I had an encounter recently that left me feeling dejected: at a gathering of clergy, a pastor poured out to me his frustration with his declining church. He could not get the congregation to change their behavior, even though they were on a path of steep decline. He was looking for some answer, some ray of hope. All I could do was listen and nod my head.
I went home and asked my husband, “What am I supposed to say to these people? Your church might die. Sorry about that.”
He looked at me for a moment, and then said, “Not today.”
“They’re not going to die today,” he repeated.
It took me a second to get my head around that. My husband, a farmer, speaks from experience. This is a guy who works to keep animals alive every day. They get diarrhea and pneumonia and swallow pieces of metal. He is always injecting someone with penicillin or patching a sore eye or bandaging a hoof. When a heifer is gasping for life and he’s pumping her veins with electrolytes, he is saying, “You might die. But not today. Today, it’s my job to keep you alive in case you get stronger tomorrow.”
In his usual sparse way, he had said so much. If you are not closing your doors today, there is still work to be done. Any church that is worrying about the fact that they might close some time in the future is wasting time. There is important ministry to be done today. And I don’t mean cleaning the grout in the church kitchen tile. I mean, there is a mouth to feed, a grieving family to be comforted, a love to be celebrated, a story to be told, a cold body to be warmed.
I know this contradicts so much I have said about planning for a generous, faithful end of life for churches when that end seems inevitable. I still believe in all that. But at the same time, letting church decline sabotage whatever good ministry you are doing now is not the answer.
Just this once, forget about dying tomorrow. Keep being the church, alive, today.
*Photo by Marshall Astor, licensed by Creativecommons.org