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Last Rites for a Dying Church
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By Marc Woodson

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I have a friend who refuses to make a will or a trust for fear 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.
 
Dying Churches
A recent study by LifeWay Research discovered that approximately 22 percent of the more than 1,000 pastors they surveyed strongly or somewhat agree 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 age 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, there are still too many churches that hold little hope of being revived. Thus we must ask a few basic questions: When is it appropriate to close a church? What are the factors that indicate a local congregation is near death? And what should be done once a church has closed its doors?
 
The Right Time
Knowing the right time 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, demographic, and membership trends can indicate a dying pulse in 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:
 
  • If the worship attendance has declined seven of the past ten years.
  • If overall financial giving has declined in at least seven of the past ten years.
  • If the church looks less like its surrounding community than it did ten years ago.
  • If there are significantly more church conflicts than in past years.
  • If the church’s budget has decreased its focus on outreach and evangelism.
  • If the average age of the congregation has been much higher than the national average for seven of the last ten years.
  • If there have been few new members added in the past ten years.
 
While this is not an exhaustive list of indicators, it can provide a good starting point for further discovery and assessment.
 
In one Adventist conference, there is a systematic process for determining a church’s future viability. Congregations may be subject to a review when a certain set of factors is demonstrated, such as when weekly worship attendance falls below 50 or when tithe falls below $50,000 for one 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 the church should cease to exist or not.
 
Saying Goodbye
When a friend or family member dies, it is important to give their loved ones 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. This is a time to gather conference officials, current and former pastors, current and former members, local church and community leaders for a special time of remembrance. Such a celebration can include a reading of the church’s history, personal testimonies by the church members, a prayer of thanksgiving, and a documentation of the church’s many accomplishments through the years.
 
Why?
While the whole thing it can be painful — just like any other loss — the death of a church can actually bring benefits. The death of a congregation in one place may help 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 very well may bring new opportunities to expand the kingdom of God, and to bring glory to His name.
 
Marc Woodson is executive secretary for the Northern California Conference