You know how people say they hate pews? They think that a bold, fresh outlook employing flexible seating and maybe slapping the altar against the north or south wall will announce to an eager world that there’s new life in your church.
You can rip out all the pews you want, but the world is not going to beat a pathway to your door as a result.
No. Think bigger. If your congregation is dwindling slowly but surely. If you have tried everything. If your synod or diocese is indifferent or even wants you gone. If you can see the writing on the wall. You have a choice:
Continue to love your church and your dwindling community – that’s the good part – and continue to struggle as you grieve for the deaths among your ranks, and the friends lost to memory units, or to new homes or nursing homes closer to grown children. Keep busy and grieve. Keep grieving until the day comes for the long-dreaded discussions with the synod or diocese, and then the closing service and deconsecration, and then the final grief and exhaustion.
Sell the building now, making it crystal clear to the diocese or synod that your congregation isn’t dead, your ministry isn’t ended, and you need the resources from the sale to continue your life in Christ as a congregation. While you still have a critical mass of people, make this heartrending decision and do your grieving up front, while you can envision your future once you are no longer stuck in pathways that clearly are not working. Grieve together. Sell the building, having arranged to rent space in another church or in a purely secular space like the middle school. Or the YMCA. Or a coffee shop. Or your living rooms.
“Do you have any idea how hard that would be?” I can hear seasoned, knowledgeable voices asking this. I am sure they’re right, and they’ve forgotten more than I will ever know, if they’re clergy, about congregational behaviors and of course their own needs. But my question to them would be: Does the idea cause your spirit to lift?
I know one group that would suffer terribly: the older men who keep the place from falling down. What a huge loss this would be for them. This needs to be considered from the start. Where can they transfer that devotion?
There’s a lot to think about.
What I want most of all, when I consider this, is to free a congregation that can’t rescue itself from the alternating paralysis and flailing that are exhausting and don’t succeed in attracting new members. And I want to offer the clergy the freedom and resources to try truly new things, with a newly energized congregation.
How hard it would be, though. Imagine letting go of the glorious organ, the fair linen and paraments, the cherished ceremonial objects, the barely-used Sunday School rooms that symbolize so much, the font, the sanctuary light, the service book, the handbells. Imagine.
But remember: all those things will have to be let go anyway, it is just a matter of when and how. Do it now, with sadness and determination, or do it in another 10, 15, or 20 years, after people have exhausted their passion and energy, instead of finding out what is next.