Small churches tend to become a family. The membership of such churches would rather lose a limb than close the doors on the church. When a church drops to a very low level of attendees, the questions always begin to swirl about whether it would be better to close the doors or to continue operation. Several factors need to be considered in making this difficult choice. Having been involved with the rescuing and the closing of several small congregations over the past 30 years, I believe that I have some insight into this situation.
First, it has to be determined what constitutes a congregation small enough to consider closing the doors. I have seen churches of ten attendees that thought a church of twenty-five was a large strong congregation. Likewise, the congregation of twenty-five sees the church with an average attendance of fifty as a big church. From the other direction, a church of several thousand would see a church of a few hundred as a small congregation.
Rules have to be established that reach beyond just the numbers to arrive at a fair conclusion about how to handle a small church. While the number of attendees is important, several other factors need to be weighed into the formula. The first area to be considered would be outstanding debt. If the church is debt-free, it can go a lot longer on fewer people because the financial needs are less.
Next, it is a good idea to examine the overall financial health of the church. Is it viable? Can it pay its bills not counting salaries? If a church can no longer support its insurance, utilities, literature, and other type expenses, its survival is highly questionable.
Does the church belong to a fellowship or denomination? If it is an independent church, it is unlikely to have anyone who can come and prime the financial pump. This means if the church is faltering financially, it will be better to close it sooner than later.
If the church has an affiliation with a larger body, the parent church may have reasons beyond the size or financial strength of the church to keep a presence in an area. For example, it may view the church as a mission to an underprivileged area or a special situation like a college or military base. The church may also be seen as a beach head in new field. Keeping it open is the way for the parent church to continue ministry to an area it deems important.
Another important consideration has to do with the relationships within the congregation. Does everyone get along, or is the church a battle zone for territorial Christians? Troubled churches are rarely regarded as salvageable if the number of attendees falls below twenty or so. No one wants to risk losing people who might want to affiliate with a new congregation if the old church is disbanded. So, closing the church can be a way of preserving a fruitful future congregation.
If the property is in bad condition, a small group of twenty or less may be a target for disbanding. Many denominations have far more resources, both money and talent, available for a new work than a struggling existing church. This makes closing the church an attractive option. It is even more likely if the property is in an area where land is expensive. By closing the old church, the building can be razed and a new facility built for a new church. This will change the view of the local citizens toward the church. It will be seen as a new and exciting opportunity to attend and worship with a new congregation in a new facility.
Finally, and this might be better a little higher on the list, is the church actually able to have worship services that others will want to attend, and is it ministering to its community? These are generally considered the two signs that a group of people is a church. Without both of these facets, the group is a club or fraternal organization.
Making a decision to close a church is always difficult. Following the above guidelines can help make the decision a little easier. A group of ten that is financially viable and continues to perform meaningful Christian service should be allowed to stay in business. However, a church of 200 that is disruptive and financial unstable may be better off disbanded.