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Do not resuscitate?

If you are to pose the question “How can you help a dying church?” in an internet search engine, the resources, books, and responses offered as answers appear to centre on church revitalisation and renewal. Effectively, they suggest that to keep going, perhaps doing more of the same with a twist of energy and some funky songs is the way forward (I am being deliberately provocative.) The recommendations could be best summarised as praying more, preaching more, planning more, knocking on more doors, and inviting more people. Invariably, the advice is to try even harder, perhaps inadvertently suggesting that what has gone on before hasn’t been effective in the first place, thereby increasing guilt in those leading or attending. I confess to finding this approach pastorally insensitive to many congregations and leaders who have tried so hard and perhaps dismissive of what God is saying.


 

It is not without a sense of irony that I observe how many denominations have invested over the years in pioneering ministry, waxing lyrical about church planting and ‘releasing people to lead fresh expressions’ of church. Our theological colleges have bought into this, training pioneers as midwives to birth something new. Yet, institutions often place these ‘midwives’ in a ministry context where the role of a ‘hospice nurse’ is more appropriate. I cannot help but wonder if, alongside the pioneers and planters, we should also seek to train leaders who specialise in hospice-type ministry for congregations, enabling them to die well.

 

Please hear my heart; I believe churches can thrive when things look bleak. Indeed, there are numerous stories that I could recount where I have seen this happen. Nevertheless, for a faith built on death and resurrection, it would seem that we are not able to grapple with death when it comes to the church. As a friend once commented, “The most missional thing many churches could do is close.” So, why do we resist it; why are we afraid of death? Is it possible that we link closure with failure and are, therefore, reluctant to accept it as an option on ‘our watch?’

 

Ecclesiastes teaches us that there are seasons, or times, for things to happen, such as planting, laughing, dancing, being silent, and dying. Indeed, Ecclesiastes 3 is frequently read during funerals. So, if we can accept that death is part of the seasonality of nature and, thereby, God, could it also be the natural course for some congregations?

 

I am not seeking to interpret every hiccup, struggle, and rough patch as the death rattle of the church. Nevertheless, I think a grown-up conversation on church closure is long overdue as, in my experience, churches have a habit of dying badly. Our duty as Christians is to show the world, in light of our hope in Jesus, what it means to die well, including honouring a well-lived life.

 

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lucy Honeysett, the Lead Coordinator of Christians in Care, and I was curious to see if there was anything the rural Church might learn from end-of-life care. One of the topics that struck me during our conversation was the subject of resuscitation and a patient's or family’s wish not to resuscitate. With advances in medicine, much can be done to keep people breathing, but it strikes me that this is very different to being alive. For many who are seriously unwell, resuscitation is rarely successful in the medium to long term, and complications that impact the quality of life are not uncommon. Similarly, I wonder that for some churches, this too may be the case; things have progressed too far, and any attempt to resuscitate or ‘re-vitalise’ to use church language, would simply be too painful and damaging and might not even guarantee longevity. ‘Do not resuscitate’ is not the same as ‘do not treat’; much can still be done to enable patients to be comfortable and not be in pain. Perhaps questions need to be asked about what dying well might look like for congregations. How might we celebrate the life of the church, giving thanks to God while looking forward to what will be next as the mission of God continues?

 

Let me offer an example of a good closure by a Catholic congregation in a village in Lincolnshire. The church was established during the Second World War to enable Polish airmen stationed at the airbase in the village to attend mass on a Sunday. The church continued after the war ended and the airbase had closed, with a regular congregation of forty people as late as 2009, although few were local. Over the years, the congregation declined, with the pandemic and lockdown probably serving as the final chapter in the church's life. The costs of maintaining the building and ministry outweighed the resources available. A decision was made to close the church by celebrating a final mass (which was a celebration) and then sell the building and adjoining land. The mission of God, however, continues in the village, with local Christians working together at a community grocery store, providing food, prayer, and support. Indeed, some of the Catholic church congregation volunteered and continue to serve today. A significant financial gift from the sale proceeds was then made to this local initiative to support the continuing Christian mission in the village. I love that; it is not a continuing Catholic witness, but an ongoing Christian mission undertaken by the Methodists, Anglicans, and non-conformists. This Catholic congregation recognised that the season of God had come to an end for them, but also that the mission of God in the community was ongoing.

 

I believe there are clues to a season drawing to a close for a congregation, the first being that the church's original mission has ended. The above example aimed to provide mass for Polish airmen flying out of a WWII airbase. The war had ended, the airbase closed, and the remaining congregation was primarily formed of people outside the local community who travelled in for church, perhaps the second clue to a season drawing to an end.

 

It seems clear to me that in some situations, and only after prayerful reflection, we may reasonably conclude that attempting to resuscitate would cause more harm than good. The season of God for a congregation may have ended; however, I firmly believe that until the return of Christ, the mission of God for the community will continue. What if, rather than fighting church closure for fear of being perceived as a failure, we accepted the will of God and began to listen together, as churches and congregations, to what the ongoing and emerging mission of God in our community might be, and then joined in with that instead?


Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries


First published in MOSAIC Issue 13, May - August 2024

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