I received a thoughtful and poignant response to my recent post “And God certainly made small churches, too.” The writer wonders about small congregations that are getting smaller and fading away.
There’s no question that the losses hurt deeply. We miss our saints that have moved on to the Church Triumphant, and those that have moved away or left for some other reason. It is painfully disappointing when others take our hospitality, but show no interest in the beautiful worship service that means so much to us, or in the other things we offer, or in becoming members of the covenant community with us.
It strikes me that this gives us a new understanding of what Jesus himself experienced when the crowds lost interest in him. In John 6 he said to the few that were left, “do you also wish to leave?” As the cross drew near, even they left him, though they later returned.
Death is certain even for the very best people, but it does not negate all that was faithful and beautiful in their well-lived lives. I think the same is true in a congregation’s life. Death in some form is certain for every congregation, but even death by complete closure does not negate all that was beautiful and faithful in the congregation’s life.
Just like individual believers, congregations belong to God in life, and in death, and in the life to come. Resurrection can be a reality even when a congregation closes. I heard a story earlier this week about a congregation that closed, and whose assets became powerful seed money for a new ministry that is blessing many. And closing doesn’t have to mean completely disbanding. The closing church can become a new kind of church.
Every congregation is called to die and rise with Christ. Death can mean letting go of something that has been in order to receive what God is creating now. It may mean letting go and moving beyond our disappointment when people don’t come to worship as we want them to in order to reach them in another way—perhaps somewhere beyond the building. It may mean letting go and moving beyond our anger when they don’t respond and do what we think they should do. It may mean rethinking what the purpose of a church is. Perhaps it will mean letting the idea of getting more people into the church pews recede in order to focus more on introducing people to Christ somewhere out in the world.
What’s more, God is still calling people to form committed, covenant communities like the ones I described in the earlier post. God is still creating new small churches. Some are brand new and don’t look very much like the organized church that we have experienced and cherished. Often they don’t have a building, and they meet in a home or a public place. One new Presbyterian congregation that I learned about runs a coffee shop in a strip mall and meets there.
Some new small congregations are nested inside of larger congregations, or they share a building with another small church. In New Hope Presbytery, Durham Presbyterian Church and Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel share a building. New churches are being born in the midst of and alongside of old ones.
In John 3 Nicodemus asks whether a person can be born again after growing old. The answer is “yes,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. By the power of the resurrection, old congregations can be born again. But it won’t be without pain and struggle and many tears, and it calls for ever deeper trust in the One who has walked the way of suffering on the way to new life.
When life as they knew it in Jerusalem was ending, and God’s people were about to be deported to Babylon, God spoke through Jeremiah, saying, “I know the plans I have for you. They are plans for good and not plans for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” Jeremiah 29:11. These plans did not become clear for a long time, and they did not mean escape from pain and death. These plans were fulfilled when a new generation “came home” to Jerusalem.
God knows the plans God has for our congregations, plans for our good, to give us a future and a hope. And God promises to stay right with us while God is working those plans out. In our living and dying and rising again, Christ will be honored and glorified.
Resources related to churches dying and rising:
Gail Irwin writes a blog that explores questions related to the life, death and resurrection of congregations, including those who close. It is called “From Death to Life: Churches Facing Resurrection.” (freelancepastor.wordpress.com)
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a movement aimed at launching 1001 new worshiping communities in the next decade. Find out more at this website: onethousandone.org. Many of these are or will be small. See profiles of some of the new communities that are starting.
See Peter Bush’s book In Dying We Are Born from Alban. You can read an excerpt of the book here.
There is also a helpful article that appeared in Weavings magazine called, “When the House of God Falls Vacant.” (Volume VII, No. 1, January-February 1992.) The theme of the issue is Failure, and it can be ordered from the Upper Room at http://weavings.upperroom.org/back-issues/
See my post “Every Church MUST Die,” which is a reprint of a sermon from my archives.