Redeeming the Death of a Church
More and Better Churches
THINKING THINKING AHEAD AHEAD The Newsletter of Vision Ministries CanadaVOL. 23 NO. 1 >> FALL 2019
BY MIKE STONE
With its cooling temperatures and colourful falling leaves, autumn is a season of dying but also a time of vibrant beauty. In his book, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr notes that fulfillment in the second half of life is dependent on our ability to come to terms with several realities, including the following: you are not important; life is not about you; and you are going to die. Though not easy to swallow, spiritually mature adults manage to reconcile themselves to these “life truths”. What’s true of people is also true of congregations. They may start well, flourish in the middle years but—unable to gain perspective on their true role in redemptive history—vanish without an enduring legacy. Are your church’s most vibrant years in the past? If so, is anyone bold enough to acknowledge this publicly? Have you discussed how to ensure a lasting kingdom impact once the lights are turned out?
Having fulfilled his responsibilities as the Messiah’s forerunner, John the Baptizer knew it was time to get out of the way and let the spotlight shine on Jesus. Faithfulness required his diminishment. “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). He lived these truths: I am not important. Life is not about me. I am going to die.
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council struggled over whether to allow believing Jews and Gentiles to eat at the same table—without requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised. In the end, they agreed to allow it. From Acts 16 onward, the once powerful Jerusalem church declined in influence, while the church in Antioch eclipsed its prominence. Richard Longnecker suggests that the demise of the Jerusalem church was due to its favourable disposition toward Gentiles, which incited persecution. This church showed disregard for its own institutional survival for the greater kingdom good.
Ultimately, every congregation is faced with the same opportunity. Early in the church lifecycle, growth and vitality seem a given. Like human beings, churches reach adulthood, experience their prime and gradually move into the second half of life. Through maturity, empty-nest and retirement stages, it’s wise to pursue revitalization. But eventually, a time comes when church energy and resources are better spent extending impact through the lives of others. If a congregation is within weeks of closing, liquidating assets and blessing other ministries with a financial gift is one way to secure a legacy. When a congregation’s final Sunday is inevitable, but still months or even years away, there are other options.
A merger can sometimes create synergies and extend life for two struggling congregations. An aging congregation could welcome a young “homeless” church to share its facilities and even gift the building to their guests before wrapping up. Declining churches might also pursue a reboot or replant. These options usually work best when established leaders, who have been at the helm for decades, relinquish control to a new team that can lead a congregation to flourish. If the existing leaders could facilitate this kind of radical change they would have done so already.
Reboots are possible when young, energetic and sacrificial leaders can imagine a new way to be the people of God in their context, and when established leaders are willing to graciously step aside and humbly support their successors. With a replant, the waning congregation invites a young planter and his/ her supporting core from outside to plant a new church within the existing one. Sometimes a larger regional church is invited to lead the replant . The existing congregation serves as the scaffolding, while the new leader and core are grafted in. With greater vitality, the newly planted church eventually supersedes the existing one. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24). Jesus reminds us that death is often the necessary precursor to new life. He surrendered his life, to make new life possible for others. In the same way, he invites us to give away our lives— and our churches—for others.