My church closed last week. As of last Sunday, 2705 Virginia Parkway, McKinney Texas is no longer the place of worship for a Methodist congregation, and Wesley United Methodist Church, a church that existed for 107 years, is gone. That made today weird. For the first time in 17 years my family went to a church in McKinney not named Wesley. Sure we have been to other churches over the years as we have traveled and been guests in the churches of other cities. But I have never known a day when we all got up and left our house for a different church.
Well today it happened. To make it even weirder, we went to the Lutheran church right across the street from where we used to worship. Where we usually turned right into a parking lot we went straight, driving past the building where my sister and I grew up with Jesus. We passed the gym where we were both baptized, the playground I had made friends on, the sound booth I had worked in, and countless classrooms where my life was changed on a weekly basis. The outside looked the same, but I knew the inside was different and was why it closed. Over the next few weeks my blog will follow my family’s journey to find a new home church and explore what churches today are doing. But first I want to touch on the church’s closing.
We hear it all the time: the people are the church not the building. To me it is one of those sayings that many people are very of lackadaisical about. Yeah it seems true and it’s a good Sunday school answer but what does it really mean? If we take a moment and look around, we can struggle to find this ringing true as many churches seem to focus on things like new buildings and TVs all over so that people getting coffee can still catch a sermon. While these things often great and can aid the preaching of the gospel, they are only what I just called them, aids. Well, in reality do we really need them? Is there anything that we can add to the gospel to make it more fulfilling, packed with more grace and love, or offer a better salvation? The answer is no. We don’t need things to spread the gospel we need people.
Wesley used to have those people. Ever since I was a kid, and up until high school, the church was full. It was never a mega church or even the biggest church in town, but to me the fact that we had two services that easily passed 125 in each and packed Sunday school rooms meant that for a smaller church we were doing well. There were countless mission trips to Mexico, retreats to bring friends to to share Jesus, and assorted community programs. The church had members and visitors wanted to come. We were growing.
But then something changed. As I child and teenager I never knew why nor could I understand what happened, but as I grew things began to become clear. There were pastor changes, people held grudges about decisions, there wasn’t that same level of participation from the members that there was in the past, and new churches sprang up. So over the course of the past 8 years our church saw a pretty steady decline in membership and visitors. Looking back it makes me sad. The church is supposed to be a place where Christians truly practice what we preach. Out in the world we can face persecution and many people who are hard to love and serve because they don’t have the same attitude that claim to. The church shouldn’t be like that right? Wrong. Christians aren’t perfect. It can be hard to serve other church members, to make time in schedules to volunteer, to sacrifice time to teach, or to stick it out when times get tough with seemingly constant pastor changes. So while there is no one person, group of people, or single event to blame, I think that an idea is at fault.
Too many people looked at the church as something that they should benefit from and not something that should benefit from them. They, and occasionally me, looked at what the church was giving out and not what it needed. If the church truly is made up of the people then it is up to them to make the church what they want it to be. It is not enough to want the church to be better or to have a Sunday school class that interests them. The people must act to make it so by welcoming visitors and perhaps stepping up to create a study group for their demographic. Whether it be young singles, old singles, business people, sports fans, or whatever there can be something for everyone at a church if they are willing to give a little of themselves not only for their own sake but also for others. But there is even more beyond that. A church must expand itself outside of the walls it meets behind. There is a community right outside that needs Jesus. If you thought that there was diversity inside the church you best believe that there is more outside of it, and not to mention a lot more people who need to be served.
Now with this increase in variety and number of people there must be more commitment from the church. No longer are we sacrificing so that we may also benefit, but we are sacrificing solely so that others may gain something. Needless to say that there will be many ideas for both outreach missions and internal projects. However, many may never come to fruition because people do not have the time or money to give so that the programs might succeed. Or so they say.
We often need to closely examine ourselves when we say that we can’t do something for whatever reason. If we truly have no time or money to give that is okay. But perhaps we should look at why. Personally I used to find myself staying up late watching TV not really doing anything. Then I would put off working out or going to work in the mornings because I was too tired. Then I would sleep late and maybe wouldn’t have the time for something else like serving others. Now while I truly was tired and didn’t have time why was that? Was I truly busy or was I wasting time? I was wasting time. I put myself above others. I would rather stay up late entertaining myself, sleep in, still get a workout in, and get paid than get enough sleep, have time for everything, and be able to serve others with free time. My love for others did not surpass my desire to entertain or make life better for myself.
When that kind attitude takes over a church it can and probably will be fatal. See a church is not exempt from the selfish thinking that has a hold on the world. This “you first after me” mentality is not healthy for us as individuals and certainly as a church. The most unfortunate part of that in a church setting is that instead of sitting by and doing nothing but still attending, members can do something even worse, simply leave to find a place where the grass is greener. That is what killed our church. In 2003 average attendance was near 275, dropped to 175 in 2005, spiked back to 225 in 2008, and has been falling since to our current number near 80. Sure, something can be said for things just not working out, and I don’t really know all the details of every member, but I wonder how many of the moves were for self-serving reasons. The most cliché joke about church quarrels is over the color of the carpet. I’m sure that happened, but was there more? Did people just not like the way things were going and decided to leave rather than help fix it? Were there people who simply followed their favorite pastor around from church to church? I’m not sure. I would just say that when it comes to having a problem with a church or thinking of leaving, we should make sure that those reasons are rooted in scripture and not in selfishness.
We need to stop going to church and start being the church. Start that program that no one else has started. Help that lonely volunteer who has started their own program that needs help fulfilling their calling. Heck, just stack up tables after the monthly church luncheon. I know that that’s what I used to do, and after our final luncheon last week one of the oldest members of our church, a man who used to volunteer and vacuum the whole place and stacked tables himself late into his 70s told me how thankful he was for the help over the years. He told me he about the first time I helped him stack and a plethora of other stories, many of which I didn’t even remember. My help made an impact on him. He felt loved, and since (my parents originally told me I had to) I sacrificed my time to help, the church gave him something nearly every month because in that moment I was the church serving him. What did I get out of it? For 15 years nothing really, but on the final day the acknowledgement and thanks from a man I looked up to was all that I needed.
I hope you never have to attend the final service of your childhood church. I hope you never have to stand in a row with your family, struggling to sing the last hymn through tears as the cross, bible, candles, and cloth are removed from the altar. It sucks. I cannot even think about what it must be like for those who have attended the church for over 50 or 60 years to see their church die before they did. It was a hard time and will be for a little while longer. But it is not the end. While Wesley United Methodist Church no longer exists after 107 years, the people who made up that church live on. Even more importantly, the impact that Wesley has had on the lives of its members and guests lives on as well. Perhaps that impact has even multiplied as those who found Christ because of what God did through Wesley have been able to bring others to Him as well. That is part of the marvel and glory of God. Just because one portion of His children are unable to pay the bills and keep the doors to their building open He does not die and neither do they. I do not know what will happen next. I do not know where I’ll go from here or where my family will go to worship. I do know that God is using this in His plan to bring glory to His name. While I do regret that my childhood church closed its doors, I do not regret having gone there, played there, cried there, laughed there, been forgiven there, made friends there, and hopefully impacted someone else’s life there. I will miss it but life moves on and God guides it.
A NOTE AFTER THE FACT: after posting this I realized that I did not make something clear. There were so many people and families who attended Wesley that changed my life. Many of them moved away as God called them elsewhere and that made me sad. I am in no way blaming anyone for what happened. Without this expression of thanks to the amazing people who played great roles in my life, this post can seem like a self righteous blame game. That’s not what I want it to be. I am thankful for every person who ever went to Wesley and regret what happened. My hope is that this blog can perhaps change the course of another struggling individual or church by learning from a few things I noticed about myself and my church.