I have a friend who refuses to make a will or set up a trust because he’s afraid that these documents will actually hasten his death. Talk about denial! If the world lasts long enough, we are all going to die.
Believe it or not, churches can also die. Like all living organisms, local congregations go through a life cycle; they are born, grow, mature, begin to decline, and may ultimately die—some faster than others. While it is easy to observe this life cycle among human beings, it is much harder to see it in the life of the local church.
A recent study by LifeWay Research showed that approximately 22 percent of the more than 1,000 pastors surveyed agree strongly or somewhat that their congregations are dying. Some experts estimate that one in four American churches—around 100,000—fit the description of a “dying church.” But what exactly is a dying church?
Author and church consultant Thomas Rainer defines a dying church as “a congregation that will close its doors within 20 years if it continues its current trajectory.” He goes on to clarify that a church’s trajectory takes into account many factors, including attendance, financial giving, demographic trends, and the ages of the church members.
In his book, Waking the Dead: Returning Plateaued and Declining Churches to Vibrancy, Russell Burrill estimates that 80 to 85 percent of all Adventist churches in the North American Division are either plateaued or declining, based on the same set of factors. This means it is possible that a large majority of Adventist congregations in North America could be considered to be dying.
While much has been written in recent years about the resuscitation of dying churches, too many churches hold little hope of revival. Thus, we must ask a few basic questions: When is it appropriate to close a church? What factors indicate that a local congregation is near death? And what should be done once a church has closed its doors?
THE RIGHT TIME
Knowing when to close a church can be difficult. One respected Adventist leader believes that a congregation is headed for certain death the moment it refuses to create a new vision for itself. As mentioned earlier, attendance, finance, demographics, and membership trends can indicate the dying pulse of a church. I would add to these factors a congregation’s lost sense of mission and purpose.
Here are some additional indicators that it may be time to close a church:
• Worship attendance has declined seven of the past 10 years.
• Overall financial giving has declined in at least seven of the past 10 years.
• The church looks less like its surrounding community than it did 10 years ago.
• There are significantly more church conflicts than in past years.
• The church’s budget has decreased its focus on outreach and evangelism.
• The average age of the congregation has been much higher than the national average for seven of the last 10 years.
• There have been few new members added in the past 10 years.
While this is not an exhaustive list of indicators, it provides a good starting point for further discovery and assessment.
One Adventist conference has a systematic process for determining a church’s future viability. Congregations may be subject to review when a certain set of factors is demonstrated, such as when weekly worship attendance falls or when tithe falls drastically in the last year. When any of these factors occurs, the conference establishes a specially selected committee to review and assess that church’s future potential. This review—which can take up to one year—helps determine whether or not the church should cease to exist.
When a friend or family member dies, that person’s loved ones need to have an opportunity to say goodbye. That is why we have funeral and memorial services. I believe that congregations need the same opportunity when their church dies. This is a time to celebrate the life the church once enjoyed. Conference officials, current and former pastors, current and former members, and local church and community leaders can be invited to attend a special time of remembrance. Such a celebration can include a reading of the church’s history, personal testimonies by church members, a prayer of thanksgiving, and a documentation of the church’s many accomplishments through the years.
While a church death can be painful—just as any loss would be—the death of a church can actually have some benefits. The death of a congregation in one place may bring life to a congregation in another place. Those who have said goodbye to their former church may find a new sense of purpose in a different congregation. Perhaps a new, more vibrant ministry can be established in another place where its presence will have a greater impact.
Some churches die because financial and human resources are no longer available to sustain them. Rather than stretching to cover a few struggling ministries, those same resources can be added to an existing, growing congregation and make a difference.
One more thing: please remember that the death of a church is not always an admission of failure. While unpreventable circumstances and unique challenges may lead to a church’s demise, the closure of church may very well bring new opportunities to expand the kingdom of God and bring glory to His name.
Marc Woodson is executive secretary for the Northern California Conference. This article first appeared in Best Practice, December 22, 2013.