Closing Churches: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

With the coming of autumn this month, one of Robert Frost’s little poems, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” comes to mind.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.

Death is written across God’s creation. Sin has made it this way. The seedling becomes a tree; the tree is harvested and becomes lumber for a house. The pink-cheeked baby becomes a man; the man gets old and dies. The bright shiny shoes on the little ballerina no longer fit and are replaced.

In my ministry as district president, one of the saddest experiences I have is participating in the closing of a church. The church may be 125 years old or 40 years old, but after years of life together around Word and Sacrament, spanning generations, the church simply cannot make it any longer. To witness the tearful vote to close down a church is like being with a family when a loved one dies. It may be just a handful of people who make the agonizing final decision.

With the decision to close come such tasks as getting official church records archived, transferring members to another church, disposing of property and gathering for a final Divine Service. As at a funeral, people come back from all over, now to worship one last time in their home church. My home church in Chicago closed a few years ago. They ran out of people, money and a way to connect meaningfully with a changing community. It broke my heart. Whenever in Chicago, I try to drive by the building and a flood of memories always comes along with a few deep sighs.

“Nothing gold can stay.” That includes the newly planted church fresh to the communion of saints and its community. It will go through the stages of a church’s life cycle and may or may not find a way to stay alive, grow and do what churches do – gather around Word and Sacrament with the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Should it die, its death will sting.

I want you to know that we in the Minnesota South District office will do everything we can to help struggling churches continue in ministry. Our Legacy Churches Summit later this fall (Saturday, Nov. 9) will offer churches worshiping under 50 per weekend alternative approaches to keeping their Word and Sacrament ministry at work in their community. Yes, it’s true that individual churches have life spans and they may come and go. And yes, the specific seven churches of ancient Asia Minor addressed in the book of Revelation are no longer there. Yet our hearts break when a community loses a church that presents Law and Gospel in its preaching and the Word and the Sacraments in all their beauty and power. Often the church which closes may be the only Christian church in a community.

In the face of all of this, the words of Christ bring such confidence. In speaking of the church, He says to Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18b).

Churches may die, but the church lives on. “The kingdom ours remianeth!” Some gold, it seems, can stay.