Thursday, June 30, 2016

Talking about Church Closures

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

I was struck by a couple of paragraphs in a blog post on UM Insight by Darryl Stephens I'd read recently. Here they are:

There are over 32,000 United Methodist congregations in the United States, almost one in every county of every state. We have more local missional outposts than the US Post Office. We also have more local congregations worldwide than McDonald’s has franchises. There are nearly 40,000 United Methodist churches worldwide.

This means that every time we engage excitedly in conversation about new church starts, there is another half to that conversation that is not nearly so motivational: old church closures.

The truth is, the UMC has too many congregations in the United States. We have so many congregations we don’t know how to manage them all or what to do with them. And, our leadership does not have the courage or the moral will to close them. So, every time we focus on new church starts without also discussing the hard work of old church closures, we are contributing to the delusion that ministry is only about birth and growth and not also about sustained presence, a good life, and, eventually, death.

Rev. Stephens' words reminded me of a story my dad tells about the time, 20 years ago, when he worked as communication director for the Iowa Conference. My dad came to this position from the world of journalism, not the church.

While he was working there, the conference decided to close two small, rural churches. My dad, following his journalistic instincts, thought that it would be an interesting story to write about these churches and what their congregants were experiencing as they prepared for their churches' closure. He was told, however, that in no way could he write a story about churches closing. It was not the message the denomination wanted to send - closures could too easily be interpreted as failures.

Yet if we are unwilling to talk about church closures, yea, even church failures, then we as a denomination are failing to send a very important message: that Christ Jesus triumphs even over death. Unless we recognize death, we cannot recognize resurrection.

Moreover, in order to really understand the dynamics of denominational decline and possible revitalization in the US branch of the UMC, we need to talk about church closures (and those churches that don't close but perhaps should), not just about aggregate membership numbers for the whole country. One of the central tenets of successful mission work is to pay attention to context. Just so, the dynamics of church decline and growth are shaped by contextual and institutional factors, and two of those factors are congregational size and congregational closures.

If we're not willing to talk about church closures, then we fail to witness to our belief in the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ and we fail to do an adequate missiological analysis of the American mission field.


  1. Excellent post, David. The United Methodist Church indeed is struggling to cope with the legacy of its own past success--a legacy that has now become a burden, or at least, a challenge, as you outline. Our resistance--or, as you and Darryl rightly point out, our unwillingness or even moral failure--to confront church closures, I suspect, is also a function of collective shame. Facing church closures reminds us of previous denominational vitality and success--and thus of the depth of our current malaise in the U.S. church. I hope church leaders will take seriously your and Darryl's reflections on death and resurrection, because the cross and resurrection also frees us of this self-imposed shame, which is, after all, the flip side of our hubris in thinking that the flourishing of the body of Christ is ultimately up to us.

    1. Henk, I appreciate your naming of both hubris and shame as part of the psychology of how we in the UMC think about church closings and openings. I think you're right on that the cross and resurrection free us from these. They free us to be human and free us from having to pretend we are God and feeling shame when we inevitably are not.

  2. Thanks for your added perspective on Darryl Stephens' series, David. With your permission, I'm picking this up for UM Insight to cross-link.

  3. One other important factor here. The great majority of our congregations are rural, built at distances from one another relevant to travel on horseback and thriving rural communities. Urbanization and the automobile have insured that this pattern is no longer relevant. Then, flush with funds from the booming early 20th century we adopted parallel model of community churches in growing suburbs, frequently built on model of congregations the size of those in a small town. This pattern his likewise proven untenable, based on ideas about what a suburb would be that simply didn't pan out. In short decline in membership was accompanied by some equally bad strategy in congregational planning. What no one seems to have addressed is whether our declines in membership are related to these bad strategies. Which I believe they are. We've focused on theology, preaching, and relevant worship as the causes of decline. I believe that it has been rather the bad strategies for mid-20th century growth.

    1. Having spent a lot of the last three years driving between small churches in rural areas, I entirely agree with your first point. It was a great strategy for evangelizing an expanding western frontier that traveled on horseback and became outmoded as soon as automobiles were common.

  4. Darryl is dealing with a number of significant issues. I'm not sure though if he advocates more closings or less. I think he is right on though that we should talk more about the life cycle of churches.

    I don't know the exact statistic, and I'm sure we can't get it, but my guess is somewhere around 98% of the churches that were planted over the last 2000+ years have now closed. So closing a church, while painful, is neither unusual or to be avoided. The bigger challenge is how to reallocate resources to where people actually live. As Robert alludes to above, this is a serious problem for a denomination that thrived when the the US was mostly rural, but which now finds itself in the midst of a country and world that is rapidly urbanizing. Seems like we aren't addressing this new global urban landscape in any significant way.