In 1926 Ernest Hemingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises. As with many Hemingway books, this one became a best-seller and remains in print today. This character Mike Campbell was asked about his money troubles and responded with this oft-quoted answer.
"How did you go bankrupt?"
"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
As a pastor of a legacy church (i.e. old church) in what was formerly called "The Bible Belt" of the southern United States, I have watched numerous churches in our region come face-to-face with closure or abandonment. Even some (most) larger legacy churches are having to make staffing and organizational decisions to ensure they have a future of ministry ahead of them in the city. While an historically large church may have millions of dollars worth of property and a long legacy of great work for the Lord in a region, the reality often hits as changing demographics and population shifts result in a downturn of attendance, giving, and impact. Some have stated how sad it is when this happens. I guess that's true, but this is no new story and should not surprise us. Just take a trip to Europe to visit some of the megachurches of history where great things for God were done years ago. It seems that just about all local churches have a shelf life.
What is sad is when a local church and its members are surprised by reality and end up panicking, making unwise decisions, and positioning themselves to be little more than a footnote of Christian work in a region.
Church planting is part of our local church's DNA. Even before the term "planting" became popular, our church was focused on launching new "missions" and supporting other churches in our area and throughout the world. This was set in motion long before I came to be pastor and I am thankful for this.
Yet, at the same time we focus on new work and church planting, the reality of local church closures and dying churches is upon us. I don't think we're planting at a rate to replace all the historic churches now faced with death. Thus, we see a focus now on church replanting and revitalization. We are seeking to see a movement of God that historically we have never seen.
Yet, churches are dying. They're closing their doors.
The quote from Hemmingway could be applied to churches as well.
"How did your church die?"
"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
Church Planting Is Hard
Church planting is hard. It is hard on planters, their spouses, their children, and on the members who sign up to be part of a "launch team" only to discover that after about month of setting up and tearing down their portable church in their leased location, it just is not fun anymore. I pray for these planters regularly, believing they are truly on the frontlines of ministry and mission in our own communities.
Church Replanting/Revitalization May Be Harder
As difficult as church planting is, I believe church replanting and revitalization is more difficult. In many cases, the replant/revitalization (I will use these terms together, but I do understand these are not the same) is akin to an adult child having to tell their senior adult parent they will no longer be allowed to drive their car (the one they paid for and have owned for years) and will be taking their keys and license away. That may be the best comparative illustration I have heard. For instance, in many cases, these older churches have decades of history. There is an era of growth likely when things were going well, people were joining the church, being baptized, and the community was being reached. Perhaps the church never hit "megachurch" status (megachurches are very rare) but the church was healthy...for a season. Yet, that chapter of history is closed. It is a great memory and the legacy is very real, but currently the church is barely hanging on. The membership is decidedly older, often comprised of only older people. There have been no baptisms for years. The community has changed so much that the neighbors do not look like the members of the church. While the property may be owned, the offerings are not enough to cover such things as pastoral salary, utilities, insurance, and lawn care expenses.
The church is bankrupt.
How did it happen?
Well, gradually at first, but then suddenly.
When the "suddenly" hits, the reality of what is to come becomes clear. It is sad. It is tragic.
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way
This is the reality of many local churches. In our city and region today, there are approximately forty churches that are in this category (that I know of.) Some realize it. They are taking steps to ensure a gospel witness remains.
We have seen some incredible stories in our network. One church gifted its property to another that was newer, growing, and ethnically different (from the current church, but the same as the community where the building is located.) Another church deeded its property to our network and that facility has been given over to another new, growing church comprised of immigrants and refugees who have relocated to our city. It's thriving now. Still others have partnered with larger legacy churches. In these cases, we are seeing the larger churches bring the older, smaller one under its wings, providing financial support, pastoral leadership, and numerous resources for the purpose of replanting and relaunching the church in the same facility for future decades of ministry.
Tragically, there are many who remain in their state of bankruptcy, closer to dying today than ever. Sadly, I fear that some will end up selling their property, liquidating their assets, and leave their legacy as little more than a historical footnote. This is not good. This is not godly.
I am praying that we will be as the men of Issachar (1 Chron 12:32) having the insight to know the times well and respond wisely.
Regardless the size or location of your local church the fact that gradual, then sudden death could occur is a reality. Resting on one's laurels (or bank account, pastor's personality, history in a community, etc.) is not enough. It never has been. It cannot be.
What is occurring in churches throughout our region and nation is not reserved for certain churches of certain demographical makeup in specific areas. Every church is susceptible. Every leader has blind spots. May we wise up and see what God is showing us.
I am hopeful. I know that some churches will close. I know that others will begin. This life-cycle is real and we can continue to celebrate the wondrous things God has done through his local expressions of church throughout our communities. Yet, premature closure is little more than the enemy's attack on God and a small victory. Small, but deadly. I hate seeing a region lose a center for gospel witness. I hate seeing a region left abandoned (not by God, but by his people.) Therefore, we must pray more, serve well, stop living as if other local churches are the enemy, and come together for God's glory. Many are doing so. That's why I have such hope.
This is difficult. But, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Our joy in the Lord gives us strength. Replanting and revitalization is working, but not due to the creativity and ingenuity of those with "new ideas" on how to do church, but because God is empowering his people, living faithfully, for his glory to be the instruments of bringing life to that which was previously dead, or dying. This is God at work. He alone gets the glory, but oh, we get to bask in his glory and this is for our good.
Press on church planter, replanter, and revitalizer. For the pastor of the legacy church who is now experiencing the best chapter in your history, be wise and be aware. Perhaps you are meant to strengthen the replanter or come alongside the dying church to offer support and leadership for a new work?
Let's not leave this task left undone.
What's the worst that can happen? Well...what happens if you choose to let your senior adult parent who cannot see well and is a danger to himself and others continue to drive?
I believe that revitalized churches will be reawakened in much the same way they began to die, at least in this case.
"How did your church get revitalized?"
"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."