Needed: A Theology of Closure

I have been mulling over a post John Meunier wrote on a talk Adam Hamilton (pastor of the huge Resurection UMC in Kansas) gave at the Indiana Annual Conference (for any British Methodist readers, an Annual Conference is kind of like a District). John gives a short summary of Hamilton’s talk which appears to be a rallying call against the fatalism that runs through the church, even to go so far as to say if God is calling the UMC (or any of its churches) to close, we need to fight God all the way.

I read John’s post within a day or so of standing in front of the Blackburn Circuit meeting requesting permission for one of my churches to close (I posted what I said at the meeting here), so I will apologise to John right off at the start in case I am reading him in a light he didn’t intend. I don’t think I am in a situation where I can fully appreciate what Hamilton said. Regardless, his post has highlighted the struggle I have had to make sense of exactly what I am doing (and will do for the next three months). Whilst I admit that there have been times of doubt over whether or not I should have botherd, I have not doubted that it was the right thing to do.

So here are some questions/thoughts I have toward what a theology of closure of churches would mean:

  1. Death and Resurrection: God is indeed a God of new life, but each Holy Week many churches will stress that the only way to Easter is to pass through Good Friday. Yet in the sense I hear it most often, ‘new life’ seems to mean one thing and one thing only – churches shouldn’t close. Can a Good Friday death always be avoided (or should it be)?
  2. What does resurrection look like? Buildings are the albatross around the neck of many churches. I had one person in our circuit say about his church, ‘I would love it if the council would come along to buy this church as a community centre and then we could just rent a part when we needed it!’ How would it free up our resources and people to make this kind of break so new life could happen?
  3. Following on from that, how did buildings become so entwined with what we mean by church? Maybe this isn’t an American problem, but I find many for whom removal of the building is a removal of the church full stop.
  4. Where is the line between ‘saving’ the church and ‘survival’? Do churches have a full grasp on the difference? Discipleship and evangelism haven’t been categories discussed because we seem to assume a) people will come because the church is there and b) they know what Christianity is about when they walk through the door.
  5. What is at stake for the church to ‘fight against God’? What if God is sitting up in his throne room with churches marked with a big X and it is his will that a church close (I doubt this, but I hear a similar scenario  described as going on in Methodist Church House). What does it mean for us to stay open?  What is at stake for us? (position, power, etc.).  What if rather than desperately wanting the Methodist church to stay open, what if God would rather us look more ecumenically?  (Craig Adams reflects a good bit on whether or not God truly wants the UMC to continue.)
  6. Role of the Spirit: If my wife or child lay dying in hospital and someone told me that if I had enough faith, God will heal her I would likely hit that person. Other than wackjob fundamentalists, I doubt I would hear that from anyone. Yet, it seems to be OK to say that to the minister of a dying church. I have been told that if I have enough faith in the Spirit, God will bring revival to the church.  Does God’s Spirit work that way?
  7. The Parable of the Vine: Is Jesus’ parable about pruning a vine relavent? A friend in another circuit will use this parable a lot when he talks about churches that simply want to exist for themselves on a Sunday morning.

I imagine that Revd. Hamilton and I are in very different situations. A 15,000 member church is a far cry from an 8-church circuit of only 500 (total) that are all in a precarious financial position. Closing a church is difficult, but it doesn’t have to represent failure. When we are determined to think it is a failure when a church that has lived faithfully for years, but can’t find a way to do so with all the situtations around it (or, pershaps, forgotten/never truly knew what faithfulness means), then that seems to be a theology of a ‘God of death’ rather than a ‘God of life’. God will bring us through death, even if he doesn’t save us from it. How this works in the midst of closure and trying to understand where to fit this all in theologically is where I am struggling at the moment.

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8 thoughts on “Needed: A Theology of Closure

  1. This is great, and something I have been thinking about too. Closure affords the chance for new beginnings be that in Churches or relationships or just about anything really.

    The old has gone and the new is come springs to mind.

  2. I think Adam would agree with you and encourage you as you go through the challenging process of closing a church. In his post “General Motors and the UMC” (http://adamhamilton.cor.org/2009/04/27/general-motors-and-the-umc/) he talked about the idea of merging multiple churches into more viable and effective churches. So he certainly is not saying that churches should never close or that closure is always negative. Rather, he’s working to ignite a passion for renewal that will reverse the long decline of the Methodist church and lead to a future of great missional effectiveness. No doubt we will have to close some churches, perhaps many churches, as a vital part of that renewal process.

  3. tenwarnings: Thanks.

    Sally: I agree, I just don’t think many churches or even the Methodist Church here have really wanted to say that. Thanks for your comment.

    Clif Guy: Thank you for stopping by and for your comment. What I read of Rev. Hamilton was a summery, so I may not have heard all that he was saying or meant to say. I wasn’t meaning to attack him or really even argue with him (or John, for that matter). My conversations are usually what I feel I am hearing from the Methodist Church. When we use the language that Rev. Hamilton uses (God has big plans for the Methodist Church, fight to stay open), I think many in the church hear that God likes us the way we are (i.e., continuing on in our little four-walls because what else would church mean?).

    That’s why I’m saying we need a more appropriate way of talking about church closure in categories of ‘God does or doesn’t want it’, ‘failure if we close’, or ‘fight to keep open’ (in one case, that has meant rescue – either from the church at large or the council, not a stepping up of spreading the gospel). It also gives permission for those who have worked so hard and are now at an age where they cant.

  4. Will, I think you and the comments I heard Hamilton make really set up the tension well.

    He has said small, ineffective churches should close, but I think his language in that post was not the positive kind of closing you are looking to find.

    I struggle to find the right balance. I hear people in the denomination talk of a “good death” for churches like the one I serve. I hear some of the people who sit in the pews where I serve sigh with fatalism that nothing can be done.

    While there comes a point when some churches can only move forward by dying, I worry when it feels like denominational officials are standing there with shovels full of dirt waiting to bury this or that congregation.

    We don’t do death well. We don’t do weakness well either. A little church scratching to hang on is often told it would be better if it just died. How often do we say that to weak and elderly people, too?

    I do not have any perfect answers. The points in your post are really good ones. Finding the right balance point in the midst of the tension between “fighting God” and “dying well” is a tricky one for me.

  5. Pingback: When it’s time to say ‘goodbye’ « John Meunier's blog

  6. John: Thanks for your comment (and your post). I agree, and can testify to a church that thinks the leaders are there with a shovel. Your responses (comment and post on your blog) bring up why I think we need to about closure better. We definitely need to watch our language.

    Actually, I have heard people say, not in the crude way it is said of churches, that it would better if they passed. Usually, it’s when they are in the state on a lot of our churches. The difference being that often the person in question will say the same.

  7. Will,
    Thanks for this post. Church closure, whether to do it and how to do it is an issue I am studying with a grant from the Louisville Institute. You brought up some pertinent issues in this post and I am wondering how it went with your church that was facing closure in 2009.

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