Last night I had dinner with a dear friend and colleague in ministry. Even though we love to catch up on the details of family and life, our conversation can’t help but include a least five minutes about the church. Last night’s five minutes (and then some) touched on the challenge that not only her parish faces and that I see when I supply preach, but the challenge that seems epidemic in Mainline churches–the struggle to survive. The reality is many congregations face dwindling digits of dollars as well as donors. Add to this the balance sheet that reveals that many regulars donate a weekly amount that is equivalent to a week’s worth of Starbucks coffees. It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that sooner or later there will be nothing to rob from either Peter or Paul. Both of them will run out of resources.
This challenge is so widespread that books and blogs explore the ins and outs of how to solve this problem. Churches need to do more to attract new people. Churches need to educate people about stewardship. People need to give more. People need to embrace change. Pastors need to preach the Gospel. The list goes on. While I believe that all of the above are true, I think it avoids talking about and sitting with a piece of reality:
People die. Things die. Organizations die.
If you profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, the blessing to the above statements is that death is not the end. Something comes after death. Resurrection. New life. But here’s the thing that I think most people, including myself, struggle with…the resurrection can only happen after the death. To put it in biblical terms, Jesus couldn’t be resurrected until AFTER he was crucified. In order for him to be raised from the dead, he needed to die.
Perhaps the Good News is that none of us, not even churches, need to fear death. Something comes after. Perhaps the challenge of this Good News is that death comes first. And death isn’t easy or fun. Death means change. Change means loss. Loss means grief. Perhaps what we’re most struggling with in the church isn’t to survive as much as it is to avoid the agony and pain of grief. Grief. What does it mean for the place people turn in their grief to be the very place living in grief?
According to Walter Brueggemann, one of the three prophetic tasks of the church is to “grieve in a society that practices denial.” I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if we spent this Lenten season intentionally giving ourselves and our communities the safe space to do this? Rather than starting a new program, beginning an outreach, or initiating a new stewardship campaign, we paused. Rather than giving up chocolate or candy or Coke, we gave up denial. Rather than walking through Holy Week as if it were someone else’s story, we named and grieved the places where it is our story.
What if we practiced our faith this Lent living the belief that death is not the end?