Commentary

How to close a church

On that memorable morning we closed a church! It was not just any church. It was the church of my childhood, where I first attended Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, as well as where I first heard my father preach. Actually, it was the first place I heard anyone preach.

This church had served the Lutherans of southern Benton County, Iowa, for more than a century. In some families, the sixth generation was currently worshipping there.

David Valen

David Valen

All that was left was a simple folding table which had served that final day as an altar.

The date for the last service had been selected months earlier. The decision to sell the church and pull up stakes had been debated ad infinitum. Always there were compelling reasons to soldier on. But this time was different. This day will mark the end. Now there would be no Lutheran Church in Norway, Iowa.

A procession of parishioners

The church was packed. Though the news had been shared with former members who had moved away, only a handful came. I knew only a few, and only the oldest ones remembered my father.

The current pastor and I each gave brief homilies. We spoke of the saints who had built the congregation, of gratitude for the ministry which had taken place there. I recalled how, during World War II, the church became a support group and a clearing house for information by the parents of soldiers. Letters were shared and hope expressed for the early and safe return of those serving overseas. One by one they did come back (though two returned in coffins) and on their first Sunday proudly sat in uniform with their families.

At last, the final moment for the congregation was at hand. The altar and pulpit had already been removed. A steady procession of parishioners came forward to receive the communion vessels, altar paraments, candlesticks, banners, and cross. Then the pastor and I carried out the large Bible and the eternal light. All that was left was a simple folding table which had served that final day as an altar.

It was like a funeral. People wept openly. The pastor and I fought back tears as we made the last trek down the aisle. All of us, from those new to the congregation to the pioneers who had been baptized there more than 80 years ago, were thinking about what that little white church on the prairie had meant to us.

Then the congregation picked up their hymnals and left.

A new start

But that is not the end of the story. This was not a tired, dispirited congregation simply closing its doors in a small town that had stopped growing. They had discovered a new mission field, just four miles away in a rapidly growing town. There they planted a new and dynamic congregation which is thriving. Truly, life has been resurrected in Trinity Lutheran Church in Walford, Iowa.

 

David Valen is the interim senior pastor at St. James Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Crystal, Minnesota.

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