Sadness saturated the sanctuary’s air. The room was designed to seat two-hundred people, but only eleven were present. The church’s layout was traditional—pulpit at the intersection of a cross-shaped floor plan; five-row choir loft in the apse; worn, light brown pews filling the transepts and nave. I sat to the right of the stage. My two team members stood in front of the pulpit. One was fielding questions; the other was behind him nodding in support. The three of us had been recruited to help the eight remaining congregants decide what to do with the building now that their church was closing.
“The new people need to wait before they start throwing everything away,” an elderly woman sitting in the fourth pew from the front said. “Some of this stuff is mine.” Her arms were folded. Her mouth was cemented into a scowl.
“What stuff do you mean?” my partner asked gently. He was a tall and stately man with a calming demeanor.
“Like all those pictures in the Sunday school room,” the elderly woman snapped. “I bought those with my own money and I want them back. I don’t want anyone to just throw them out. Those are mine.”
“How much longer do I need to keep mowing the lawn?” another elderly woman interjected. She was stocky and gruff with strong forearms.
“No one will throw anything away before you’ve had time to walk through the building,” my partner assured the first woman. Then turning to the second, he said, “If you could keep it up until the exchange is final, we would appreciate it.”
“That’s fine,” the gruff woman replied.
Generations ago the church had been packed with people. Now only eight remained, but none of them sat next to each other. They were scattered throughout the room: some on the aisles, some in the middle of pews. It seemed odd until I closed my eyes and imagined the space full. Then I understood. These were their seats—the places each one had sat, every Sunday, for decades. At one time they had been surrounded by friends and family. Now they were alone, in empty pews, shoulder to shoulder with memories.
“What about the piano?” the first elderly woman griped. “My Harry bought that over twenty years ago. I don’t want it just thrown away.”
“No one is going to hurt your piano, Doris,” said another member sadly, eyes full of regret. “I’ll get Billy to come and get it.” The speaker was younger, probably in her early fifties. She sat in the front row, leaning forward.
“I just want to make sure our things are respected,” Doris replied defensively. “We don’t know these people. They are just going to come in here and riffle through all our stuff.”
“I promise Pastor Eric and his team will respect your things,” my partner said soothingly. “He isn’t going to touch anything until you’ve said it is okay for him to come in.”
My team had arranged for a church planter to come and take over the space in a few months. His current church location was fifteen minutes east. He hoped someday to restart worship services in the building, but for the time being he was going to use the space to board missionaries and store supplies.
“What about the money left in the budget?” an older man raised his hand and asked.
My partner didn’t even need to look at his notes to answer; he knew the answer by heart. This question had been asked at every meeting. The assets hadn’t changed.
As my partner spoke, I grabbed the hymnal in the pew in front of me and thumbed through it. A thick film of dust caused the pages to stick together. I was surprised to find a church bulletin lodged in the back. It was over fifteen years old. The sermon that week was titled, “Finding Rest on the Sabbath.” Inside the bulletin, a young child had doodled pictures with red and blue crayons. I looked through the room and wondered how long it had been since the space had felt the bouncing laughter of kids or the pounding of small running feet.
“Our goal here is to make sure ministry continues from this location,” my partner said to the room. He was wrapping up, so I tuned back in. “We want the message of Jesus to continue to be brought to this community. That’s the important thing. The new church will respect your heritage. Your legacy is important. But it needs to be a foundation for future work.”
My partner then asked for the room to join him in prayer. I kept my eyes open and surveyed the room as everyone else bowed their heads. I wondered: What happened here? What went wrong?
At some point this cross shaped room had been full of life. The congregation was growing. People in the pews encountered God on a weekly basis. Lives were changed. But now, all that remained were shadows of glory days past. How does a vibrant community, living out a mission of love, sharing a message of new life evolve into an abandon home?
Who is to blame? Was it the possessive grandmother? The gruff gardener? Had there been a bad leader or a string of bad leaders who should be held accountable? Is it because the congregation as a whole lost sight of God’s mission in this world? There was no major scandal in the congregation’s history. No huge fight in their business meeting records. The decline seemed simple: year after year, more people died than joined.
If the death is not the fault of the members or the leadership, then is God to blame? It is his church, after all. Did he decide to vacate this place, but neglected to tell anyone? Was the death of this congregation some weird piece of a master plan we are to dense to understand?
When my partner said, “Amen,” the eight members raised their heads, rose from their seats, and slowly began to leave. It was only then, after seeing the grief in their eyes and the slump of their shoulders that I felt called to pray. I waited for the room to empty. Once I was alone, I dropped to me knees in the aisle and asked, “Can these bones live?”
As small and midsized churches in America continue to face extinction, this scene in the cross shaped room will play out again and again. In each one, young leaders will sit in the room and wonder: What happened? Where did things go bad? Whose fault is this?
In those moments, we must remember that our God is a God of new life. He calls dry bones to stand, causes water to flow from rocks, and rolls grave stones aside. He has defeated death and his mission to restore the world to himself will not be slowed. We may not know what caused a church to close or who is to blame; but we can be assured that nothing is impossible for him, even the resurrection of the dead.