"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” --Matthew 16:18, NIV
When Jesus made this promise, he was certainly referring to the church universal rather than individual congregations. There were many churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece, and elsewhere that flourished in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection that no longer exist. Were they vital and effective fellowships in their day? Of course they were, but times changed and the individuals (and sometimes buildings) of those churches have passed from the scene.
Although we may not want to admit it, not every local congregation is going to exist forever. Economic, demographic and even political shifts may affect the viability of a congregation.
The church in Mobile, Alabama, that nurtured me and ordained me to the ministry no longer exists. About 30 years ago, the congregation chose to sell their building and merge with another church. It was a difficult but necessary decision.
Congregational transitions such as this call for a specialized ministry. Increasingly, it is clear that we need transitional pastors and consultants who can serve as “hospice chaplains” for congregations who desire to “die with dignity.” Some denominations are beginning to address this need.
There are many options for the church whose life is no longer sustainable.
Leave a legacy. The church may decide to sell its building and give the proceeds of the sale to a ministry or institution which members value.
Merger. The church may choose to invite another congregation to join them in their present facility or members may relinquish the building and unite with another congregation.
Death and rebirth. The present congregation may “go out of business” and allow a church with a different vision for ministry to take over the facility.
Repurpose. A remnant of the congregation may continue to worship in the facility, but the majority of the property is given over to other congregations, ministries (such as a clinic or homeless shelter), or community activities.
No matter what happens to the participants and the facilities, the transitional pastor or consultant has two primary tasks: first, provide pastoral care for the present members by assuring that they find a place to worship and work through their grief; second, assure that the physical resources and facilities are used to benefit the work of the Kingdom. These tasks require both a pastoral heart and a visionary spirit.