How Long Does a Church Need to “Last”?

Our mission is to provide space for cloggers to practice

About 10-12 years ago the church I was serving had their heater die on Christmas Eve and as if that wasn’t enough,  the heater in the education building was red tagged about the same time by the Fire Department and shut off.  The church applied for some funds through our District who granted us (to the best of my memory) $11,000.  It was an amazing blessing that enabled us to provide heat in what was an unseasonably cold California winter.

When two members of the District Union came to bring me the check I gave them a tour of the facilities and told them about the growing congregation that was starting new worship, reaching the community and figuring out how to be the church in the changing world.

They were gracious and excited to hear this because the last time they had been to the campus was to talk about closing the church. And this, I then learned was part of the church’s history. This church, like many, had experienced hard times and even received pastoral salary support for a time.  It surprised them, and after hearing their stories, it surprised me, that the church was at such a totally different place.  It was a Yeah God moment.  They continue to grow and thrive.

My 20 years of ministry have been about investing in and growing local churches.  Up to this point in my ministry, it has been my life’s work and nothing has made me more excited than to see a church become/return to vitality.  That hasn’t changed.

But honestly, as I listen to the many concerns voiced in the UMC over the closing churches, I want to say (but don’t), this isn’t really about closing a church, the church closed long ago, this is about closing a building.

I feel this way because I understand a church to be about bringing the new way begun in Jesus Christ (the Kingdom of God) to the world.  The church is the opening act for the Kingdom and gathering for worship on Sunday gives us a real encounter with this new way which we are then to take into the world.  If you aren’t doing that I am not sure you are a church.

But some folks don’t see it this way. I had a conversation about a year ago with a long-term member of a well-known toxic church who said, “I don’t care if we get down to 5 people, we aren’t closing.”  I will admit I could not contain myself and I said something uncalled for like, FIVE people? That isn’t a church, that is a Bible study, (and it got worse from there because she got up, told me I was wrong, picked up her stuff and left).

While I have been moving in this direction for a while, certainly over the last 6 months, I have seen a change in myself, theologically speaking.  And the change is in my ecclesiology.  (Ecclesiology is “the theologically study of the Christian church” from wikipedia).

As a local church pastor, the church was, well, the building. Yes, it was also the people but the building was really important. The church’s history, presence in a community & even the beauty of the church building were important and even sacred. As a pastor it was part of your job to make sure the building was safe, insured and ready for ministry.

And, a part of me still really feels this way.  I cannot help but imagine the life that has happened inside the walls of a church. When I go to a church, any church, I really love to walk around and imagine all that has happened in the space—the baptisms, the learning, the friendships, the communion services, the youth group gatherings, the sermons, and even the memorials and funerals.  Recently I was visiting a church I had never been to before and I found myself greatly moved by the obvious love and care the congregation had given the building (even planting some amazing hollyhocks). I have a real awe for the life that happens between the walls of a church building.

But I have also seen a church confuse being the church with holding on to a building.  (Same church where they also thought mission was providing a room for “the cloggers”.)

And, seen folks get all upset about a church closing when really, the church had closed 20 years ago when they accepted the trust that would pay for the upkeep of the building as long as they never had worship in any language but English.

Of course there is more, but I am sure you get the idea.

All of this has made me consider deeper questions about the nature of the church including:

+Does a church need to last (that is, exist for 10, 20, 30 years +) or is it equally valid to have a church that lasts for a year or less?

+Since the church is much more than a building, why do we hang onto buildings once it is clear that, the church has left the building?

+Why do we believe a church needs a building? (This came up after a clergy friend’s church sold their building so they wouldn’t be so burdened by its upkeep but have continued to meet and be the church together.)

+Why is money so much of a driving factor in all of this? And maybe more important, why don’t we change how much money drives all of this?

As I work on the House Church Network, I think that some of the churches will meet for a season while others for a lot longer and that seems to be a good thing.  Since it is driven by the discipleship and situation of the people its length—whether for a season or for many, many years, will reflect the heath and reality of those who attend, not the financial outlay of the building or the tradition of that church in the community.

I was coming to the end of writing this post when I saw this posted on Facebook,

In this post, David Fitch talks about another model to start churches where we plant young adults in a community who have other jobs (in the regular, as opposed to the church world) and they, after getting to know people, gather small groups of people for Christ. I like this….a lot.

It reminds me a lot of Addullam ( and the work of Matt Smay & Hugh Halter.  Both Matt and Hugh moved into the community and only latter started a church.  This is a new way of being church in today’s world and is well worth a look.

This will be a good topic for another post….