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Can Dying Congregations Die a 'Good' Death?

Once-mainline churches are now not only "sideline," but they are increasingly closing their doors.

While many worshippers are saddened by the process, sometimes it is possible to find new life, even new Christian life, for church buildings whose original congregations can no longer sustain worship.

In Mark 8:34-5, Jesus tells his disciples that any who wish to follow him must deny themselves, and any who wish to save their lives must lose their lives for Christ's and the gospel's sake. Of course Jesus was speaking to individuals — even if it was a crowd of individuals. But what does it mean for a church to decide to lose its life for the sake of the gospel? That's the question Rev. Cheryl M. Lawrence found herself asking in the context of her first pastorate — an elderly congregation of 40 members worshipping in a sanctuary meant for 500.  The question came to a head when a new-church start of Zimbabean Methodists asked to rent space in the largely empty, three-storey Carr United Methodist Church located in east Durham, North Carolina, and then outgrew its small worship chapel. Lawrence shares the experience with Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

"Clearly, it made no sense for a thriving congregation to be squashed in their worship space while 30 people knocked around upstairs in a sanctuary built for 500," she wrote.

Though it was not easy, eventually Carr UMC's members realized that "most members cared more about their relationship with one another and leaving behind a United Methodist legacy than hanging on to a building." As a result, they gave the building, its furnishings, and the next-door parsonage to the Zimbabean congregation, worshiped another two years in borrowed space, and closed. For more resources for church change leaders, see our feature article, "Best Resources on Leadership."

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