At this time about 28 years ago, my father was dying of cancer and I remember asking my brother, “Do you think he’ll be alive at Christmas?” and my brother said, “I don’t think he’ll be alive in September.” It kind of made me angry when he said that.
Dad died on August 24, 1990.
I remember this when I talk about the life cycles of congregations because I can make church people angry when I say things like, “I don’t think this church will be alive in September.” Actually, I’ve never said that to church people but I’ve thought it. What I have said is this: “if we don’t do ministry differently, this congregation will close in 3-5 years.”
God never promised that individual congregations would live eternally. We only know that there will always be The Church of Jesus Christ (with a capital C.)
St. Giles Church in Edinburgh – often called the Mother Church of my tradition (Presbyterianism) was established as a Roman Catholic church in the 12th Century. It became a Presbyterian Church led by John Knox in 1559. It was (briefly, sort of) Anglican in 1637. Today – although there is still an active congregation – many worshipers are tourists and a gift shop on the premises sells key rings and book marks. Things have changed over the past 900 years. Most congregations don’t get that much time.
It’s interesting that we Christians who claim resurrection of the dead are so uneasy speaking of the death that is required before there can be resurrection. We not only mourn the death of loved ones; we mourn the death of the churches we’ve loved and served. Perhaps the church of our childhood is still standing but it’s a shadow of its former self. It’s breaks our hearts. We wonder what’s going to happen to that cemetery with all our ancestors buried there.
The reality that our congregations will one day die is shocking. We don’t want to hear it. That diagnosis is for other churches – not for ours.
And when we hear that our particular congregation is dying, it feels like the work we’ve put into it is invalidated. I know so many good pastors and other church leaders who’ve put untold hours and money into congregations which have fed them and loved them, only to see those churches dwindle in membership and prestige.
But here’s the thing: it was never about membership and prestige. It was always about sharing the message of Jesus. How are we sharing the message of Jesus in a culture that will not cross the threshold of a church building?
Churches exist to change the world in Jesus’ name. And there are churches everywhere doing just that: sheltering the lost, welcoming the broken, housing the homeless, comforting the sick. The wonderful news – the shocking news – is that the message of Jesus continues to be shared even after the death of loved ones and after the death of congregations.
I, for one, look forward to witnessing lots of resurrection.
This post is written in memory of one who is shockingly gone although the message of Jesus she shared will continue to be proclaimed long after her funeral today. We thank God for the extraordinary life of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Child of God and Minister of the Word and Sacrament.