I met with a group of leaders from a church recently. It was the type of meeting that I have had on an all too regular basis these days. The church has experienced decline. They have seen a number of members lost to death. While here and there they have experienced some young families visiting over the last few years, the large non-denominational church down the street had eventually drawn them away with the programs and groups for kids and youth. This church has over 100 years of history. They have stories of lives transformed, of mission outreach, of significant worship and presence in their community. But now worship, most Sundays, is down to under thirty and the few leaders who care for all the tasks of ministry are getting older and more tired.
It’s a meeting I have all too often and I expected it to follow the normal course. Most of the time in these meetings we are gathered because folks have come to the realization that due to similar factors as I named above, they can’t continue to keep the level of pastoral support that they’ve had in the past. Because of that realization they have called me hoping to figure out how to keep things going with a different level of support. The goal of this kind of meeting is to find a way to enable the present congregation to continue to have some semblance of what they have had. The focus is on the people who are there already. The highest priority is finding some way just to keep going. And their greatest fear is that I, or THE CONFERENCE, or somebody is going to tell them they need to close. While there is often little sense of mission or vision, and a number of the aspects of Paragraph 202 of the Book of Discipline that outline the minimal functions of a church are missing, these factors take a back seat to the conversation around the desire to make the current congregation somehow limp on. Most of the time this is the tenor of these meetings. But not this time.
As we sat together around the table the folks at this church talked to me about their desire to make an impact. They talked to me about legacy. They shared the fact that in reality they could probably limp along for a number of years, but they didn’t see that as a faithful use of the resources they had. One person in the group put it this way, “When we gather on Sunday we magnify God, but as a church we are not serving God.” While having the gut wrenching conversation about what it might mean if they were to close this congregation focused on mission and ministry and what they might do, given their circumstances, to benefit ministries that were making a difference, to serve God not themselves. It brought me to tears. Here was a congregation willing to engage their situation saying, it’s about God and God’s church and mission, not about us.
I wish I didn’t have to have these meetings. I wish every one of our churches was thriving. But I’m grateful for those who continue to focus on mission even when the original mission that began their congregation years, decades, centuries before may be shifting.