According to one estimate, in the U.S. alone more than 3,200 churches close their doors every year. On average, that’s 267 churches every month, 62 every week, and 9 every day. Recent editions of the directory Churches of Christ in the United States indicate that hundreds of our congregations have closed over the last decade.
In their book Legacy Churches, Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond ask a hard but important question: What should church leaders do when the congregation that they love and have been a part of for many years is slowly but surely dying?
The authors begin with the story of Moses who was succeeded by Joshua as leader of the ancient Israelites. They point out that just as the death of Moses did not mean the end of God’s plan for his people, the closing of a congregation does not mean the end of Christ’s kingdom. On a related note, they emphasize that the obvious decline of a church is not necessarily the result of unfaithfulness. None of the churches of the New Testament exist today. But who would insist that all of those congregations were spiritual failures? Observation over a long period of time indicates that virtually all churches experience a life cycle that features a number of stages. These include birth, growth, maturity, plateau, decline, drop-out and, finally, death. Much like people, all congregations eventually go into decline and die.
Next, Gray and Dumond discuss three unique temptations encountered by churches in the last stages of the life cycle. First, churches are tempted to fire the current preacher and hire a new one. Their assumption is that if they can simply find the right minister, then their congregation will become healthy and will grow once again. This growth-by-preacher strategy is fatally flawed at a number of points. It overlooks, for example, that the new preacher didn't create, and can hardly undo, the non-growth systems that led to the downturn in the first place.
Second, churches in steep decline sometimes believe that their better days will return if they will build a new facility in a growing part of town. But the growth-by-construction strategy confuses physical structure and location with the church. As the authors point out, a dying congregation in a new facility is just that. They conclude: "Growth by construction is never a good strategy for a church in decline" (46).
Third, churches in the last stages of the life cycle sometimes want to merge with another congregation. But as the authors point out, this strategy frequently ends in disaster. Why? Because in a merger, the two groups show up with alternate visions of what it means to be a church. Also, the leaders of the respective groups tend to compete for control of the newly formed congregation.
How can a church determine if they should consider making plans to close? In response to that question, Gray and Dumond name “Six Indicators of Potential Closure”:
1. Public worship attendance has drastically declined.
2. Staffing of essential ministries is no longer adequate or effective.
3. Annual income is no longer adequate to do effective local ministry.
4. The church has not consistently grown over the last five years.
5. The age or tenure of the membership is unusually high.
6. Survival has become the main mission.
The authors contend that when a church exhibits several of these indicators, leaders must not panic, but plan. Rather than survive at all costs, congregations nearing the end of their existence should become “legacy churches.” Specifically, they should use their financial assets to fund the start of one or more new congregations. In this way, the “spirit and the purpose of a faithful church” can be carried on “even if the worshipping congregation cannot be sustained” (65).
The final chapters of the book offer specific recommendations for the process of closing a church. The authors describe the legal and financial tasks that should be done. Above all, they urge congregations to host a closing service. They even provide three different outlines for conducting a unique and meaningful celebration of faith.
Appendixes include “Frequently Asked Questions,” which covers much of the content of the book in Q&A fashion, and “Life Cycle Survey,” a tool that can help a congregation determine its current position.
Legacy Churches is an excellent resource for leaders in congregations that have entered the last stages of life. These churches should not slip away in shame. Instead, they can and should close with dignity and a sense of hope for the future.
My main caveat (based on the comments on this post, and which the authors of the book do not discuss) relates to those small churches in isolated, rural areas. What should they do? Although they often struggle, these congregations praise God, lift up Christ, and moor the faith of their members in areas that would otherwise not have a church. For that reason, they should continue on much longer than dying churches in more-populated areas.