In my morning biblical reflection I came upon the poignant dilemma of Paul, who I imagine writing from a cold, dark prison cell, lonely, his bones aching from some ailment or injury, feet broken from long walks between cities:
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me,and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you for your progress and joy in faith… Phil. 1:21-25 (NRSV)
Our dilemma as struggling churches is similar, if not so dramatic: when we are tired, and the work seems thankless, with handfuls of forlorn people showing up for services and meetings, should we conclude that it is time to give up and let the thing die? Or is there some greater reality besides our own fatigue that we should be giving attention to? Is there someone who still needs us, beyond ourselves? Will our giving up indicate to our neighborhoods that surrender is an option for Christians when the way becomes rough? Or is our effort at keeping the church open a futile task driven by nothing more than exhausted habit?
One of the churches I studied included the word Perseverance in its name. “We were the only Perseverance Church in America,” their former pastor told me. And they struggled with the legacy of that name when they made the decision to close their doors. But they went on to carry out new ministry in two neighboring churches, and their building was sold to a third. They persevered in discipleship.
Perhaps Paul is telling us that giving up is not an option. If we consider closing our doors merely because we are “tired of it all”, we dishonor our calling. But if we lay aside this particular life for a more holy one, if we pursue “a better country” by using whatever energy we have in new ways, that is not surrender. It is adapting.
Are you and your congregation giving up? Or adapting? Are you a church that could proudly be called Perseverance?