Voices

Locked from the inside

Get ready, America, for a tidal wave of church closings

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

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.

Nor do I mean through such recollection to trivialize what is in fact happening right now in many places of the world. Church doors are indeed being locked in more places than we like to think, as Christians are being told forcefully that they may not openly practice their faith.

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.

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I thought of this a few days ago when I saw a pasteboard sign on a stick in front of the attractive Methodist church in our neighborhood. It's one of at least a dozen churches that for 29 years we've driven by on our way to our own church across town-but I'd never had reason to stop in. The sign advertised a country steak dinner that evening, so I suggested to my wife that she skip cooking that night and that we make a point of getting to know a few of our neighbors. The $6-a-plate price seemed more than fair.

Now, I know that dinner fundraisers have been a tradition at churches across the country for a long time. But aren't they supposed to be something of a celebration? This was neither a jubilant nor a successful event. In a church whose sanctuary must seat 200, not more than two dozen people were seated for the dinner-and tellingly, almost all of them were older than I was. The atmosphere was dutiful, dark, and laborious, and no one offered a handshake.

My wife and I sat down opposite a couple and introduced ourselves. He was a widower in his 80s; she was his daughter. They made this annual dinner part of their regular schedule, though they were not Methodists but Baptists from across town. Did they know the folks in this church? Indeed, but there were, they said, only about 25 of them left on any given Sunday morning. Indeed, the same thing was true in their own church. The aura of dying was everywhere.

Get ready, America. Get ready for the huge collapse from within that is soon to result in the locking of hundreds and then thousands of church doors across our country-all from the inside.

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.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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