How a church died

Stillwaters in an old church

Tonight our association held their annual meeting at a church which shut down several years ago. I’ve been in the building several times since it closed down, and it’s always depressed me — the musty smell, the empty space, the sheer amount of lost potential. Until tonight, however, I’d never quite figured out how the church collapsed so thoroughly. From all reports the church had a sizable endowment as late as the 90’s, and with some decent management it could still be doing significant ministry. So what happened?

The end-game of the church was, unfortunately, a story which has played out again and again in churches. A pastor is called without wisdom, severs the church’s relationships with other congregations and the congregants relationships with each other, and then moves on — blaming everyone else for the destruction caused. Yet, a church with the resources that this one had going for it needn’t have taken that path — a path often taken out of a sense of desperation. The reality of what happened to the church never fit with else I knew about it, until tonight.

During the meeting I wound up in a hallway I’d never paid much attention to before. On the walls were several dozen plaques, all dedicated to the same pastor. He was everywhere. The mayor of the town honored him, civic organizations honored him, religious organizations honored him, the church gave him plaque after plaque. From the dates on the plaques I gleaned the pastor had been there for sometime, at least from the 60’s into the early 90’s. When the scope of those plaques hit me I realized what killed the church. When the pastor left, the church just stopped. After showing the hallway to a friend and mentioning my insight, she pointed out another plaque with the pastor’s name on it. This one, dedicating an education wing, listed the dates of the pastor’s reign — 1947 to 1994. Forty-seven years!

As the sheer weight of that reign sunk in, I began to realize something else. The decor of the church was vintage 60’s and 70’s. the upkeep of the building looked like it had slowed to a crawl years before it closed, which was odd given the endowment the church had possessed. The church hadn’t stopped after the 47 year pastor left, it stopped at least a decade before he ended his reign.

Suddenly, the run-down and empty church was no longer depressing, it was frightening. We slip into stagnation so easily, and then entropy — organizational, spiritual, and physical — works it’s deadly power. Stability can be a wonderful thing, but when stability becomes the thing, the death cycle has begun. It’s a sobering thought.

 

4 Comments

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  1. In light of that, it continually amazes me that Central is still in existence. As frightening and seemingly inevitable the death of a church might be, all it takes is one spark from God to pull it back. Kind of like those defibrillators they use in hospitals.

    • God has been good to give Central some breathing room, we are still in a touchy place – but there is actual hope. Kinda nice if it can be leveraged even more!

  2. Wes, found your comments on the death of a church very interesting. I do think it has a lot to do with leadership but one also might consider the church’s relative position in the post-modern world. The message of hope and help is still valid but as you are aware, secularism, government, and the educational systems have replaced many of the former functions of the Church. Here’s the “good news” – one single, right person can change everything.

    • Mike, I did not mean to convey that it was just the leadership, that was the catalyst. The real problem was the relationship between the church and the leadership which got locked into a system where the pastor held all the strings, and the congregation was happy enough to let him do so. It didn’t collapse as much as it simply stopped breathing.

      I’m not sure about the former functions of the church being taken up by public systems, as I’ve never lived in a a world where the church was the center of community life. From my both personal experiences and what I know of recent Church history (say 150 – 300 years) what I think happened is the Church got settled into a Christendom mind-set and incorporated itself into a system which mirrored public systems – never realizing we were codifying our identity in something other than Christ. When the culture shifted our mistake was revealed, but the American Church seems to have stuck it’s fingers in it’s collective ears and started shouting, “Nyah nyah nyah, I can’t hear you!” instead of saying, “You know – I think we may need to refocus ourselves on this Jesus character we talk so much about.”

      It’s a story played out again and again in history, we never seem to actually grasp the lesson though.

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