A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I sat at the kitchen table scanning the obituaries in our local paper, the Amarillo Globe-News.
"I want to know what happened to them," I said.
"Who?" said my wife.
"All these people who just died. I mean, I don't want to be crass or voyeuristic or whatever. I just want to know how they died. Especially the young ones."
"I know what you mean," she said. "They never give the cause of death."
I had that same sort of feeling last week when I read for the second time that story in the Christian Chronicle, the one that reports the recent decline of Churches of Christ in America.
So many things come to mind. Most of them have been batted around the blogosphere over the last few weeks. Here's the part that I can't get out of my head: Apparently, over the last six years, Churches of Christ have lost over 500 congregations. Five hundred. That's more than one congregation a week closing its doors. I have a lot of questions about that. Don't you?
How did they die? Why did that happen? Where did the people who were still there go? Churches don't just disappear.
Of course, members of a now-closed congregation either became a part of another Church of Christ, or joined up with some other group, or dropped out altogether. That's something I wonder about too. What are the percentages for each category? Where did those people go?
Some of the churches that died had a lone preacher, presumably doing what he could to sow the seed of the kingdom and help others grow in the likeness of Christ. Where did he and his family go?
Some of the congregations that closed owned real estate and cash. What happened to that?
The more I thought about those questions, the more I remembered some of the stories from my past. During my years in New England, there were a handful of small, struggling churches that just couldn't hang on and eventually closed their doors.
One of them, a congregation in suburban Connecticut that had been around for several years, had come to depend heavily on one man. When he suddenly died, the church was at a loss. They closed up not long afterward. The church owned a building, which was sold. Over the next couple of years, the congregation where I preached received in the mail a few sizable, anonymous donations. I always figured that the money came from the proceeds from the sale of that building. But I wasn't sure.
Another church had been started by a group of young, bright, energetic Christians. They had worked for years, establishing an outpost for the kingdom of Christ. One of their leaders, a young man, tragically died. The group kept at it until many years later the congregation finally closed.
In the church closings I know of, the majority of the members went to one particular congregation of the Church of Christ because of convenience (it was the next nearest congregation), because of a studied consensus (that's where people from our group would fit in best), or because of some combination of those and other factors.
We should expect that congregations will die. One of the many things I learned from Evertt Huffard is that, unlike the kingdom of Christ, congregations are like people. They are born, they grow and reach a certain size and maturity. Sometimes they give birth to one or more congregations. But invariably, they get old, start to shrink, and finally die. I still wonder about the closing of more than 500 congregations in six years. Why did this Christian group I love so much lose so many churches in such a short time?
Turning to the future side of my question, if the cutting edge of the kingdom is the local congregation (a Phil Slate-ism), and if Churches of Christ want to do better than we have of late, wouldn't one of our main concerns be the planting of more new congregations?
Yes, as well as exciting, that sounds kind of scary. And it's got to be a lot of hard work. And, no, not every newly-planted church survives. But I believe that any emphasis designed to help us become more faithful and effective will include the intention to plant more, viable new congregations in places where there are lots of people.
That's what I'm thinking about today. What do you think?
1. Have you been a part of a congregation that made the decision to close? How did it come to that?
2. Have you been a part of a new church planting? What's that like? What are the ups and downs, the dos and don'ts of that process?
3. What are some of the church-planting bright spots among Churches of Christ today?
4. What does it take to adequately shape and train successful church planters? Who's doing an especially good job of that these days?