Gay DeJong’s article “When a Church Closes” filled me with admiration for her and her fellow church members who brought their congregation to a fitting and healthy end. They did the heart-rending work they did not want to do, but they did it in service to God, the kingdom, and the Church universal.
That reminds me of a colleague decades ago who accepted a call to a church that was nearing the end of its lifespan. There were no kids left, no young adults or couples—just old-timers. My colleague had the vision and courage to make it clear that he would accept the call only if he were allowed to lead that congregation out of existence, melding it with another church so that the saints could maintain their connections to one another. He then presided over a wonderful “funeral” in which the congregation celebrated all the years that church had served God’s kingdom.
As a gung-ho pastor still wet behind the ears, I learned so much from that.
No doubt, recognizing that a congregation is terminal is difficult. One fights denial. There’s no way around the sense of profound loss. One may and must grieve.
Often there is also an accompanying sense of failure. That’s something the gospel can remedy if we take it to heart. It reminds us that Jesus walks among those lampstands (Rev. 1:12ff.); he decides the life of churches. We need not blame ourselves for not having done enough or not doing the right things.
Is a congregation a failure and its history meaningless just because it has died? Says who? We’re Easter people. Part and parcel of the Good News of our Savior’s victory over the grave is that all good life, however ephemeral, is securely bound up in the promise of resurrection.
We, our loved ones, our church’s ministries and programs, our congregations, our denominations—all have a limited shelf life and a God-ordained expiry date. But the promise of Easter is that these will be taken up into the eternal life that Jesus won for us on resurrection Sunday. Paul reassures us in a passage rightly read at so many gravesides, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
None of the seven churches addressed by our Lord in John’s Revelation exists today. Not one. The Lord extinguished them or let them sputter out. But the Word and Spirit lit thousands more that are spreading their light around the globe.
It’s a challenge to start, grow, and maintain a church. It’s also a challenge to bring it to a God-glorifying end. I’m excited by a fresh denominational initiative that’s brewing. It seeks to develop a ministry for drawing alongside dying churches to lend them encouragement, counsel, and support. Pastors do that for their sheep who are entering the valley of the shadow of death. Providing that kind of support will help dying churches make appropriate bequests, put their affairs in order, mourn their loss, and celebrate what was and will be. It will remind us that Jesus is Victor over each and every kind of death.
He is risen. Hallelujah!
Related article: A Church Ministry Funeral (The Banner)