Most of us have read the statistics about how many churches are likely to close over the next 3-5 years.  Although the various studies come up with different totals, all of the figures are staggering.  To make matters worse, it’s already clear that the hit many of our smaller churches are taking as a result of the pandemic will make those totals run even higher.

Those of us who are leaders and members of smaller churches – especially those whose membership is 50 or less – have probably had a moment in the past few months when we’ve thought, “What if we’re one of those churches?  What should we do?  What can we do?”

There are two major choices you can make.  You can decide to keep going as you have, watching the numbers continue to dwindle and wait until the inevitable happens and you close your doors.  Or you can decide to engage the issue head on in faith, making decisions that will benefit God’s purposes for a much longer time.

Most of us are also familiar with some version of the diagram that shows the life cycle of a church.  Modeled after the life cycle of living things, they can be a really helpful tool as we think about what our current metrics tell us about the health and vitality of our congregation.

If I had the power to do it, though, I would recall every last one of those diagrams and make one critical change that would improve them all.

Every version of the diagram charts how congregations are born, grow, plateau, decline, and die.  It’s that last stage I’d want to change, because “die” sounds so final. “Die” sounds like the end.

But that flies in the face of one of the deepest beliefs I’ve held for as long as I’ve worked with congregations. Every congregation always has faithful options for its future from which to choose.  This belief holds true no matter how small its membership is, how little energy it has, or how strained its finances are.

The word I want to substitute for “die” is “legacy.”  As it comes toward the end of its life, every congregation has the opportunity to leave a legacy.

When great sports star or political leaders are interviewed toward the end of their active careers, the interviewer almost always asks “What is the legacy you want to leave?” 

A true leader won’t respond to that question by recounting all her accomplishments during her career.  Rather, she’ll talk about what doors she hopes she has opened for younger people coming up behind her or what kind of impact she hopes the foundation she’s founding will have on the community in which she was raised.

They talk about how they imagine their mission will continue beyond their own lifespan.

Churches who may be nearing the end of their active years of service can also think about the mission they hope will continue beyond their own lifespan and the ways they can support that continuing mission.

A Southern Baptist church in Mississippi knew their small white congregation couldn’t keep going much longer.  They had been sharing space with a younger African-American congregation who, even though they were growing in size and in witness, couldn’t afford a church building. 

The older congregation decided their legacy would be to give their buildings to the younger church, so that a thriving Christian witness would continue to be shared with the neighborhood around them long after they were gone.

A Presbyterian church in California sold its building years ago and worshipped in a neighborhood school. They had been looking for a new site on which to rebuild that would better position them to serve their city.  After years of searching, they grew weary and knew they didn’t have the numbers or the energy to continue. 

They decided their legacy would be to support three non-profits who provided ministries the church had long supported.  They worked with their denomination’s foundation to set up endowments to support a food bank, a school for the children of homeless parents, and the denomination’s disaster response agency.

In reflecting on their legacy, one of the church’s members said, “You know, that means St Stephens is going to be helping to promote God’s love in the world in all of these ways forever, until Christ comes again.”

Every church closes its doors eventually.  After all, not a single church that St. Paul founded still exists.  But what a legacy the apostle left through the impact he had on church leaders coming up behind him.

Every church may eventually close, but every church also has the opportunity to make faithful choices that leave its own legacy for the future.

CHC has several consultants who have walked alongside of congregations as they have made similarly faithful choices.  We would count it as a privilege to be able to walk alongside of your congregation’s leaders as they plan for ways your particular commitments to ministry and mission can last beyond your own church’s lifetime.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.