I guess I am writing somewhat in response to this. I'm writing somewhat in response to this. Go ahead and read. I'll wait...
Done? Good. I guess I'm also writing to process some recent conversations I have had, primarily with the newly ordained and soon to be ordained. My peers are feeling an anxiety, an anxiety that comes from the sense that we were trained to lead a church that either no longer exists or will not exist in the very near future. An anxiety that comes from attempting to lead congregations into the future that are firmly rooted in the past. An anxiety that comes from those who feel like they're doing institutional maintenance instead of ministry, not that the two necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.
What I think is missing from both of the above articles is an immediate "so what?". There's an answer to that "so what?" that no one seems to want to deal with: many of us newly ordained folks are going to be forced to close churches. There's no getting around it. It may be the economy that does some local congregations in. It may just be the age of the membership. The bottom line is that churches will close. Many of them, I believe.
Emotionally, I don't know how I will handle the almost inevitable experience of closing a church. God-willing it won't be the congregation I am serving now. One of our current members came from a church that closed in the last few months. It's an emotional experience. Genuine mourning takes place. Most of us haven't been prepared to lead a congregation through that grieving process nor to handle it ourselves. I can imagine myself taking the blame for the church's closure. I can imagine beating myself up or worse yet, taking to heart the blame that is leveled at me. I play that scenario out through my head every so often. Even in my fantasies where I am able to shepherd the community through a "good death", there is still so much loss.
I balance this overwhelmingly gloomy picture with a gut sense that some churches need to die. Some churches have ceased to be places of worship ad have become places of sentimentality and nostalgia. Those things have their place, but they are not what the church is called to do. I know it sounds cruel, but some churches would (and probably will) serve the Kingdom better by selling their property and making space for new worshipping communities. This is particularly true in places of demographic change.
I have some thoughts on what good church death might look like. First and foremost, I think congregations need a season to strategize about the closing. I don't think you can just come in and say "Well, we're out of cash. Next Sunday will be our last service. Sucks to be us!". Church members need to experience all of the stages of grief when it comes to their community. Second, the local congregation should have some say on what might happen with their remaining assets. While I understand that technically the denomination owns the property (in the PC(USA) anyway), it creates an opportunity for one final act of giving if the congregation can be a part of the discernment process as to what happens with the building. They should have some sense of satisfaction that they are investing in some future Kingdom work. (more on that in second). Finally, I think closing churches need opportunities to tell their story. Some sort of written history or photo documentation. Something that highlights God's faithfulness in their midst over the course of their history. This may result simply in a keepsake for the remaining individuals, but it might also be an inspiring and instructional record for other churches in the area or within the denomination.
So what would it look like for a dying church to invest itself in future Kingdom work? Oddly enough, I have thoughts on that too. I've seen many churches that are dying primarily because the demographics around them are changing and they don't know how to adjust to the change. This seems to be especially true when the demographic that is changing is the racial/ethnic one. It's also been my experience that there is some vibrant ministry in that area which serves that demographic that the dying church can't reach. What if the dying church consciously made a decision to invest its remaining assets in that racial/ethnic ministry? What a beautiful act of reconciliation that could be! Maybe those ministries, for whatever reason, can't merge, but they would forever be bonded by that which should unite all of us.
My second thought is church within a church. I'd really like to see my denomination have the vision to do this. What if a dying congregation said "look, for whatever reason, we can't do ministry the way we used to, but we can be an incubator for a new ministry". From the denomination's standpoint, there is no net loss of a congregation. For the congregation, it is a chance to have something of their DNA transmitted to the next generation. For the new church, it provides a safe place to grow and experiment while they get off the ground. Sure, tensions would be bound to emerge, but wouldn't that shift the dying church into a posture where they would have to be looking forward instead of looking backward? We're not planting churches at the rate at which we are closing them. Instead of churches that are big and bloated, we should have churches that reproduce.
As Bruce mentioned in his article, a great place for this change to begin is in theological education. We have to start training ministers for 2020 and stop training them for 1950. I agree that we need to start thinking more about tent-making, more about non-traditional ministries including validating non-profits. It also means we can't load seminarians down with debt when we can't ensure that there will be churches for them to serve (ahem!), so theological education has to be more affordable AND churches should consider investing heavily in seminarians that come out of their congregations. (descending soapbox).
No one likes to say this, but churches have a life cycle. Some churches adapt to cultural change and find ways to flourish, but I think those congregations are becoming exceptions. It's not a tragedy if a church closes. It's a tragedy if a church fades away.