Preventing Close-Out Sales

Have you ever gone to a local store that is closing because they are having a close-out sale? You know, they have hired a company to come out and hang up big signs and mark down their merchandise in order to liquidate it, and (at least it seems like this to me) sometimes bring in merchandise that did not sell someplace else?

If you were a loyal customer of that store, the owner and staff probably welcome you to that sale. You can commiserate with them about how the times are changing and that people just don’t shop locally anymore. But if you rarely or never patronized that store, don’t you feel just a little bit guilty or vulture-like if you swoop in only when the prices have been slashed? It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol where people come in to steal the bed curtains from around the dead body of Ebenezer Scrooge. They did not visit him when he was alive, but now that he’s dead, there is a reason to go there.

Unfortunately, the reason this image has come to mind for me lately is that I have spent a fair number of Sundays in the last two years at the closing worship services for some of our Presbytery of Chicago congregations. In every case, the leaders of these congregations did what they knew how to do in order to keep their churches afloat. But changes in the way people interact with the world outside of their homes and their phones, aging buildings, aging congregations, and sheer exhaustion have just gotten the better of them.

A few Sundays before that closing service, there may have been as few as five people in those sanctuaries. But in every case that I have seen, the sanctuary is full on that last Sunday; and nobody traveled on an airplane to get there. They are all people who live locally and have a warm spot in their heart for that church. They want to be sure to be there on what may be their last occasion to be in the building. They want to remember their wedding or their Sunday School class or to see one last time the window dedicated to their grandparent. They thought the church would always be there and it made them feel better about the community to know that it was.

But that warm feeling and that sense of the church being an asset to the community did not influence their behavior in the last decades. They did not go to worship there. They did not contribute financially. They did not make suggestions about how the church might become more relevant in its community. Instead, they just gather at the deathbed and take away the valuable memories.

What to do, what to do? How can we help to prevent more of our congregations from becoming a stale symbol of what used to be valued? Gil Rendle, a well-known and respected church consultant, suggests asking three basic questions.

1) Who are we? That is, analyze your assets as a congregation.

Perhaps it is the location or the space that can be provided for community groups or the huge music library. Perhaps it is the cadre of retired teachers who still know how to encourage young people to learn, or the huge church kitchen and a patient person who could help provide food for hungry neighbors, or the insightful pastor who knows how to make the gospel come alive. Perhaps it is simply the deep faith of members that cannot be contained.

2) Who are our neighbors? And no one is allowed to start their answer with “I remember when…”

Do a demographic study, or hang out at the grocery store, or talk to the local elementary school principal. Who lives in your neighborhood? What do they need? What prevents them from living as freed and forgiven children of God?

3) What is God calling us to do? How do our assets match up with the needs of our neighbors?

In other words, why has God placed us where we are and helped us to survive? How will we share the gospel with our neighbors in a way that will change their lives?

The trend among all churches in North America is decline. When we meet for worship on a Sunday morning, we are doing a counter-cultural thing. So why not be even more counter-cultural? That is, counter to the culture of your church? What needs to be done that would make your grandma roll over in her grave? How can you share the gospel in a way that will have impact but makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Who can you invite into the life of your church that will make the curmudgeon on your session threaten to quit? Is it worth the risk? Can you save me from attending more closing worship services? Can you continue to find a way to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
The Rev. Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago