By Chris Markert, Bishop’s Associate for Mission
Like every living thing, churches have a life cycle. Some might have longer life cycles, and others shorter ones. Sometimes in its life cycle, a congregation is able to re-imagine mission and restore a sense of vision that leads to renewal. Other times, a congregation is required to make the sad but faithful decision to close after years of sharing the Gospel with the local community.
Recently, Lakeside Lutheran Church in League City, Texas voted to close after many years of vital mission. It wasn’t an easy decision. Not everyone was ready to support the vote. And there were quite a few emotions experienced by members – grief, anger, relief, confusion, anxiety about the future. This is not unlike when there is a death of loved one.
When a congregation finds itself at a crossroads where it begins to consider whether closure is the most faithful option, there are a few things to remember. First, a church considering faithful closure does not mean that the church has failed. When a loved one dies, we don’t say, “Well, they failed at life.” That’s not how life (or God) works. Nor do we as the church use the world’s models for what is successful. Our call as the church is actually not to be successful but rather faithful in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to the world for as long as we are able. And this is exactly what Lakeside Lutheran Church did. Over the years, Lakeside has baptized, and confirmed, and celebrated the marriage of couples. The congregation has helped families grieve the death of their loved ones as they commended them to the grace of God. The congregation has raised up pastors and leaders for the church, and has been a participant in the work of the synod and the wider church. This is something to celebrate, as God has worked in and through the people of Lakeside.
Second, when a congregation finds itself considering faithful closure, it is important to remember no one and no thing is at fault for where the church finds itself. It can be easy to cast blame at a time like this… that certain decisions were made that shouldn’t have been at some point in the life of the church… or that certain leaders shouldn’t have been leaders… that certain events transpired… certain disasters or tragedies occurred… certain pastors came or left… and that any one of these things led the church to have to make the decision to close. But this is an unfair way of looking at what the Holy Spirit has done in and through the congregation over the years.
And we remember that even the early church had situations where after debate and prayerful discernment would make difficult decisions, ultimately saying, “well, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us at the time…” (Acts 15). Sometimes, that’s the best we can do as God’s people. Pray. Deliberate. Then make a decision, entrusting the decision to God. This is what the good and holy people of Lakeside have done.
In its deliberation, Lakeside decided that they would use their remaining financial assets to ensure their pastor had a generous separation package; to complete their tithes to local community organizations, including establishing an endowment for a local food ministry; and to establish a Lakeside Legacy Fund with the Synod to invest in two new missions starts in the Houston area. Friends, this is what it means to be a resurrection people! And I give thanks to Lakeside for their generosity and their legacy gifts.
When a church closes, it comes with mourning. It is a death, after all. And even as there is Good News to follow (Good News always follows!), we still lament what will not be. Dreams and hopes for the future that are no more. There is loss.
St. Paul reminds us that as followers of Jesus we grieve, but we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). As we celebrate the ministry and legacy of Lakeside Lutheran Church, as we give thanks to House of Prayer in Clear Lake which is serving as the congregation of care for remaining members, we also mourn with our siblings. And in hope, we expectantly watch the legacy of the Gospel ministry through Lakeside be planted like seeds wherever the members of Lakeside land, and as we see new mission and ministry sprout because of the faithfulness of the people of Lakeside.
Thank you, Lakeside Lutheran Church, for your faithfulness as a church. Well done, good and faithful servants.
To God be the glory!