Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles of Churches
Every year at Annual Conference, we vote on the discontinuance of churches within the boundary of the AC. It is never a cheery moment. It is a reminder of the nature of life and death. This year, Bishop Nunn commented on that cycle of life and death of churches. I believe that churches need to be aware of their life AND death.
We don't have a long history in the USA when we talk about churches. I have been in church buildings in Russia that are hundreds of years old. Many Oklahoma churches are celebrating their century + anniversary lately. And 100 years is a nice number to mark. But when we think about all of the churches that have come and gone in 100 years, 200 years, or even the last 1900 years, then the number of churches that have been birthed, lived, and died, we have to be honest about a cycle that happens with churches.
Now, I know that no church wants to think about dying. A church is a place of memories, powerful moments of sacred life, life transitions, and people who we love. As followers of Christ we concentrate on life, new birth, and resurrection. Death makes us a little uncomfortable at times (most times). When we talk about the death of a church, it seems as painful as losing a friend or family member. It is necessary, though, to look at the probability of our church's death.
Death is not always a bad thing, though.
A church is born out of the community that surrounds it. A community is then born within the church. There is a pattern that we can see in churches. Eventually a change happens and the community inside the church loses connection to the community outside the church. It is possible for a church to reconnect with the surrounding community. Maybe the community surrounding the church has changed nature. People move or demographics change and the community is no longer what it was when the church was birthed. A church has to "die" to what they were in order to stay in contact with the new community.
It is prideful and ego-filled to assume that the community surrounding the church should change to meet the community identity within the church. The reality is people from the community will seek out a place to belong that identifies with them or is willing to adapt to who they are. If a church refuses to change (die to self), they will not be able to connect with the community among whom they reside. And as long as a church will not adapt to the surrounding community, it will have to honestly accept that its death (closing its doors) is imminent.
Dying to self is not a bad thing. It is what all Christians must do in order to be in connection with Christ. Dying to self is the only way to receive Christ as Lord. Getting ourselves out of the way makes it possible to follow Christ along the Way. That isn't a bad thing.
And adapting to the community does not mean forsaking fundamental Christian identity. It means slaying sacred cows that stand in the way of being a welcoming community. It means killing behaviors that exclude new people, strange people, different people. It means letting go of "that is how we have always done it" to be able to connect with newer innovations that may actually be better. It means allowing the attitude of "our way is the right way" to die its full and final death.
But death is still sad.
It is possible to experience a "good death" and it will still be sorrowful. It may be necessary for something to die. It doesn't wipe out the life transitions or sacred moments. Those were days of life and new birth and resurrection. The death, as good or inevitable as it may have been, is still a time of grief. It deserves to be recognized and grieved over.
That happened for me at Annual Conference this year. One of the first churches that I served as a Local Licensed Pastor was discontinued. The Stuart UMC was one of three churches that I served in the year between college and seminary. It was a wonderful church of good people. It was one of the places I felt the affirmation to continue in ministry. Lisa and I were showered with love and gifts before our wedding. I learned to preach through distractions (like preaching with a child on my hip who wandered to the front of the church).
This was the third church that was discontinued that I have served. It was a sorrowful and painful time of grief. I had to face the futility of ministry in knowing I gave of my life and it wasn't enough to continue the church. I poured myself out, but death was still inevitable.
But ours is a faith of new birth and resurrection. My prayer is that somehow a new community will give birth to a community within a church that can share life and sacred moments in Stuart, Alva, and Camargo.