When Congregations Close

Your Sanctuary will feature thoughts on congregational life, particularly in local churches, but also in our culture and denominations. This is the first post in this section.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

~ 1 Corinthians 12:24-27

To talk about the church means to talk about death.

The Greek word for church is ecclesia, and while it can refer to a simple assembly as well as the universal Church, in Paul’s epistles it usually means the local congregation. (The stress is on the second syllable; you can listen to it pronounced here). When most of us say “church,” we’re referring to St. Paul’s or Trinity or Redeemer–a particular gathering in a particular place where we hear the Word and receive Christ’s gifts in communion with particular fellow believers. We know the universal ecclesia will always exist until the end of time, but also we know that some individual congregations won’t.

While pastors and their families, and some lay people, have known of the current decline in church attendance generally for years, others are starting to take notice. The Minneapolis Star Tribune published this article earlier this week about yet another Lutheran (ELCA, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregation that will be closing, this one in La Salle, Minnesota.

Many factors come into play with church closure, but evidence points to some primary causes. First, demographically, churches are emptying. When families don’t have babies, or have only a few, replacements to follow aging congregational members automatically drops. This is a simple statistical truth. For instance, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has seen a 70% decrease in child baptisms since the 1950s. At the same time, it has seen a 47% drop in adult converts. This is not a coincidence, as this 2016 report points out. Second, many churches that are closing exist in areas that have experienced population decline for economic reasons. One pastor’s wife I know in southwest Minnesota said to me last month that in their three county rural area, there are twenty-seven Lutheran churches. “One hundred years ago, enough big farming families lived there to make that work,” she said. “Now, there’s just not the people. All the children of members leave for metro areas to get better jobs.”

There’s other reasons, too. Theologically, many mainline Protestant churches have become much more liberal in their theology in the last decades. The ELCA is one church body whose public confession has drastically changed in the last thirty years. While that kind of theological shift can make it in a few pockets of America, many church members in the Heartland, especially the elderly that are left in the pews, just can’t stomach the lurching from Biblical inerrancy that was still widely accepted a half-century ago to positions like embracing actively homosexual pastors. Beyond the theological inconsistency, once churches start jettisoning or abridging the Scriptures, there’s very little they have left to offer that people can’t find elsewhere. Our hedonistic culture is stuffed full of socially vogue or entertaining–or both–pastimes. And to be fair, more theologically conservative churches have to contend with the same cultural competition and distractions, and doctrinal purity certainly doesn’t guarantee membership stability. So members leave, either to go to more small-o orthodox churches or to quit church altogether for other pursuits. Any way you look at it, people either are leaving these churches or don’t exist to attend in the first place.

We spent ten years in Pipestone County in southwest Minnesota, not too far from La Salle.  What’s happening in La Salle is happening in Pipestone, and it will continue to happen for years and decades to come, the way it’s already happening in Japan and other countries with falling birthrates and rising elderly populations. It’s heartbreaking to witness lifelong members weep over where they will be buried when they’ve been baptized, confirmed, and married in their local church that is closing or will close. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s infuriating, because it shows that for too long, people assumed that their ecclesia would exist forever. Too late, they realized that ignoring patterns of selfishness or mediocre doctrine or shunning teaching and Christ’s gifts to go fishing at the lake or not catechizing their children to repeat what they heard together in the sanctuary would cumulatively result in nonchalance about the church. And nonchalance translates into emptiness. Too late, they realized that Christians should never, ever take the church for granted.

We can do very little to change the trajectory of countless small churches that will close this year and in the years to come. But what we can do is trust that God is faithful, even when pews are empty. We can support our own local churches by attending the Divine Service regularly, participating in Bible studies, volunteering our time and talents for Fellowship or Trustees or whatever needs our hands, giving of our treasure. And we can pray that the Body continues, that we help each other, that we will suffer together, yes, and we will also rejoice and hope together.

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