If your congregation had only three months to live, how would you spend your last days together?
It is common to pose such a question about a human life. If you had only one year to live, what would you do? We ask the same about a congregation’s life far less often. Biological science instructs us that no organism lives forever. To many, a local church is a living, breathing organism, too. While we never expect an individual human being to live forever, a heady mix of hope and denial shape different expectations about congregations.
Four years had gone by before this hypothetical question became a pragmatic one. Hyped up on hope, the congregation that formed in our family’s living room in a suburb just east of Dallas, Texas began with only a handful of people and me as the founding pastor. A dream was born to create a more progressive, liturgical church presence in a community shadowed by a megachurch and a cluster of more theologically conservative churches. It was admittedly an audacious undertaking. Still, we believed ours was a holy calling to be a spiritual community committed to Christ through historic worship, holistic discipleship, and missional service.
In more ways than one, it worked. Our Sunday living room gatherings that we referred to lovingly as “Baptist brunch” were filled with new friends, fervent prayers, reflective Bible studies, Holy Communion, good food, and lively conversations. Soon we outgrew our modest rehabilitated historic house and relocated to a local elementary school cafeteria.
Our progress was steady and slow. More of us were okay with that than not. While we always wanted to connect with more people in our community, we also wanted to maintain theological integrity to do it. Though often tempted by popular church growth methods, we resisted market-based strategies that liken starting new churches to a NASA space shuttle launch. And though we had a supportive parent congregation, neither did we intend to be a satellite campus or become a franchise of another church. We decided on a more organic approach—one that helped us see our infant congregation in terms of human development. As we learned to crawl and walk and talk, we relied on personal relationships to help spread the word about the church. As we grew and developed, we sought to be true to the spirit of who we were and to the spirit of who we believed Jesus to be—a radical rabbi who openly welcomed people to join the alternative culture of the kin-dom of God.
Unlike entertainment-based evangelism that often seeks to grow churches as fast as possible, we knew that we would not be the spiritual “golden arches” of our town. Instead we chose as our public symbol a Celtic cross—a rich spiritual symbol that connected us with a faith deeper than what we believed to be trendy and popular. Splashy direct mail campaigns and flashy online technology were not our main means of outreach—although we did once create an invitation postcard with three words printed over the images of a Celtic cross and a Communion Table: “Sacred, Soulful, Simple.” These three words described well our church.
Sacred, soulful, and simple described well our worship, too. Rather than have a rock band, we sang hymns. Sermons were narrative-based and began with Scripture rather than a contemporary topic. We celebrated Holy Communion weekly. We observed the liturgical calendar. Silence and meditations on sacred art were routinely part of our worship experience. These practices were rarely motivated by a desire to be fashionable to our local culture. Our primary aim was to be faithful to Christ in our worship and beyond whether or not our church grew by the numbers.
Of course all ministries are contextual. Being in Texas, more than one friend of our church suggested we serve beer and barbeque after Sunday worship: “You know how to attract a big crowd,” he said knowingly. “Serve up some Sunday brisket and Shiner Bock. You will be the biggest church in town!”
Well, we would have at least been the biggest party in town.
These friends did have a point. To get results you have never had before, you have to try things you have never tried before. I had witnessed other innovative churches in our area practice similar Texas-sized church growth strategies. One church raffled off Dallas Cowboys tickets. Another held drawings for Caribbean cruises. Easter in Texas often has been an occasion to lure more people to the Wheel of Fortune church by giving away fabulous cash and prizes.
These methodologies just never seemed to fit who we felt called to be. Instead, we tried to use the good old fashioned people attract people philosophy.
It was effective, too. Well, sort of. From the onset, I was driven to succeed as long as I could maintain a hefty measure of theological integrity. I did my best to marshal my inner entrepreneur. I was passionate about making new relationships and serving our community through our new church. Perhaps it is hard to fathom that a church that grew in attendance by 2500-3000% over four years decided to end its ministry. Start with two people like we did, however, and these are humble gains.
Entering our fourth year, our congregation was avidly aware that increases in financial giving would be critical in order to reach long-term organizational sustainability. We knew what it would take to help make ministry happen as we had done from the start. As with most churches, personnel and facilities expenses eventually demanded the majority of our annual budget. This combined with the forces of the Great Recession, it soon became clear that we would not reach financial viability in order to sustain our church’s operating budget. Rather than underplay the bad news or hold out hope that things would change, the leadership of our congregation felt compelled to submit a recommendation to effectively end our formal ministry together.
With a three-month grace period, our congregation reached a consensus to devote ourselves to ending well. Practical matters like a lease renewal for our worship space and being able to support our ministry partners and personnel made our decision obvious financially. But our thriving spiritual life together also made this decision difficult and especially painful. This same spiritual point of view, however, enabled us to end with dignity, class, and grace. It gave us the freedom to acknowledge that we had finished the work God had given us to do. Had we tried to keep our church going for any other reason than to fulfill our mission of loving God, growing faith, and serving others, we would have been unfaithful to God and to each other. We determined to best honor our commitments to God and to each other by ending well.
As painful as it was to face this challenge, it would have been even more painful to avoid it. We did not want to become a church that existed for the sake of its own survival. Too many churches waste valuable spiritual resources when they define success by their organizational security rather than the risks they take for God’s kin-dom. Once we decided to close our church, we were able to celebrate the latter rather than lament the former.
When pastors and congregations measure their ministries by risks rather than securities, they learn to count (and count the cost) differently. When this happens, no longer do statistics function as the primary way to interpret a ministry’s success. Instead, stories of transformation serve that purpose. My friend and the pastor of our parent church, George Mason, puts it well about spiritual success:
Every venture does not have to succeed in order to be successful. Because the church is not a business per se, it doesn’t have to show a financial return on investment in order to justify a new ministry. Because the church is the body of Christ that is ever dying and rising again, it can risk itself for the sake of the gospel and find that the very venture undertaken that looks to some like failure may in fact have transformed the lives of those involved, making it successful in spiritual ways.
If we want to know how to measure spiritual success, it seems it is about as mysterious as figuring out how to measure God’s goodness.
Jesus did this all the time. He measured spiritual goodness by telling stories about what the kin-dom of God was like. If we listen closely enough, we learn that Jesus indeed counts differently than we do. He speaks of being present where just two or three are gathered. He describes the Good Shepherd as the One who would leave 99 sheep to go find the one who was lost. He compares the kin-dom of God to tiny mustard seeds and sings the praises of a woman who uses only a small measure of yeast that permeates the whole dough. And he measures greatness differently than we do, too.
Ambitious disciples James and John once went to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”1 In other words, make us powerful. Give us influence. Bless us with prestige.
These two disciples’ ideas about power were really different than Jesus’ ideas about power. James and John wanted Jesus to appoint them vice-presidents in his company but Jesus was not impressed by their ambition. Do you want to be the greatest in the kin-dom of God? Well, first realize that Jesus doesn’t define “the greatest” the same way we do.
If any of us, clergy and laity alike, insists on being ambitious, Jesus is okay with that. But he wants to radically redefine what that means. Be ambitious for the kin-dom of God instead. If any of us insist on being power hungry, Jesus is okay with that. But he wants to radically redefine what that means. Be hungry for God’s power to rule and reign in the world instead.
Jesus himself was ambitious. He was ambitious about feeding hungry people. Jesus used his power to provide clothes to people who had no coats and no shirts and no shoes and no underwear. Jesus’s vision of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community is a vision that grounds us in hope for a day when all of God’s children are fed; when all of God’s children are included; when all of God’s children are loved. This is success on Jesus’ terms. What would it be like if more of our congregations defined success on his terms, too?
By Jesus’ standards, our church plant failure was a glorious defeat. People committed their lives to the way of Christ and were baptized. With God’s help, we connected with church alumni and re-engaged church dropouts. We fed the hungry in our community. We served among the mentally ill. We partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a house. We funded three water wells in India and provided school supplies to low income neighborhoods. We lobbied our Congressional representatives about committing more of our national budget to helping provide medicines and food and clean water to underserved people around the world.
These were the stories we told and the ministries we celebrated as our congregation ended well. We spoke good words to each other and over each other in our remaining weeks together. We even experienced a kind of mini-revival as we completed our four-year spiritual journey. We talked about money and the distribution of our church’s equipment all the while remaining friends. Truly we took our commitment seriously to loving each other to the very end. We learned this by watching the way Jesus loved his disciples to the very end.
Rarely does a congregation live like its days are numbered. Especially when attendance is high and budgets are strong and ministry is thriving, a congregation can often live like it is an eternal teenager. Our church did not have such a luxury. And yet as we learned to number our days we learned that numbers don’t tell a congregation’s entire story. By committing ourselves to ending well together, we discovered better ways to measure God’s goodness in the life of our church.
Our spiritual community was not great according to worldly standards. We were not great because we had a million dollar budget or the fastest growing church in town. Our greatness was not measured by these metrics. Instead, we sought to measure the spiritual goodness of our mission and ministries. Rather than ask, “How many people do we average in worship on Sundays? How big do we want our budget to be?” we asked other questions like: Are we more loving today than when we began this journey? Are we less judgmental? Are we more generous? Are we more peaceful people? Do we serve others with more joy today than we did when we started? By these measures, our congregation was spiritually alive! This spiritual aliveness accentuated the irony that our ministry was coming to an end. Questions emerged: are we calling it quits too soon? Are we being unfaithful? Should we trust more that God will take care of our needs? Certainly we did not want to worry that our congregation was being buried alive.
Many people are intrigued with near-death experiences. They want to know what the afterlife is like from people who have been to the existential brink. I wonder if the same is true for leaders who fear the future of denominations or the numerical decline of congregations. Might they want to hear from people who have crossed over to the other side as long as they do not have to make the journeys themselves?
Truth be told, there are countless congregations across the United States that need to find ways to celebrate all that God has done in their congregations over time but that need to make difficult decisions to end well. These congregations, old and new, need to find healthy ways to formally close their ministries. This is hard for me to say and even harder for congregations to admit. There is no shame in saying it, however. Rather than lament statistical declines, why not begin to tell the stories of transformation and share the spiritual successes as Jesus defines them? Make the courageous decision to die so that something new might be born. There is no glory in keeping alive the organism of the church for any other reason than to fulfill a spiritual mission. While there will always be more ministry a congregation wants to do, what if a congregation is not destined to live forever? Could it be that God’s spiritual mission can be accomplished without the congregation needing to live forever?
To think of it one way, I have been to and through the death of a congregation, and, lo and behold, I am still alive! Is my ego a bit battered and bruised? No, it is worse than that and yet better than that. The good news is that much of my ego has undergone a death, too. Where once my ambition to help create the next big-steeple church in town reigned supreme, I can now more clearly see that the reign of God is what is supremely important. The reign of God goes beyond the lifespan of any one congregation.
I led a congregation from creation to consummation in just under four years. It is not exactly the kind of Texas-sized church success story I had hoped it would be, but it prompts kin-dom-of-God-sized questions: Do I love God more or my own accomplishments? Am I driven more by the upward mobility of the American Dream or the downward mobility of Jesus’s dream of the kin-dom of God? Do I measure success by my own standards or do I define success on Jesus’s terms?
Our congregation is one witness among many that whether we live or die, our response to these questions affects everything. To quote American poet Mary Gardiner Brainard, “I would rather walk with God in the dark than go alone in the light.”
The disciples knew deeply and profoundly what it meant to walk with God in the dark. They risked the adventure of following after Jesus with no prior planning as the Gospels tell it. They joined in a movement that had come to nothing. Their leader had been executed as a criminal, not a Christ.
The gospel of John describes a sad scene of scared, grief-stricken, and disappointed disciples. A few days after the resurrection, these disciples are hiding out in a house behind locked doors. Jesus appears among them anyway on that first Easter evening, and his first words to them are, “Peace. At ease. Just breathe. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
When it is closing time in any congregation, inevitably there is grief about what comes to an end—with disappointments that things did not work out exactly the way the people hoped and with uncertainties about what will happen next. And yet these are precisely the conditions that Jesus entered into on that first Easter evening.
If what happened then still happens now, a congregation’s closing strains our Easter credulity that it is actually an ending at all. Disciples that linger long enough in the dark with God eventually come to find the end to be but a beginning. And that being in the darkness with God sheds a whole new light on things. The body of Christ is truly ever dying and rising again.
1 Mark 10: 35-37, NRSV