When we moved to California for my wife’s call to serve a church out here, I didn’t know what would be in store for me. A recent seminary graduate, ready to receive a call of my own, with a heart for new church development and congregational redevelopment, I was ready to build & to plant! Instead, I was invited to preach and pray and sing with a church in turmoil. The 12 remaining parishioners were preparing to finally succumb to the eroding landscape of Christendom and officially be dissolved as a congregation when I stepped in. Colored by the ironic combination of self-assuredness and the need for a job, my first thoughts swirled around the imagined possibility of being installed as the new pastor for the redevelopment of this struggling congregation and rallying the small group of seniors to reinvent the Presbyterian Church!
Needless to say, those thoughts proved a bit lofty … or at least misguided. The truth was, this particular congregation had quite simply reached the end of its life. Eventually, I had no option but to submit to the natural course of things.
On Easter Sunday we read Luke’s story of the Emmaus Road and talked about continuing presence of Jesus among his disciples even past the threshold of discipleship as they had known it. We pondered the unrecognizable nature of resurrected life for we who still live in fear of death, and we celebrated the grace of God who opens our eyes to the kingdom of God when we unknowingly stumble upon it in a common meal with a stranger.
The next week, which was our last together, we were called to worship by the words of Psalm 131. We confessed our sins and were assured of God’s forgiveness and promise by the voice of the prophet Isaiah (40:1-8). We listened to the words of Jesus, inviting us all to dwell with him in eternity (John 14:1-6a), and we asked with Paul, “What are we to say about these things?” (Rom. 8:31-39), concluding in hope–even if not in victory–that God is for us, and that nothing in all of creation has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Then, lingering a bit longer than in previous weeks, we shared a meal, received a benediction, blew out some candles, and parted ways for the last time.
So, is this a story of success or of failure? Are we furthering or slowing the kingdom of God when we close a church in this manner?
These, I think, are difficult questions to answer.
As I prepared my sermons each week, I thought about my experience as a hospital chaplain, offering care to the dying and their families, and wondering at the possibility of a “good death.” This congregation–staying in the metaphor–had been sick for over a decade. They had run through a number of pastors, sold their building, changed their name … these did not seem like the makings of a good death, if there is such a thing. The remaining 12 or so members were all over the age of 70 and were committed to being present in worship, but simply did not have the energy to form a new session and launch a new initiative. The best thing that could possibly happen was for the church to close on its own terms, in faithfulness to the God who continues to uphold the faith of these women and men.
When the local branch of the denomination voted to dissolve the congregation, there was one negative vote cast. And while I respect the willingness to stand on principle, it is also my opinion that the principle opposed to closing a church under any circumstances is the result of a flawed theology. How can we say that a local incarnation of a church cannot be allowed to die as a people who believe that God’s self was crucified and buried before being raised up? How can we assume that the institutional manifestations of the body of Christ should have eternal life in their current states of being? This is simply not true of human endeavors, and the church is one such endeavor–empowered by the holy spirit though it may be, but human nonetheless.
If anything, as the church continues to change, and as churches continue to close their doors, we should worship the even more joyously the God who has put an end to endings by way of a new creation. The church who endeavors to follow Jesus Christ should not be surprised or fearful when it faces death; for the baptized community is baptized into a body that necessarily lives towards its own death. We cannot expect to live as one who was crucified and yet avoid the cross. But we go with full confidence in the work of he who goes before us. As Luke’s resurrected Jesus was unrecognizable to those disciples on the road to Emmaus, so the body of Christ will be unrecognizable to we who live in fear of its death. But to we who would embrace it, in that holiest of meals, our eyes will certainly be opened, and we will know that Christ himself is among us, still making all things new.