Just as new churches open and others are renewed through local mission, the season for some churches comes to an end. And while we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, it’s never easy …
When we held our last regular service at Whakatane Lutheran Church, in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand’s North Island, on Christmas Day last year, there were 16 people in attendance. LCNZ Bishop Mark Whitfield conducted our closing service on 5 February 2017 before a congregation of 33.
You may think it is a shame to close the doors on such potential, but the usual attendance at our congregation was only six. In fact, there were several weeks when only two people came. Those weeks were rather discouraging, but the liturgy was still the same. How we love the liturgy!
My husband Tony Houlbrooke and I began attending at Whakatane in 2004 and became members the following year. There would have been around 25 members at that stage, but fewer than that attended regularly.
I’m not sure why the decline is happening in some of our churches, but we have an idea that people don’t see the importance of meeting together on Sundays. When Sunday worship – word, sacrament, fellowship, witness – isn’t happening regularly, a lethargy sets in and our witness to our children and neighbours is lost. I don’t think it’s about the type of worship service, it’s about a faithful commitment to meeting together.
There was a hope that God would send new people our way, but it wasn’t to be.
The last resident church worker in the congregation, Ken Trustrum, left at the end of 2004. We were very fortunate to have some excellent retired interim pastors for about five years after that. They came from Australia and USA. We were new to the Lutheran church, so it was a great time of learning for us.
Between interim pastors, Tony and another member, Barry Walker, led the services, using sermons from Pastor Vince Gerhardy’s website of worship resources. They were also licensed to give communion.
Then came our adventure of sharing a full-time pastor with churches at Hamilton, Tauranga (which has since closed) and Kawerau through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). That began in 2011 and lasted four years.
When the MOU came to an end, we were encouraged to explore different ways to grow the church, whether by encouraging more members to attend, or getting new people involved. And we did try things. One was to work through a series of short videos on ‘Back to Church Sunday’. We had a video after church each week for a few months, while inviting people to join us. This drew quite a crowd, but they were all extended family, and mostly from out of town!
We worked with the Maori Presbyterian church down the street to lift our churches’ profiles in the local community. We held a street day with free clothes, games and food. The day was wet and stormy but it was not a total loss. We worked together and members of the public came and planned to attend church.
Also during that year after the MOU we tried to encourage a house-church type model – having meals at one another’s homes, and sharing Bible studies. It only worked with two families but we had hopes of our two families branching out to encourage another two families. This didn’t get off the ground.
We tried to include as many members as possible by having an evening service. This began a year of sharing dinner, having a short service and a Bible study using the ‘Essential Jesus’ series. It worked really well and was encouraging as we shared God’s word together. We had a couple of visitors from other churches, but no new members.
We decided at last year’s AGM to keep an eye on attendances and our financial situation, and if nothing had changed by the end of the year, we would close. Unfortunately, nothing changed, so the decision was made to close.
We feel that we have been called to serve in whatever situation we find ourselves in.
There was still a hope that God would send new people our way, but it wasn’t to be. The closing service on 5 February was a celebration of how God had used the church he had made over 53 years, a remembrance of people gone before us, and a drawing to the end of worship as we know it. Current and past members joined with friends from Tauranga, Kawerau, Hamilton and Rotorua, as well as people from the local community, for the service.
We sang old hymns and chants, shared communion together and listened to Bishop Mark’s words and the visiting pastors’ encouragements. Then members and past members helped to carry out items used in the service – service books, the communion set, crucifix, missal stand, Bible, candlesticks, font and vases.
Tony, as chairman, read our dissolution statement, while Barry brought forward our historical registers for safe keeping, while I read greetings from other Lutheran pastors. We filed outside, so Bishop Mark could lock the door and so close Whakatane’s life as a church. We sang a final hymn, then went back inside to share a meal.
In May, the building was sold to a neighbour who has an early childhood centre. Then it was a matter of finalising bank accounts and records for archiving, and other administrative tasks.
We have given church assets to Kawerau Lutheran Church, Rotorua Presbyterian Church – whose building burnt down earlier this year – and to flood recovery efforts in nearby Edgecumbe. Our bank balance will also go to the flood recovery fund.
What does the future hold for us? Tony and I have been attending the local Anglican-Methodist Church because we wanted to go to a liturgical church.
We have been asked to help with service leading and music, and we are getting to know others in the church. It is an ageing congregation and sometimes we feel like we are some of the youngest there. Also the church is in an interim stage, between pastors, so what would God have us do?
We feel that we have been called to serve in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We collect one or two elderly ladies from a local rest home to take to church. We help out where we can.
Personally, Luther’s Small Catechism has become more precious than ever. We read it and pray it ourselves each day, and share it with our grandchildren. I think we have become Lutheran Anglicans.
Vicki Houlbrooke was a member at Whakatane Lutheran Church.
This feature story comes from The Lutheran July 2017. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.