This past Sunday, I had one of those conversations that grieved me.
Not in the sense of a breaking relationship or trouble for myself or my congregation, but trouble for another church about an hours drive from me.
One of the son-in-laws of one of my members approached me and asked me to pray for his little congregation. They have dwindled substantially in the past several years and are now facing the real possibility of closing. It's a congregation with a long history, and, unfortunately, it might be ending. According to the gentleman I visited with, the synod office basically advised them to close their doors.
This grieved me.
I do not believe congregations need to close. Even those who cannot afford a full time, part time, or even a supply pastor. I believe just about every congregation can grow and thrive regardless of the circumstances--especially if that congregation puts its trust in the power and promise of the Holy Spirit.
No one has asked me for advice on what to do in this situation, but with just the limited amount of information I have, here's what I would suggest:
#1. Spend some intentional time in prayer asking God to reveal His purpose for the church. Really be open to His prompting. Don't have a preconceived idea of what He wants you to do. Don't come up with an idea and then ask His blessing upon it. Seek how He might be calling you to spread the good news of His Son in your community. Don't think you are going to change the world or the community, but think about how God might need you to make an impact in individual lives around you--starting with your neighbors, your friends, and your family.
#2. Don't rely upon the synod office or a clergy person to turn the church around and make things happen. The Holy Spirit is gifted to EVERY believer at baptism. EVERY believer has the opportunity to read, interpret and share God's Word. Have a group of designated elders who lead sharing God's Word at worship. It doesn't have to be a formal sermon in any sense of the word. Just read a Gospel lesson, look at the congregation and ask, "What does this teaching have to do with us today? How does it apply to our lives today?" Don't try to get fancy. Don't worry about the historical context of when the teaching occurred. Don't worry about the many layers of interpretation that have come down through the ages. Let those who are gathered for worship add their comments and questions throughout the "sermon." Let the Word of God become alive and living with all the members in attendance. YOU DO NOT NEED A CLERGY TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN!
#3. Take a hard look at the hospitality you offer to one another and to those who come into your midst. Most churches believe they are friendly, and to an extent, they are. But people pick up on subtle clues. For instance, when I was in seminary, I supplied for a local country parish on a semi-regular basis. One Sunday, they had a pot-luck following worship. My wife and I were invited. Congregation members had told us how nice it was we were with them and how much they appreciate me helping them out. They asked me to lead the prayer for the pot-luck and then they allowed my wife and I to go through the line first. We did and proceeded to sit down at one of the tables in the fellowship hall. There were two sets of long tables, and we sat at the end of one. All of the chairs filled up long before someone actually came and sat down beside my wife and I. The actions of the church spoke much louder than their words. True hospitality neither smothers nor ignores guests. There is a delicate balance that is walked, and many congregations truly need to take a hard look at how folks are welcomed.
#4. Take a good hard look at how important your faith and worship life really is. Is church something you "do" when you have spare time? How committed are you to being in worship on a VERY regular basis? Can you invite others to focus on God's love if it isn't first important to you? Commitment is a thing that is rarely seen in our day and age. See if you need to re-discover it.
I wouldn't go much further than this. Are there other things to cover? Sure. But I don't believe it takes much for a congregation to begin spreading the Gospel and beginning to grow. God has a habit of working through people who place Him and His will first in their lives and in the life of their churches.