I read that by some estimates, every day in the United States, nine churches shut their doors forever. On January 26, 2014, my church—the Reformed Church in Plano (RCP)—was one of them.
After hearing the news late last year, I cried during every worship service for six weeks straight. The music, a prayer, a line during the sermon, or a simple look around would trigger me, and the memories and tears would flow.
I wasn't the only one. After-church hugs and chats lingered a bit longer each Sunday, as everyone comforted and supported one another.
"I still can't believe this is happening," someone would say. "Can't we figure out a way to save our church?" said another. "I'm sorry, but I really think that (fill in person or circumstance here) is a lot to blame for this," several people remarked. "What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?"
God's hand laid heavily upon my and my husband's heart to remain with our church until it died. This was the first time that I stayed fully present—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—through the end of something. With every other end or loss in my life, I've separated myself, especially my emotions, well before the final day arrived. I protect myself this way, thinking if I keep myself from feeling, the loss won't hurt as much.
The Lord reminded me of the summer I spent as a hospital chaplain intern while in seminary. Amongst other things we chaplains were charged with speaking to families about end-of-life decisions. The theological viewpoint of medicine, we were told, is to aid life through health and healing, not to extend it when all vital signs are not present. Only the family could make the gut-wrenching decision to remove life support, but we were there to guide them.
How would your loved one want to live? How would she want to die? What is quality of life for her? What is quality of death? If asked our opinion, chaplains were to answer theologically. "Death, the gospel tells us, is only a part of our greater story within God's gracious plan." The rest of the story, of course, is resurrection. This core of the Christian religion encompasses not only the death of persons, but the death of churches as well. Resurrection claims victory over death by bringing new life through it.
Death must come, as a matter of fact, so that the new can emerge and flourish. Jesus makes this truth clear as he speaks to his disciples in John's Gospel:
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12:24–25, The Message).
"What we need is a real letting go—of the past, of our fears, of power, of tradition," said Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, and former general secretary of my denomination, the Reformed Church in America. "We have to give everything up so that the new thing that is possible for the body of Christ can break through. It's too hard to break through the present when the church is on life support and the concern is keeping the doors open."