Locked from the inside
Get ready, America, for a tidal wave of church closings [Excerpts]
For those of us who were children of the '40s or '50s, it wasn't uncommon to worry a little at the thought that a fierce cadre of Russian communist soldiers might suddenly burst through the doors of our church, arrest the pastor, and lock the place up. Especially because our pastor was also my father, I remember that we kids from time to time discussed what our options might be in the case that religious persecution might come to our very doorstep.
But in our own setting these days, I think we Americans should worry a good bit more about another trend that I doubt we're prepared for. That movement is the locking of thousands of church doors from the inside, just because there are so few folks in there to keep things going.
The trend is already well under way, of course, in Roman Catholic circles. In Boston, in Toledo, and in St. Louis, parishioners are protesting, but to no avail. They don't buy their bishops' arguments that priest shortages, dwindling finances, rising maintenance and utility costs, and shifting populations are forcing once familiar facilities to be boarded up. From the vigor of the protests, you'd think that hundreds of thousands of folks had been displaced—but it was the emptiness of the pews in the first place that produced the phenomenon.
Mainline churches, like the Methodist church in my own neighborhood, will not be far behind. Denominational treasuries simply aren't up to the task of sustaining ministry personnel and facility upkeep for neighborhood "franchises" that can't carry their own weight. When the 25 elderly people who gather now each week dwindle to a dozen, someone will have to pay the piper. And someone will have also to figure out who will mow the lawn of the church that isn't being used anymore.
And then -- sooner than you think -- it will be the turn of the evangelical churches as well. Thousands of them, too, are teetering on the edge of their existence. Stick your head in the door on a typical Sunday, and see how many children are around. If you were a regional manager for McDonald's, you'd close the place in a jiffy. Except for the grit and determination of a few old stalwarts, it would already have happened. But there's no promise for the future.
Go to your Google search engine and enter "church closings." This morning I got 508,000 responses. A few of them had to do with finding out who was closing in case of snow or ice. Most of the entries, though, are about a much, much worse storm that is brewing (Belz, "World Magazine," Oct 29, 2005).