Churches are closing.
This hits home regularly because I’m the Massachusetts Conference staffer working with churches considering closure. In the UCC, from 2012-2015, 111 churches closed – one every two weeks. The Massachusetts and Connecticut Conferences had one closure per year during this period, while Rhode Island had none. However, I would note that currently the Mass Conference has 2-4 churches each year that are in some stage of the closure process, particularly if we consider that some of our churches essentially close through “adoption” – merger of a non-viable church with a relatively vital church.
Churches are closing and – guess what? – that’s normal.
We tend to think of churches as beyond time, assuming they should simply endure. But, like people, all churches have a birth, a life, and a death. And they have typical life-spans, too. While in our part of the country we don’t bat an eye when we hear of a church 200, 300, even 400 years old, we may not realize the average life-span of a church is approximately 80 years – about that of a human being. If we believe only God is eternal, why can’t we acknowledge that churches, like all things, die?
Churches are closing but we’re not saying it.
We’ve spent much energy, time, and resources – rightfully – to address church vitality and pastoral leadership to help foster it. That, in fact, was the subject of my Doctor of Ministry degree project. I can name several factors key to church vitality, health, and resilience. But people in positions like me are, as yet, very reluctant to talk about factors that indicate the opposite – the warning signs that a congregation’s viability – let alone, vitality – is at risk.
Churches are closing and it’s time to break the silence.
As I walk with churches I think of as “threshold churches” – those at a crucial moment when the next step they take (or fail to take) may determine whether new life is found or decline and death is the outcome – I regularly wonder, “What if someone like me kindly but simply said the path they were currently on made them at risk for closure?”
Churches are closing and more need to accept it and act accordingly.
As the changing landscape of church and ministry increasingly impacts our churches, we need to ask not only what we can do to help churches be more vital but whether we dare to tell some their days are numbered if they can’t meet the adaptive challenges before them. There’s a difference between encouraging adaptive behavior so churches will thrive and getting real about the possibility they won’t survive without significant change (and, possibly, even with it). For many churches, their only chance lies in recognizing and addressing signs of decline far earlier while they still have options for the future.
Churches are closing and maybe that’s okay… but we’ve got a role to play.
No doubt, most of these churches have thrived for a time, and we have it on good authority that for everything there is a season. (Ecclesiastes 3:1) However, I hope the season of our new Conference will be one in which we promote local church vitality and, increasingly, provoke our churches to address their viability – as a matter a good stewardship. We have valuable resources in our hands to advance God’s mission in the world and we need every outpost of mission possible. Reminding each other of this fact, speaking the truth in love, and walking together faithfully, I’m convinced God will bless the precious time we’ve been given with fruits worthy of our shared calling as a united Conference.
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan New is Associate Conference Minister for Stewardship and Financial Development for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.