Friday, February 03, 2006

When To Pull the Plug

I like small churches. At the same time, I am frustrated with small churches. I can admire the faithfulness of a handful of believers coming together to worship Almighty God and proclaim Christ as Savior. I can also name off the top of my head no less than a dozen churches near me which have ceased to be houses of worship so much as they are bastions of creatures of habit. As the pastor of a small church, I see the dangers of losing focus every day of my ministry. It's easy to get so lost in the problems that we miss the whole point.

Dunker Journal pointed me to this story of a small church which shut it's doors a few Sundays ago. I've driven by the Wakarusa Church of the Brethren on occasion. From the road it looks like countless other churches. On the inside it probably was as well. I know many churches who celebrate a long history of existance, but that's about it. The unstated goal seems to be keeping the doors open every Sunday, not outreach or evangelism or missions or even worship. Maybe this is what the folks at Wakarusa had come up against. Or perhaps it was just a huge struggle to pay the bills, let alone think about doing anything more than holding services and the occasional potluck. I don't know, and I'm in no position to rail against that congregation. In fact in many ways I admire their courage. It's not an easy decision. It's hard to realize that it's time to pull the plug.

My congregation usually numbers between 40 and 75 each Sunday. That's small. I'm not talking Texas-small, but small. Yet there are plenty of churches nearby which are smaller still. There are specific problems associated with being a church of this size. We cannot offer the "programs" (I hate that term) that bigger churches do. We do not have a huge staff. I am the staff, and although I continue to expand physically, I cannot do all that many other pastors can do. I am a part-time pastor, which means that my wife or myself (or both) must have other employment. As a result, many people look elsewhere for a church home because we can only give them a fraction of what they want. But realistically, size doesn't matter. It's a matter of heart.

When I first arrived here over eight years ago, much of the focus of the church was on survival. A few disputes had caused some to leave and my predecessor had just left -- another in a long line of pastors. Money was tight, attendance was down and concern drifted away from worshiping God and doing any real ministry. It wasn't easy to change the mindset around the church, but God used people and circumstances to do the improbable.

With this experience in mind, I want every local church to have the opportunity to remember the reason services are held. But at the same time if no one is willing to change out of survivalist mode, there is no reason for the church doors to remain open. The focus of the church is never to be the church itself, but upon Jesus Christ. But if we become so wed to the idea that the survival of one local church is of paramount importance to the Church Universal, we're really not worshiping God anyway.

I'll steal this quote from my Bishop's blog, which he attributes to a pastor at a church not far from Wakarusa, "Whenever memories are greater than your future, you're writing your last chapter." And I'll add my own thoughts to it: "When memories are all you have, you need to willingly close the doors."


A Human Bean said...

It is not about how many people attend. It is about are those people on mission with God

poetpete said...

Gday Rev,

A thought provoking post, especially as within the last twelve months I left a teensy-weensy church to go to a small Church about the size of your congregation.

Teensy-weensy Pastor said from the pulpit, one day, God told me he likes/wants/its-his-plan to have small churches. The emphasis was on the size of the congregation, i.e. just like 'his' own, of about 10 people consistently over several years. Now, at that church there were 4 regular couples (husband+wife pastors) and two or three others. One family went over seas for at least two years, but both parents remained elders in abscentia (I suspect the man's very-significant salary and consequential tithe played a part in him being kept on as an elder, otherwise I don't think the place could be sustained). I left when the pastor said, I don't believe God punishes people, immediatley after he read a scripture that said God did - one of several tragic omments and the last straw for me.

Anyway, that's all history -- and, yet, it is the broad point of my comment. And so I must entirely disagree with your last self-quote: "When memories are all you have, you need to willingly close the doors."

I disagree because that is not God's way. Time after time, when Israel was on the verge of greatness or annihilation God called his people to look back and remember. He told them to access their memory, their individual memory and their communal memory (as passed down). He told them to remember who he was and what he had done for them. In many respects all they had were memories as they faced an unclear and uncertain future. God uses memories to drive us to him. We need them to sharpen us up in the present in order to confidently press forward into the future (so often unknown and risky). It is all about what "who God is" (Lord of the Universe), and, "what he does." (destroys our enemies with his mighty arm).

So the question that small churches dead in the water should ask (and we all should constantly ask, lest we become dead) is, "Who is our God, What has he done in our past and what can and will he do in the future?" That's their heritage.

But if their heritage is about their own selfish indulgence, and consequential fights and disputes, etc, etc, then the prospect is they weren't a true and/or committed church in the first place -- just another religious club. And I am all for religious clubs closing up shop.

Most importantly, I am all for the churches, all of them, big or small, always remembering who their God is and what he has done. And then, believing him for the future.

That's my view from here.

rev-ed said...

Peter, thanks for the comments. I think the key here is that if there is a "church" of ten people which has been a church of about ten people for a good while, then by default I would say that they would fit the "religious club" category you lay out. I have never met the church of ten who consider any more of the future than "How much longer can we stay open?"

Thus the context of my last line "If memories are all you have..." necessarily assumes that this handful of people do not have the desire to serve God... only in self-comfort.

So essentially we agree. It's just that you're talking in the theoretical and I'm talking in the (admittedly jaded) experiential. Unless of course you've experienced the church of a dozen or so who puts serving God above serving self.

Dan Edelen said...


I'll probably expand this topic in concert with the economic issues we've been discussing over at Jennifer's blog.

What happens when a thriving town faces huge job layoffs at the only major employer in town? What is the impact on the churches when people are forced to move away to find work? The Ford plant not too far from me will be shuttered by 2008 and the town it's in, Batavia, is going to be really hurting. Folks are going to have to leave since there's not much else around here to support 1,800 families whose main income just went away.

Did those churches prepare for that possibility? Probably not. Now they're in a pickle.

I'm not trying to say that God will abandon those churches and they'll dry up and blow away. But is God beholden to keeping them open under the circumstances? That's a tough question. If they didn't prepare for this, what is God's obligation to them?

Jennifer said...

Rev, wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there is church! I am glad that there are so many "home churches" springing up around the country, because these people understand that it's not about having a building they have to pay for. It's about gathering together in Jesus' name. But you are absolutely right, that those churches which only have a group of ten or so are not usually interested in outreach. I know some, and in my experience, they have been interested in keeping God inside those walls, not taking Him out to the world. Of course, that's a blanket statement and there are many exceptions. Just my 2 cents.

rev-ed said...

Dan - Yes, those churches are going to have a hard time and are going to have to adapt. Those with large debts hanging over their heads probably won't make it and I don't see why God would be obligated to saved them. Individual churches are not the "holy entity" we should be concerned with. For every church of ten that closes, those then find another church home(s). A local church is a ministry. Ministries can change, adapt, regroup, etc.

Now those churches which survive will likely be stronger (aside from the inevitable political struggles within). But even in a state of financial despair, a church's outreach should not be abandoned. That's a major frustration with me. Our instinct is self-preservation and we tend to cut first from all those things we see as unessential to keep the doors open (like outreach). It's not about the ministry, it's about the Savior. At least that's what I've experienced in my dealings with local churches.

rev-ed said...

Jen - the idea of house churches is nice, yet they have their own set of built-in dangers. One is a group-think, lack of accountability tendency, and doctrine can be really twisted to the point of heresy (or close to it). Of course that same danger exists in non-denominational churches, but usually there are a few more people to keep the whole thing on track.
That said, I think there is much to be said for the potential of house churches, although interestingly, many of them eventually end up erecting a building and becoming like everyone else. (I'm thinking Willow, Saddleback, and others I know locally.)

I feel for the church of 10 elderly people who wants to faithfully serve God. The best method is to combine that ministry with another church, but too many have too much pride to let "their church" die. Yet there are plenty of churches who could use the wisdom of some older saints.

If two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. But if you're simply "playing out the string", why not try to help another ministry?

STAG said...

Good commentary Rev. Especially about the lack of accountability in a small church.

Oh and love the layout. Absolutely stunning and easy to read blog.

kathleen said...

Rev - My husband and I have been in the church-planting ministry for a few years. We've been small, tiny, and tinier (sp?). My favorite size is 75-100. It seems that at that size I can know everyone really well - and that's what I like best about church. Is a church ever "too small"? I keep thinking of Emerson's poem, "The Rhodora". (upon finding the fresh Rhodora in the wood)
"Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being"

A motley assortment of Christians serving God...or at least trying to serve God...together.. Ahhh..what a beautiful thing.

rev-ed said...

Kathleen, I think you're dealing with churches on the other end of the "spiritual spectrum" than I'm addressing. Not that some plants can't turn into unhealthy, unviable groups, but that's not nearly as likely. Usually those churches just never get the growth they hope for, people get discouraged and leave.

Mike said...

What is the purpose of the church?

I think this is a driving question in regards to this post.

I don't devalue small churches, but I do believe if they turn into "religious clubs," then I think we've really missed the point. There are some small churches who are doing amazing things in regards to their mission...caring for their community, becoming whole together, meeting needs, etc...but I find many churches (and let's be honest, I think there are many medium-size and larger churches that are doing the same thing) who are content with being religious clubs. I just don't think that's in line with what Jesus intended.