When churches die

Back in my New England church-going days, we spent a lot of time lamenting the fate of the old Congregational Church on the village green. It had stood since 1735, but it was having a hard time surviving the ’80s. Like most traditional churches, it had a long history.

It struggled with a call to be a leader in a changing society, when an aging membership wanted it to stay just where it was.

Congregational churches are autonomously governed. We debated the budget. There wasn’t enough money for mission work, the pastor was only allotted $11,000 a year to live on, and the church needed a new roof. The longer we talked, the more divided we became.

Over time, some families, searching for a church that matched them more, left.

“Why do we have such a problem keeping members when these newer churches are pulling them in?” I asked a friend, who was a pastor at another church.

“Because they have no history,” he said. “The longer you exist, the more likely you are to stand for something that will anger your parishioners.”

He was right. Several decades earlier, I recalled, my favorite minister to this day railed in a way I’d never heard inside a church before on the Sunday after Bobby Kennedy was killed. He railed against political assassination. He railed against the Vietnam War. For one brief moment, Sunday morning was relevant to me.

Not long after, he was gone. And not long after that, half the people in the huge hometown church were gone too.

I don’t know what killed off North Heights Lutheran Church, the megachurch that held its final service in Arden Hills yesterday. It was impossible to tell from the Star Tribune’s article today. People were cryptic in their response when asked by a reporter.

“From the beginning, we have stated that we will not speak to anyone in the paper or on television about this, because we believe it is a spiritual matter and we believe it is an internal matter for the church to handle on its own,” a member of a breakaway group said.

But this paragraph with the interim leader of the church makes it easier to read between the lines.

Prejudice, sexism and scapegoating all played a role in the church’s downfall, [Mindy] Bak said. Members of the breakaway group didn’t want a female leader, Bak said, particularly one that didn’t shy away from issues that predecessors had refused to address.

They didn’t want to hear about the prejudices of North Heights or the truth about its finances, she said. Nor did they want to embrace her message that to love Christ you must love even those people who are challenging to love.

A branch in Roseville had closed earlier and people withheld their financial support, it said. If the goal was to kill the church, it worked.

Liberal and conservative wings tear at churches just as they tear at the rest of society. Scripture is interpreted in whatever way suits one’s interest.

The paper said this sign was posted in the church:

“Throughout our history, many grew to be the followers of Jesus we were called to be. But our willingness to love one another, in spite of division, never came. For decades upon decades, selfishness and pride have brought us to this place of self-destruction. We are a cautionary tale of a dying church.”

Nothing can kill a church like standing for something.

Related: Goodbye, mega-church: North Heights says its final prayers (Pioneer Press)