In the Northeast District of The Iowa Annual Conference, there is a tiny church called Oran United Methodist Church. When I first heard about the church last fall, there were just two members at Oran, Dorothy and Mildred, who are in their 80’s. They faithfully attended church every Sunday, and Fred and Sue had been leading worship for the past four years.
The church was slated to close in 2011 because of the decline. Of the four remaining members, two wanted to close and Dorothy and Mildred wanted to remain open, even though there was no running water in the church building. When it was too cold or snowy, they worshipped in town at Fred and Sue’s home. In 2015, Oran UMC celebrated its 100th anniversary, with seven people in attendance. They were very happy to receive a 100th anniversary certificate from the conference.
Rev. Jackie Bradford, Superintendent of the Northeast District, didn’t have the heart to shut the doors. After all, Dorothy and Mildred took care of all the bills for the church, covered 100% of their apportionments, paid their pastor, and gave to missions. And they were evangelists, too! Last summer at the Oran town festival, Dorothy and Alice passed out water bottles and a little wooden knick-knack with the name of the church on it.
All I could do is marvel. Two faithful women gathering to worship and serve. I suspect they just wanted to keep going until they die so that their funerals could be held in their beloved church building. Where two or three are gathered, right? But are lives being changed? Is the gospel being shared? Is any kind of vision being realized? Is it really a church if we are no longer able or willing to see our communities with new eyes and reach them with Christ’s love? There are not always easy answers.
Life is a continual process of beginnings and endings, sowing and reaping, taking hold and letting go, life and death. In the past several months, I have been astounded by the number of businesses and organizations that are downsizing, shifting, reinventing themselves, or just plain closing. The times they are a-changin’!
Come gather round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan, 1964
It began with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which announced in December that the company was going to close by May of 2017. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitechapel is the oldest manufacturing company in Britain, having opened in 1570 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Big Ben in London is the most famous Whitechapel bell ever cast, with the 1752 Liberty Bell in Philadelphia a close second. The ringing of church bells in communities around the world has always been a witness to God’s presence and love, but the times, they are a-changin’!
But, that’s just the beginning. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced on January 14 that after 146 years in business, they are going to close in May. The reason: declining tickets sales, high operating costs, and retiring its elephant act last year because of a suit brought by animal rights activists. The Greatest Show on Earth is coming to an end.
There’s more. As the new year began, a seeming avalanche of retailers announced plans to close stores in light of the changing shopping habits of young people and falling sales. J.C. Penny will close 130-140 stores this year, which is 13-14% of its locations. Macy’s is closing 100 or 15% of its stores, and Sears is closing 30 stores by April.
The mall anchor store closings are creating a ripple effect. CVS is closing stores in 70 locations. In January, The Limited closed all 250 of its stores, and Wet Seal closed all 171 stores. BCBG is closing 120 stores and filed for bankruptcy on March 1 for the third time in two years.
None of these businesses wanted to close or downsize, but they realized that the times, they are a-changin’. Of course, faith-based organizations are not exempt from necessary endings, either. On February 23, Family Christian Stores, which has claimed to be “the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” announced that it will be closing all 240 stores in 36 states. The reasons are familiar: “changing consumer behavior and declining sales.” Three thousand employees will be affected.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Of course, the church has not escaped the changing times, either. Over the past ten years the number of United Methodist churches that are closing has accelerated. Most congregations, like all human beings, come to an end. There is a lifecycle to a church, and when a congregation begins to decline and is not able to reinvent itself and start a new lifecycle, it will die.
The pace of change in our world is so fast today that many of our churches are simply not able to or refuse to adapt. Shifting demographics, increasing cultural and ethnic diversity, lack of missional focus, and huge gaps between the spiritual preferences and needs of the elderly and young adults overwhelm congregations that are not prepared to change.
Endings in churches are natural occurrences, just as they are in other organizations and the created world. Blindly keeping on when all other options are exhausted and there is no realistic chance of revival is not really hope. Congregations that know when “it’s time” can choose to leave a legacy by gifting their building for a new church start or offering their assets for new faith communities elsewhere in the conference. They can celebrate their ministries over the years and lives that have been changed and then commission remaining members to become active in other churches.
On the other hand, I have seen churches of all sizes rise from the dead and start a new lifecycle when no one imagined there was any hope left. I have also been a part of congregations that refused to fold and found a way to bring new vision, Holy Spirit energy, and motivation to their ministry. But it doesn’t usually happen unless the leaders say no to toxic cultures and mistrust, say yes to a clear vision, mission, and strategic priorities, and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach their communities with Christ’s love.
The line it is drawn,
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changin’.
Last week District Superintendent Jackie went to Mildred’s home to conduct a church conference because Dorothy and Mildred decided it was finally time to close the church. Worship leaders Fred and Sue had gone south for six weeks, and Mildred was not able to get out to church anymore. There are two potential buyers for the building.
As Mildred and Dorothy reminisced and shared memories, they expressed no regrets. After all, the church had been open for 101 years, and with every organization there does come the moment to admit that the times they are a changin’. Mildred and Dorothy are going to attend different churches from now on, but their friendship will remain forever. In Jackie’s words, it was a “God-inspired time.”
Jackie has taken a lot of good-natured razzing over the last several years for allowing a church to remain open for two members. But she has no regrets. Besides, it wasn’t quite time. As one of our other district superintendents prayed for the closing of Oran last week, she said, “The ministry of the Oran United Methodist Church that has changed lives for one hundred and one years will continue to transform our world through their witness to God’s love.” Love remains, even as the times they are a changin’.