Archive for the 'Death' Category

Death Rattles or Birth Pangs?

My wife Dianna and I went to a church meeting last night. It was a historic occasion. During my nearly two years of retirement from active ministry I’ve religiously avoided church meetings other than choir rehearsal. This one was advertised as “brainstorming” for the church’s future.  Technically it didn’t qualify as “brainstorming”, but that didn’t matter. In the course of 40+ years of pastoral ministry I led dozens of similar sessions variously identified as “brainstorming”, “goal-setting”, “long-range-planning”, “visioning”, “strategic planning”, etc. Nearly every congregation, from house-church- size to mega-mega, does this regularly on some level.

I went to listen. Would I hear death rattles or birth pangs? Even without knowing the congregation I could have written much of the script for this church meeting and thousands like it. We’d hear concerns expressed about:

  • Survival—attracting more (younger/healthier/energetic) people who’d give more money and time.
  • Attracting and serving families with children (like the children and grandchildren of the retirees who composed most of that group and congregation—now including Dianna and me!).
  • Financial stability/sufficiency/survival.
  • Maintaining and improving the building and grounds—a growing challenge (bordering on burden) for a heroically faithful but declining, aging, and increasingly-burned-out group of volunteers.
  • Increasing the volunteer base, primarily by recruiting more people to serve on existing committees and groups.  

Everyone read their lines about as expected.  I heard what I was afraid I’d hear. I heard death rattles of a church (terminally?) turned inward on itself, afraid to die and afraid to change. I’m not blaming anybody in past or present leadership. I’m just telling the truth for a disturbing number of churches in this country. They/we keep doing things the same way we have for decades and expecting different results. As you may know, that’s one definition of insanity. Institutionally speaking, it’s suicidal behavior.

But I also heard faint cries I pray are birth pangs of new life (Romans 8:18-25):

  •  Genuine concern for children in the community—not just to fill up empty classrooms, but to help them discover the wonder of being children of God and part of the Family of God.
  • Passion to care for caregivers. “Caregivers” includes anyone caring for a family member who requires significant assistance due to some physical, emotional, developmental, or other issue. This small congregation seems to have more than its share of such situations. The folks raising this issue (feeling this calling?) understood that this ministry requires us to form creative partnerships with other community resources.
  • Desire to move mission beyond arm’s-length donation to personal relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, this was my contribution. This church (like so many others) does a good job of raising and sending money and “stuff”, e.g., food for the local food bank and those well-filled Christmastime shoe-boxes. A few individuals volunteer faithfully with various organizations. But I don’t think that in its nearly forty years of existence the church has ever sent a mission team to serve beyond its local community. I believe authentic Christ-following mission means that we go in person wherever and whenever possible. The big theological word for that is “incarnational” mission–going in the flesh, the way God did in Jesus!  I identify this as a possible “birth pang” not because it was my brilliant idea but because it seemed to resonate with some other folks.

Death rattles or birth pangs? It’s far too early to tell. It depends on the follow-up from that session. It depends on the presence and practice of persistent, courageous leadership. It depends on our willingness to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudges (and less-than-gentle shoves) toward the future.  It depends also on the preponderance of the congregation that wasn’t present at last night’s meeting. They can lead, follow, or get in the way. They can choose life—the harder way, the uncomfortable way, the messier and more chaotic way. Or they can choose slow, lingering death.

God set the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of a vast valley filled with dry, parched bones. “…can these bones live?” God asked the prophet. “Master God, only you know that,” Ezekiel replied.(Ezekiel 37:3) That’s where our church and many others in North America find ourselves today. One of the church’s traditional rituals affirms that “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time…”  Particular churches come and go. They come into being when God’s Spirit calls some people together into a new expression of the Body of Christ, the Church, in order to accomplish God’s purposes with people in a particular community. They  pass out of existence when God no longer needs that congregation in that particular setting, or when God finds other, more suitable instruments to accomplish God’s purposes in that particular setting. I think God can still use this congregation in this place. Will the congregation choose to be sufficiently responsive to still be usable by God?

 


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