I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is a conference minister for a major religious denomination. I asked my friend " How are things going in your conference ? " My friend stated " We are developing strategic plans, developing leaders, ministering to our people and we are closing churches, just like other areas of the denomination. " The words of my friend didn't surprise me but I was saddened to hear the topic of closing churches.
When I was ordained to the ministry over thirty-five years ago, I always assumed there would be churches that would need to be served by pastors. The first two churches that I served were in a rural area of Eastern Missouri. My congregants were dairy and hog farmers and people who ran small businesses. The churches were located in a community of about two hundred people and thus a lot of activities revolved around the church and the school. People came to church, but they also came for ice cream socials, dinners, quilting, etc.
Now we have an entirely different reality. A lot of people now live in major urban areas. You may find yourself driving forty minutes or more one-way just to get to work. Technology has allowed us to become more connected than ever, but with that also comes the threat of being a prisoner to your digital device. A lot of people may find themselves spending substantial time staring at the screen of an I-Phone and experience much less time actually talking to another person. So, some people may find that they are feeling more lonely and isolated.
We have also seen mega churches develop. Instead of church sanctuary buildings with steeples, we see structures that resemble a Sam's Club. A warehouse atmosphere set up for a lot of activities, even golf carts in the parking lot that will shuttle worshippers from their car to the front door. However, if you are really craving intimacy with other people, you may be disappointed. One mega church that I know even describes their coffee hour between their two services as " the half-time event. " I can almost picture the marching bands and the cheer leaders now.
My friend, the conference minister, is a realist. Sadly, part of the responsibility of ministry today is closing churches. The changes in population demographics, the rise of technology and the wide variety of different options that people can pursue on a Sunday morning contribute to this reality. I remember two years ago when I was involved in helping to oversee the closure of a church, a Presbyterian Church, one of my good Social Worker friends reminded me, "Peter, what you are really doing is hospice ministry."
My friend's comment stuck with me in its clarity. When someone or some organization is dying, you do your best to keep you patient/client or congregation comfortable. You pay attention to pain levels and you do your best to relieve suffering. Hopefully, also you engage a conversation with that individual or organization about meaning and purpose. Here , in this instance, the conversation might be about what is the importance of Christian ministry when the environment is changing, when the people who attend church are dwindling and when you are forced to close the doors.
Another friend of mine is working to keep a small congregation open. There is another congregation, different denomination, nearby my friend's church and so there is the possibility that a merger could occur or that both congregations could form a two-point charge. This is one demonstrated way of maintaining sustainability in a time when a lot of churches are finding that they can't financially succeed on their own.
Chris Hedges recently wrote that he foresees some groups of Christian and or other denominational congregants opting not to meet for any type of religious services but instead focus their efforts in ministering to prisons, food pantries, the homeless, etc. This certainly represents the Social Gospel movement without the attention to maintaining a building or supporting an organization for its own sake. This concept of the Church without walls has a lot of merit, but I still miss the experience of worshipping in a congregation, hearing church music played on an organ, a real pipe organ, seeing the candles lighted by the acolytes, smelling incense , hearing chanting, if you are Episcopalian, etc. These are elements that remind me that the church is alive and that God is present with people, even when they feel like they are dying. Somehow, contemporary worship with its big screens and its tendency to protect sermon titles, hymn lyrics etc., ends up robbing the mystery of worship.
Maybe, that's what we're left with right now. The Church, or some manifestations of the Church, are not dead but they are not fully alive either, and so some church congregations are somewhere in between. How do you sing the Lord's Song in a strange land (Psalms, 137:4). Some congregations are finding their way through witness ministries like supporting Black Lives Matter, addressing income inequality, advocating for more affordable housing in their community, or working for criminal justice reform and advocating for more resources for substance abuse treatment and helping the homeless.
Maybe, we are witnessing another Social Gospel movement ?
Maybe, we are experiencing our souls being saved again and again and again.
May it be so.