The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; Psalm 90:10
Death at the age of 56 feels premature if not cruel.
Yesterday I participated in the burial of a 56 year old congregation. The last sermon poignantly and appropriately sounded like a funeral homily. The life of the church was lauded for all the lives that were touched and changed for good.
Like many congregations we have known and loved, that particular congregation was born full of promise. If you know anything about the Congregational Life Cycle, after birth comes growth and maturity, and then a congregation has some critical decisions to make: the church can sit back and relish its success or the church can begin the process of reinventing itself in preparation for the next season. Too often after those stable years, there is decline and then death. For many congregations the death is slow and painful. The faithful congregation we buried yesterday at the age of 56 chose to let go so that resurrection might begin sooner than later.
A church leader from a different congregation contacted me recently and asked if I would attend their Session meeting. “Can you give me an idea what this is about?” I asked, and the elder replied, “We need to make changes or we will die.” The congregation could be called Middle Aged, having recently celebrated a sixtieth birthday, but they feel older than that in some ways.
Honestly, they are wonderful human beings. And as we sat together, they shared a story that went something like this: “We have a good congregation but we are tired. If people could just find us, they would experience God’s love here. If people could meet us, they would experience a friendly congregation. If they knew who we are, they would understand what we are about.”
As I heard their earnest and faithful analysis of their ministry, I asked them to consider turning their comments on their heads: “You have a good congregation and – while you are tired – you need to change the way you’ve been the church. If you could go out and find your neighbors, if you could meet them, if you knew who they were, then your church could be transformed. But this takes energy.”
Growing congregations no longer focus on “attracting” people. Growing churches in the 21st Century deploy people to go out into the neighborhood and figure out what breaks God’s heart out there. This is not merely what keeps us alive; it keeps us young. And most importantly, it keeps us faithful.