the U.S., but 4,500 churches closed.” Closing more churches than are planted is a new trend. Furthermore, the closing of 4,500 churches came before the COVID-19 pandemic. The predictions are for many more closures in the coming years, a reality causing all sorts of stories in the media but an avoidable topic for public Christian conversation. When the issue of church closure does appear, it is because some church growth expert wants to tell you how to renew, revamp, revive, restore, reinvigorate, replant, or resurrect your church. The stories people want to read are those where a church was nearly dead, but a vibrant leader came and rescued the congregation, but I want to remind you: at the center of Christianity is the death of Jesus Christ.
Jesus didn’t almost die
I recently watched a video showing many old (by American standards) church properties. The land held a sanctuary for worship, a parsonage for housing the pastor and his family, and a graveyard. Christians used to bury their dead directly adjacent to the sanctuary where they praised their creator. Why? Because we need to remember death again and again. Jesus died in our place for our sin as our redeemed. Furthermore, we will all die. The author of Hebrews put it this way: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:27-28). To suggest that death is anything less than God’s will is to misunderstand Scripture and redemption.
Churches are dying
How is your church doing? Good? Fantastic. I hope that it is doing well. But what if it isn’t? Who would you tell? Who could you talk to about it? With whom could you be honest and vulnerable? And, if you were honest about a struggling church, what sort of response would you get? “Hey, don’t worry, I’ve got the answer. All you need to do is follow these easy steps, and your church can be resurrected.”
We need to begin having honest conversations about church closure. The alternative is the pain of death without the solace of Christian fellowship.
Chris Sherwood (D.Min. Liberty University) lived through the trauma of closing his local church in Richmond, CA. He and his wife of 27 years have three children by birth, two more by marriage, and two grandchildren. Chris enjoys traveling with his wife and running with his Golden Retriever, Kona. He can be reached on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-sherwood-2708b7b6/ or directly via email: ChrisSherwoodRuns@gmail.com