A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I got a letter from her grandmother, who lives in the rural Midwest.
Among the topics that grandmothers talk about, she mentioned that the town’s Catholic church, her home church had closed. The whole town had turned out for a big goodbye picnic. It was sad.
My wife and I can drive across the Midwest, and no matter how rural or isolated the area we are in, every dusty little farm town inevitably has a big old stone or brick Catholic church. I doubt these tiny communities ever would’ve ever raised the money required to build such churches. They exist thanks to the Catholic church’s extraordinarily deep pockets.
These churches are also usually less than half full, except maybe Christmas Eve and Easter. Now this church will soon be emptied of all its furniture. The pews, altar, confessional booth, statues, pulpit, sacristy, candles, and even poor old Jesus nailed to the cross will be taken away to be put in storage.
And in this situation, my wife and I asked each other, “Why did this church need to close?”
Whatever the reason, it’s happening all over the country. And every time a church closes, it sends a message that doesn’t quite seem right. Here’s the message…
You Need a Building to Have Worship
What message does it send when a big church is built in the middle of nowhere? That this is where God is. If you want to worship, you have to come to this building. He’s not in your fields, yards, homes, or anywhere else. If there is no big building with a big mortgage to go with it, you can’t properly worship God.
People know in their minds that God is everywhere, and you don’t have to have a church building to worship. But most don’t believe it in their hearts…not enough to try a house church, or make a house church their exclusive church experience. There is no reason that the church closing should’ve been “goodbye.” But no one thought otherwise. No one in that little farm town is inviting the neighbors over to their house for worship on Sunday. Now that the church is closed, worship and fellowship go in the storage closet.
You Need a Full Time Pastor / Priest
I suppose one of the reasons the rural church closed is because a full time priest could not be found to live in the parsonage and make a living off the meager offerings the faithful can scrape together. The message is that if there are not enough people to support a building and a pastor’s salary, then church cannot happen. God forbid the ten townsfolk meet on Sunday without a priest or pastor, and one of the old farmers reads a passage out of his own Bible, and says a prayer.
I have all the respect in the world for men and women who occupy themselves full time with ministry. But I am also proud of the fact that I support myself financially, and lot more of us are going to have to get used to having bi-vocational pastors. If we think having “church” requires a full time pastor, we’re going to see a lot more churches close.
Self Storage Jesus
What happened to that rural church isn’t unique. It’s happening all over the country.
What happened was that fifty or a hundred years ago, churches were built all over the country that probably couldn’t be sustained by the towns they were in. Some people came to church out of habit or cozy ritual. Most people liked having a church in town, even though they slept in on Sundays. But the day that the church closed, everyone in town showed up. They hadn’t shown up all those years to actually support the church in a meaningful way. They kept their faith in a storage building. Most storage buildings look like garages. This storage building looked like a church.
Like so many other dusty old belongings people keep, they weren’t willing to throw Jesus away, but they didn’t really want to look at him either…Jesus just sat in storage, taking up space.
And then when the church really was being put in a storage closet, no one felt anything could be done. I might have thought that surely, a bunch of grown adults who have gone to church their entire lives would be moved by the Spirit to have worship together without a priest or a building…but apparently, I would be wrong.
And that seems to be the fruit of the whole endeavor. Without the exterior trappings and rituals, most people won’t bother.
What do you think? If your church closed, and there were no other options, would you invite everyone to your house on Sundays? Would you be willing to lead worship if your church couldn’t find a pastor?