In the coming week, many will mark All Saints Day on the 1st of November, which provides the opportunity to celebrate the men and women in whose lives the Church as a whole has seen the grace of God powerfully at work. It allows us to remember with thanksgiving before God those we have known more directly: those who gave us life or nurtured us in faith. Sadly, All Saints is not widely celebrated across the evangelical tradition, where efforts seem largely to focus on providing a Halloween alternative the evening before. Nevertheless, I wonder if we are missing something important by failing to mark the occasion, that is, to talk about death.
For a faith built on death and resurrection, I am not sure we are very good at talking about death, especially when the death in question is that of a church. We love to relay stories of hope, resurrection, and revitalisation regarding the Church, but rarely can we talk about the end of a congregation in anything other than hushed tones that imply failure, giving in and even a lack of faith. If you Google “what to say to a dying church”, the following pages all seem to refer to revitalisation, a phrase I am not overly comfortable with. Revitalisation, from my quick scan, seems to be all about a new strategy, a new vision – effectively something we do rather than something God does. We accept seasonality in nature yet struggle to recognise it within the ecclesial. Is it not possible that for some churches, the season of God is over whilst the mission of God continues within the community?
A good friend of mine recently lost his wife to cancer. Whilst this was and is incredibly sad, she died a good death, and her funeral was one of the more upbeat celebrations of life I have attended. As a result, I am becoming increasingly fascinated with the concept of dying well and the hospice movement regarding its potential applications to the Church. The Hospice’s role is not to help people die but to help them live well while dying - a significant distinction. How might we begin to consider a hospice-style approach for churches, allowing them to die well when the time comes?
When ‘cure’ became unavailable, the monastic tradition provided ‘care’. Indeed, the spiritual obligation of showing hospitality (from which the words hospital and Hospice derive) emphasises caring for the needy, including the dying, instead of only curing the sick.
When the only tool in our toolbox is revitalisation, questions must be asked about the sort of God we are representing; didn’t the Lord speak to Paul with the words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9)? Too often our response is ‘doing’, offering strategy, and trying to convince others that if they pray more, confess more, knock on more doors, things can turn around. Our focus is to cure rather than care.
Please hear my heart; God can and does do some incredible things through the small, the marginal and the forgotten. I have seen many rural churches punch above their weight when it comes to sharing the love and hope of Christ. Nothing thrills my heart more than a church coming back to life. Death should not be the first thing we consider in the face of decline or difficulty. Equally, we should never rule it out. How might we listen with those churches that are beginning to question their future, rather than rushing to fix them? How might we walk gently, offering the gift of presence; how might we, if necessary, help them die well?
In a book by David Hugger, ‘Hospice is a Gift’, he suggests six steps for those dying. With some work, I think these could be adapted and applied to dying churches.
Set some goals; live well with the remaining time you have.
Record your history, your story.
Share your desires for your stuff when you pass.
Stay connected; don’t isolate yourself.
Seek out spiritual guidance.
Treasure every moment.
Death is never the final word, and God’s mission will continue. Rather than viewing church death and closure as a failure, what if we saw it as an opportunity for God’s love to shine through?
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38–39).
Simon Mattholie CEO, Rural Ministries