Recently I was speaking with a man, when he informed me that a church I knew once as a vibrant place, and then as a solid place, had now closed its doors. I knew a former pastor, and I knew of the variety of ministries that community of faith had. But it had now closed its doors, closed up shop, sold the place, and its various members had gone off to other churches. It is a sad thing to see a church close its doors.
Driving down streets one occasionally spots a church with its doors closed — as I did the other day. What made this one harder for me was that it was so visible — stuck as it was on a busy street on a corner where those who were stopped in front of it could see its depressing state. I wonder if its former members refused to look when they drove by. Were they glad to see it go or shamed to see it fold up?
Charles Dickens once spent a year or so visiting churches in London, and his essay, “City of London Churches,” tells the tales of those visits — the smells, the lack of congregants, the oddities of the ministers, the sleeping of those in the pews, and the sounds one hears while attending a Sunday morning worship.
He finishes off that essay with this brilliant line about those churches: “They remain like the tombs of the old citizens who lie beneath them and around them, Monuments of another age.”
Perhaps that is what depresses me about churches closing doors. At one time, each of those churches was more or less a vibrant place, with active attendance, pastors whose livelihood gave the place direction, local neighbors who knew its schedule, parishioners who could count on counsel, wisdom, worship, and instruction in the gospel. Parents will drive their kids by the place now and say, “That was my church when I was a kid; I was baptized there.” What will their children think?
Churches with closed doors often send my mind into its imaginative forces: what was it like? How many parishioners found it the center of life? How many kids found faith there? How many were married or buried there? How many neighbors found it to be a place that got them through life? What about all those choir robes, and Sunday School materials (and flannel boards!), and pews and the organ and piano and the pulpit? What will become of them?
There are, of course, reasons why churches close their doors. Sometimes the neighborhood changes, sometimes the locals move, sometimes the locals no longer care. Always it is sad to see a church become a Monument of another age. At least for me.