Friday, July 6, 2007

Opening or Closing? Open to close? Close to open?

While researching for my paper, I came across this sad news. Churches in the West is closing down, whereas churches in the Global South is still booming.

But this incident is important for us in the Global South to learn not to spend so much money and attention and effort to build the hardware (buildings) and neglect the software (people, leaders). Are we spending the same amount of effort and money in discipling and training our people? Or will we go the same way of closing down chu
rch buildings? This is a sobering thought.

Church members choose to close doors

By John Nickerson
Staff Writer
June 18, 2007

NORWALK - Unable to boost its shrinking membership, the congregation of First United Methodist Church has voted to close and disperse to other churches within a year, church officials said last week.

The near-unanimous vote for a "holy closing" ceremony to end the church's 164-year history on West Avenue was not easy, said Paul Deysenroth, the lay leader and board of trustees chairman.

"It is a difficult time because holy closings do not happen that often in the Methodist church," Deysenroth said. "The congregation has realized that we are not able to function as a good steward for God in a facility that size. Our congregation is on the aging side and they are not capable of doing the work they have done in past years."

On June 3, about 25 members of the yellow brick church at 39 West Ave. participated in a secret ballot vote on whether to close the church, Deysenroth said. He declined to say how he voted.

It is the second such milestone in as many years for West Avenue churches. Two years ago, the congregation of First Church of Christ, Scientist sold its white-trimmed brick church at 455 West Ave. for $850,000. A high-end carpet and furniture store based in New York City is set to open a showroom at the site of the former church, which once counted U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, as a member.

Norwalk has played a starring role in Methodism's past. On a little traffic island at Main and Cross streets is a small stone with a plaque marking the official beginning of Methodism in New England.

It was under a tree near that corner in 1789 that Jesse Lee, who came to be known as the apostle of Methodism, preached his "Ye Must Be Reborn" sermon to a crowd of about 20 who listened to his message of religious enthusiasm and salvation by faith.

In 1843, the First Methodist Church was founded on West Avenue. In 1898, the existing church was constructed; it can seat up to 750 people. Deysenroth said the church will close in the first six months of next year.

The Rev. Dennis Winkleblack, who was assigned to the church about a year ago to help the congregation make the decision, said it did the right thing.

"They have taken several years to explore all the options," he said. "In the end, it was a courageous vote. It was not easy to do, and there were no joyous options. They chose wisely, and I'm very proud of them."

In January 2006, after more than two years of study and negotiations, the congregation voted down a proposal to merge with Norwalk United Methodist Church at the other end of West Avenue - an act some had seen as a possible solution to declining membership. Currently, the church has only 35 active members, enough to fill just 5 percent of its pews.

Because most of the active members are older and live outside Norwalk, church dinners, the annual charity Pumpkin Patch drive and evangelical recruitments have stopped, said Deysenroth, who lives in Weston.

The church will be sold, though the property has not been appraised yet, he said, adding that he could not estimate its value.

According to the rules of the New York Annual Conference, which includes 500 churches in western Connecticut, the Hudson River Valley and Long Island, N.Y., the proceeds of the sale must be used for "new and/or existing ministries within that urban center," Deysenroth said.

Whether that means the proceeds must be used only in Norwalk will have to be interpreted by legal counsel, he said.

"It is up to the trustees of the New York Annual Conference as to how they allocate that money," he said.

Winkleblack, who is also the part-time assistant to conference Bishop Jeremiah Park, said the money will be distributed to churches around the city.

Few of the church's artifacts will be saved. The huge stained-glass windows and impressive interior woodwork probably will be included in the sale.

Deysenroth said churches built today are smaller and would not be able to display the glass. The cross, altar, candlesticks, records, hymnals and parament cloths probably will be used in other churches, he said.

Deysenroth's wife, Elaine, a fifth-generation member and church historian, said she will miss the comfort the church has brought her. The couple was married in the church in 1961.

"I guess it is time to move on," she said. "Things are always moving in the world, and it is time to move on to a new adventure for our congregation."

Copyright © 2007, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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