There were 22 in church on Sunday. The church secretary knows because he counts them every week. At a special service, such as Harvest Festival or Christmas Day the numbers may grow to 30, but mostly they are low 20s. It can hit single figures in the summer, when families are away on holiday; a feature that has become so embarrassing, the church secretary has taken to booking speakers from his own church rather than bring in an outsider. Numbers have remained much the same for three years and no one has come to faith during that period. Occasionally a family will visit, 'looking around for a church' but they never stay – indeed no one has actually joined the church for four years and some of the regular attenders wonder if it's time to close the church altogether.
If you were asked for your opinion on whether they should continue, what would you say? What would you need to know first?
You might be in the 'staying open' is always the best option school. You might argue that God has brought together these 22 for a purpose, regardless of whether they are growing or not. In some parts of the world, 22 would be a reasonable number and some suggest many churches in the New Testament were that size, dictated as they were by the size of the house in which they gathered.
You will be aware too that there are plenty of reasons why a church might be small: they might be a group sent to a new housing estate by the parent church with a view to forming a church in due course; they might be the remaining believers after changes in local employment meant the church lost the bulk of its membership in a short period of time; they might be the parent church which has sent members to a church plant; they may be reaching out to a particular people group that no other church is reaching.
If this is the case, the last thing anyone would want to do is suggest that low numbers would be a reason for closure. You would rightly want to encourage the 'small church', whether 22 or even smaller. Your message is 'go for it'.
But in 2000, 270 churches were closed in the UK (compared with 125 that started). Nearly half of Anglican and a third of Free churches typically attract less than 50 to a Sunday service, with a fifth of Anglican and 15% of Free Churches of less than 25 attenders, suggesting that more closures are on the way. One denomination even has a strategy to allow its smaller congregations to die.
The church of 22 mentioned above is typical of many small churches – maybe you recognise the characteristics?
As Philip Walker, executive director of Healthy Churches says: "Just as in nature, so in the spiritual realm; dying is part of life, sometimes you can't see new life, without death first. It requires a congregation to recognise that it is time for a new thing."
So what should a church leader think through when considering closure? If you were asked for your opinion, what questions would you ask?
1. Look who's talking?
Talk of closure is a painful matter, and a hard subject to broach, especially if perceived as a criticism of the leadership, or a full-time pastor. So the rule of thumb is that if wise people are articulating a concern, it's already become an issue. Talk does not of course mean there is any inevitability about it – raising concerns may lead to a solution. St James' Church, Bourton in Oxfordshire was due to close, but saw a recovery. A church member wrote to the 200 in the village telling them that the church would close without it's help –and now sees 75 attending regularly and money pledged, much to the delight of the vicar. Sometimes serious talk can help air issues that lead to a solution, or encourage a commitment from people who wake up to how they would feel if the church closed.
2. What's expected?
If you are in a large city swimming in churches your expectations regarding size will be different than in a village. In rural areas, you may expect that a church might be small, and so hold lower expectations of a 'full range' of activities meeting the needs of all ages. The church may in practise operate not unlike a small group in a large church, but that needn't be a problem if there's a strong commitment to making the most of the strengths that a small church can bring. It was the writer, G.K. Chesterton who said: 'The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world... In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.' Small churches help us relate with people we may not naturally connect with and value those we wouldn't choose to spend time with.
Expectations need to be checked especially if the church has shrunk from a larger size and sees the smaller size in negative terms, especially if the large seating capacity exaggerates its lack of numbers. Sometimes a simple slimming down of expectations can dispel the sense of gloom.
3. Are there like-minded fellowships nearby?
A classic reason for remaining open is that 'it keeps a witness going' – a reasonable ideal, though of course some churches have all the attractiveness of a morgue. But closure may be judged a wise move if there is a church in close proximity that can also serve the community.
Jonathan Clark was minister of a Surrey village church – the only evangelical church in the village. It was a source of encouragement to evangelical Anglicans who struggled with the stance of a liberal Vicar. But in time, and after Clark left, the Parish Church welcomed an evangelical vicar and numbers dwindled in the independent church. The decision to close was made easier by the presence of a lively Parish church. "It is very hard for a small independent church to remain viable if there's a lively Anglican Church in the village," says Clark. Of course if the idea of a like-minded fellowship is a church that insists on the Authorised Version, chants the psalms, has banned choruses and takes a postmillennial view of the second coming, they will always remain open, and likely, I suggest, to always remain small.
4. Is there vision?
Sometimes vision is missing, because the church has ignored God's direction and lost members as a result - it is small because it is stuck to an insular outmoded pattern. In other cases it is small because of differences of opinion over areas such as the gifts and operation of the Holy Spirit, the role of women, the place of evangelism, the appointment of a member of staff, the failure to deal with a discipline matter that contaminated the fellowship – and sometimes all five!
Some division can be amicable, with the kingdom genuinely benefiting from two witnessing communities, but too often communities (whether leaving or remaining) refuse to deal with underlying causes of dissension, and are thus vulnerable when facing other troubles. Declan Flanagan, chief executive of Rural Ministries, which is involved in establishing and supporting churches in rural areas, says: "It is sometimes almost as if the Holy Spirit has left because of division."
If the church becomes small because of socio-economic changes in the area, the smaller numbers merely expose the lack of vision that was always there, even when numbers were higher. As Philip Walker executive director of Healthy Church says, "I have a gut feel that a church needs to have a major change every 25 years or so, if it is to be able to serve the next generation."
5. Are there willing leaders?
Churches that are structured around, or assume the need for a full-time pastor/minister are especially vulnerable if there iinsufficient leadership to fill the vacuum and an interregnum becomes years rather than months. Within the Free church it can be a depressing business to see prospective ministers decide the church saying, 'is not for them'. Churches may conclude that 'they weren't God's person for us', but members can privately conclude, rather like orphaned children, that 'no one wants us'. Hence conversations with prospective ministers can be instructive, either in changing attitudes, or indeed concluding that maybe the ministry of the church is over. Certainly it is hard to see much future if there aren't keen and committed leaders dedicated to seeing God's work through the church flourish.
6. Is it stewarding resources towards kingdom ends?
Often a lack of money raises issues of closure; maybe the prospect of a major building repair is the last straw, or an inability to pay the pastor is a sure sign that momentum has been lost. Financial shortfalls reveal the true commitment of the fellowship – happy enough to attend services, but not so convinced about the long-term fruitfulness that they open their chequebook.
But if a lengthening overdraft concentrates the mind, it is sadly rare that the church considers whether remaining open is a good use of the resources at its disposal.
In some towns it is clear that massive kingdom advance would be possible if only the growing churches had more resources. For example, a small active but impoverished group of believers with a big vision to reach the town for Christ are in one part of the town. Meanwhile in another part of town a church with a dwindling number of believers meet in a church building on a prime site for real estate, which if sold would release funds for 10 workers for 10 years to work in the town. Doubtless the dwindling church is asking God to bless its labours to reach the town for Christ, unaware that the 'answer' is close at hand. For some churches the most godly, kingdom honouring decision would be to acknowledge that their resources are best deployed in freeing the funds for others to use. Closure could be a massive victory.
7. Is there a sense that their 'mission' is over'?
Hurn Christian Fellowship had a rich past. It was birthed by a stationmaster who held evangelistic meetings in the station waiting room, in the days when trains didn't run on a Sunday in this rural area on the Hampshire/Dorset border. The fellowship grew and moved into a nearby building. It was around 100-strong when Roy Hicks, with his wife Margaret, arrived as Pastor in 1979. Known locally as the 'God is love' church because of an illuminated sign proclaiming this fact in neon light above the front door of the building, for years the church had a faithful ministry principally to the farming and armed services community in the neighbourhood. But in the summer of '79, the local RAF camp found itself housing hundreds of refugees from Vietnam (tagged the 'Vietnamese boat people' in the press). Over the next four years, the fellowship with between 100-150 attending from the camp each Sunday. "In those four years we saw around 250 baptised," explains Roy Hicks. "It was the most amazing time. Some went on to serve the Lord in mission and I am still in touch with a number to this day." This was a church in the right place at the right time.
But in June this year, the church took the decision to close the fellowship, despite still having around 40 in attendance. Its memories of the halcyon years didn't stop the present church from concluding that it was time to stop.
"We needn't conclude that closure is a negative thing," says the Revd Derek Allen, head of head of mission for the Baptist Union of Great Britain. "Some places need to close. Indeed when a denomination urges closure it can be a relief to people who have been battling away out of a sense of duty.
8. Have they asked for help?
Holywood Baptist Church ijust outside Belfast had dwindled to 30 members and knew it was struggling. Young families were unable to afford property in the neighbourhood and some key families had left. The leadership contacted Strandtown Baptist Church, also in their parish and together they agreed to talk through ways in which the larger church (now 350 members) could help them recover. Moving slowly and sensitively, they agreed a process that has now meant the closure of the church, with a view to re-opening in due course. The Holywood leadership and membership has tied in with Strandtown, and the Church will have a fresh slate when it resumes.
The process is ongoing, and no one pretends that this course would be the solution for every small church. Rev Jim Cheshire, associate pastor of Strandtown Baptist Church told Christianity: "They had the courage to ask for our help, and realised they had to let go of the past if there was to be a way forward." ??Many other larger churches have helped their smaller neighbours. Holy Trinity, Brompton(HTB) in west London, best known for launching the phenomenally successful Alpha course, has helped some 10 parishes revive, principally by sending some of its own church members to bolster attendance. Former curates of HTB now pastor churches that formerly struggled
Declan Flanagan of Rural Ministries warns: "Everyone needs to understand that these decisions are very emotional. Often those making them are tired, have high debts, and have been struggling for some time."
For some small churches, it is a case of seeking God for a new approach, or vision for what He has in mind. But for many it will be a case of realising that that in view of the questions above, God's purposes for them and the community will be furthered by them closing. It may be a decision some have come to dread. But it is true that the announcement: 'next month we shall be holding our last service', is the actually the best step forward that the church can make.
Next month we consider how to manage a church closure.