For years we drove past this old, abandoned church just north of I-80 near Milford, Nebraska. It was always a lonely vista but it was just one among many. I have often wondered about it, briefly, as we have driven west from Lincoln. Usually, however, it becomes just one among a number of lonely places on the plains. The wind keeps blowing and towns come and go. Just today I did not see it for myself this year but I read that they finally tore it down. It lasted longer than I thought it would.
This summer we spent some time on state and federal highways, away from the interstate, and I was struck by the number of abandoned churches in neglected towns. I’ve been driving through small towns for many years. I’m not sure whether the number of abandoned church buildings has increased or if this is the first time I noticed.
There was a time when those buildings were filled with the sounds of children laughing, people praying, and church suppers. Today, the only sounds one hears from those buildings are the wind and creaking frames as gravity weighs on them. What happened to the people? They moved on. Just as the railroad brought prosperity to some towns as it bypassed others, so interstate and airports do today—think of I-40 and Route 66. In other places the farm economy won’t sustain the town. People move on. Towns die and congregations with them.
We may think of those church buildings and towns, however, as an illustration of what happens to churches when they lose their sense of mission, when they forget why they originally existed and the reasons that Christ established his church. Drifting happens. I recall stopping in Nevada a couple of hours north of Las Vegas, during a windstorm, only to see t-shirt clad people just wandering aimlessly across the highway seemingly oblivious to the natural sandblasting going on. There are congregations that wander aimlessly. They no longer remember why they exist or they’ve reoriented their purpose. They’re no longer animated by the mission of reaching the lost and teaching those reached (i.e., nurturing covenant families). They’re no longer oriented to the mission. They’ve become museums, intent on hanging on to and dusting what they’ve accomplished or gathered.
Sometimes the loss of mission happens because congregations and denominations stop believing the faith. Infidelity has consequences. Look at the statistics for the Seven Sisters of the mainline. The PCUSA is a shell of its former self. Were it not for ancient endowments one suspects that some, perhaps many of those “tall steeple” churches would be sold to groups who still believe the faith. The shrinking membership certainly don’t encourage a congregation to become latitudinarian and modernist. Broad is the way of demographic destruction. How many mainline congregations are there in the USA with 7 blue-haired ladies and a minister who visits once a month?
Sometimes the original sense of congregational mission erodes so subtly that no one notices. “Let’s go forward” becomes “let’s hang on to what we have.” At times, “let’s go tell them” becomes “let them come to us.” The original animating sense that reaching the lost and discipling the reached (and their children) is “our vocation” becomes the sense that it’s “their vocation.”
One reason for this transition is that congregations begin to fear losing members and not being able to continue. This is an understandable concern. There is an institutional aspect to the visible church. There are budgets to be met and realities to be faced. There are, however, good reasons not to fret too much. For one thing, the same Lord who commissioned his church has promised to provide. Second, the church isn’t ours to preserve and polish. It’s Christ’s. Third, reaching out isn’t about outcomes. It’s about process and attitude. It’s an odd thing but it often seems that when congregations are oriented to reaching out, to communicating the gospel to the community around them, the Lord often sends people other than the ones being targeted. This is the irony of those carefully planned, demographically specific, evangelism plans. The sovereign Holy Spirit blows, as it were, where he wills. You don’t know where he’s been or where he’s going. He uses a foolish message (and messengers) to do surprising things in unexpected ways.
I’m thinking about a stance toward the surrounding community, an attitude or orientation within the congregation and its leadership. Why are we here? What are we doing? Now that we’re stable where can we plant the next congregation? Of course, this is not always possible in every case. In those small western and midwestern towns through which we drive each year, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for church planting. There are many places where there are no true churches, no confessional Reformed congregations preaching the law and the gospel, administering the sacraments purely, and administering discipline.
Church buildings may be abandoned for unavoidable reasons but congregations can avoid abandoning and they can recover their twofold mission, if they remember how gracious the Lord was to them. He did not deliver us from Egypt, as it were, because we were more numerous than the other nations. He delivered us because he is gracious. It will also help if we remember that there are many others who know nothing about Christ and his gospel because they have no one to tell them.