I’ve been talking with leaders of once-sizable churches. Every week they face the painful picture of a shrinking flock amongst the sea of empty seats.
Thousands of churches today are declining to the point of unviability. Many will be forced to close their doors in the near future.
For the faithful members and staff, this attrition feels like a vague terminal illness. They’re not certain of the cause or the prognosis. Often, I’ve heard a wistful member ask, “What will we do when the endowment runs out?”
At the same time, a new “ministry strategy” has emerged among the younger churches in town. Some call it “steeplejacking.” National ministry organizations advise local pastors to target declining congregations and overtake their properties. It’s like a churchified foreclosure and eviction process as the ambitious ones attempt to acquire buildings at little or no cost. “All for the sake of the Kingdom,” they say.
Once in awhile, all ends well. Both the overtaking and the undertaking congregations find ways to meet their challenges and simultaneously serve their communities and honor God. They find win-win solutions. Both see their years of faithfulness, hard work, and sacrifice developing into something valuable and durable.
But sometimes steeplejacking becomes an unnecessarily divisive and destructive exercise. This usually comes about when raw pride and hubris enter the scene. I’ve seen leaders of a young church communicate coldly with a struggling church, boast of their attendance numbers, and tout their plans to establish multi-site locations all over the landscape. They attempted to intimidate the shrinking church into surrendering their keys or “face the possibility of closure.”
Predictably, such predatory overtures are not received warmly. And they run the risk of damaging the cause of Christ in the community, positioning Christians as those who seek to euthanize the old in order to provide a cheap place for the young.
Now, it’s true that many churches are dying. It’s true that many will be unable to support their facilities. And it’s true that other churches in the same communities could make good use of vacant or underused church properties. And when handled with humility, love and sensitivity, churches can come together to bring new life during challenging times.
Some simple approaches can help growing churches and struggling churches come together to accomplish something honorable and worthy for the Kingdom.
FOR THE STRUGGLING CHURCH
- Be open to the possibility that God may have new purposes for the faithful work and investment you’ve made over the years.
- Involve the entire congregation in celebrating the blessings of the past, and opening hearts to what God may do in the future.
- Proactively reach out to other churches to explore how you might work together to serve your community.
FOR THE CHURCH NEEDING SPACE
- Pray for humility and sensitivity.
- Understand and appreciate the deep pain experienced by those in dying churches.
- Take on the compassion of a Hospice nurse, rather than the bloodlust of a predator.
- Use good relational skills. Initially, meet personally and informally with leaders from the struggling church.
- Don’t tell about your success. In fact, don’t tell at all. Ask questions. Ask about the challenges the struggling church faces. Ask how you might help the struggling church.
- Rather than talking takeover, talk first about less threatening options, such as renting space or sharing ministry initiatives.
- When considering lease or sales figures, don’t be ruthless. Make reasonable offers that reflect current market conditions. The selling congregation may have good plans to invest the proceeds in other God-honoring ministries that resonate with their mission.
These are challenging times for many churches. These times call for the Body of Christ to summon abundant doses of love, respect and compassion for one another.