Churches have life-cycles, just like people do. A new church is started by the conference or as an off-site ministry of another existing church. It starts to grow, develop its own identity, then it matures and becomes more established. Sometimes it goes through several waves of that kind of growth and expansion, and many churches continue those growth cycles for many decades. But eventually things change. Sometimes the community changes, sometimes the leadership of the church becomes too “settled” and comfortable to keep starting new cycles of ministry, and sometimes internal dynamics in a church cause it to slow down. Eventually a church starts to top out and slowly move down the other side of the growth curve. It may take many years, but slowly every church will atrophy – just like every living thing – and move toward a decline.
For us as individuals, that life cycle ends in our death, but we also believe in the promise of resurrection and eternal life beyond that physical death. In the same way, a church can choose to complete its ministry with dignity, and its final choices can actually be the start of a new ministry. In our United Methodist Church, because we are connectional, when a local congregation decides to discontinue its ministry their net assets go to the district and conference for the purpose of starting new churches.
I share all of this for two reasons:
- I believe we need to find new ways to honor our local congregations who have “completed their ministry” and voted to discontinue. Rather than simply read their names at Annual Conference in the Cabinet resolutions as a church which is closing and discontinuing, we need to find a way to honor and celebrate their many years of faithfulness. Our Annual Conference worship team and sessions planning committee are looking into that kind of an honoring for churches which complete their ministry with dignity.
- I also believe we need to help churches to make good choices for themselves as they move down the natural slope toward the completion of their life-cycle. Churches can be helped to leave a legacy of new life, even as they discontinue in their current configuration.
While I served as bishop in the Dakotas, I heard a great story from one of our churches which was moving toward completing its ministry. Rather than focusing upon just “keeping the doors open” or “staying in ministry long enough to provide a place for funerals for long-term members, “ this church told me that they planned to – in their words – “go down serving.”
At first I thought I misheard their statement. I thought they said they would “go down swinging” or fighting to stay alive. No, they said they planned to go down serving. They planned to find ways to use their final strength, assets, and people to serve others. They told me that their whole history had been filled with serving others, giving to missions, engaging their community, and reaching around the world. So they wanted their final years as church – no matter how many years God would give them – to continue that pattern of serving.
I like that attitude, don’t you?
I just read another article lamenting that “the church is dying.” That may be true, but I also believe in the faith affirmation that “the church is of God and will endure forever.” That does not mean any particular local congregation or institutional structure will endure forever; it does mean that God is always at work to launch new forms of ministry. We can be a part of that, even if our own local church or institutional structure is finishing its current life cycle. We can “go down serving” and provide the foundation for future ministries that we may never live to see.
Let’s honor those individuals, churches, and institutions who are completing their ministry. And let’s all find ways to “go down serving” no matter how many more years we are in ministry.