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."
It takes prayer, discernment, and a great deal of faithful courage to decide to close a church, rather than allow it to limp on.
As 2013 passed by, leaders of my church saw signs that pointed to a nearing end, but no one wanted to say it. It was too painful, and everyone was so emotionally invested in the congregation.
"No one wants to be the one or be on the leadership team who decides to close the church," said John Weymer, an elder and vice-president of our church's leadership board. "You fear killing the church, and you feel the weight of the congregation heavy upon you. There is a natural desire to survive, I think, and death feels like failure."
Over time, Weymer reconsidered the meaning of failure. Is there really failure within the Christian context? If RCP closes, and it's not failure, then what has happened? For him the question became one of stewardship: How should RCP best spend its resources?
"Once the decision was made, our call became to finish well," Weymer said. "Our leadership embraced helping the congregation to transition from old to new, and helping people to see that God's church is much bigger than our little building on Independence Parkway."
To this end my church's co-pastors preached on resurrection for their final sermon series. For a month they touched upon delicate issues with grace and compassion. Yes, we prayed and prayed for resurrection of this church, and God chose to answer us in a way we didn't expect. What new thing is God doing in our midst, within us, and beyond these church doors? Our church's death might be part of God's greater plan? That's a perspective most of us hadn't considered, one that needs follow-up prayer and meditation.
The congregation didn't know it, but our co-pastors were working together with God to pave the way that was yet before us, the way toward further service and greater growth in faith. What a gift to hear God speak much-needed words through these two servants.
Two weeks before our final Sunday the elders hosted a congregational meeting to discuss other churches near ours that might be a good fit for our church's members. They'd done their research, and they presented about 15 churches to us.
"We're not trying to tell you and your family which church to attend and join," an elder said as she wrapped up her comments. "We just want to you know that we're still here for you, and we want to do everything we can to ease your transition into a new church home. Any church will be blessed to have former RCP members join them, because all of you have a lot to give."
We may not have acknowledged it, but we were walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and God was with us each step, ministering to us through those dedicated church leaders, and caring for us in our darkest time. What a gift to be reminded that we never walk alone.
Our last Sunday together finally arrived, and about 100 people who had previously left came to honor the church that they once attended and still love. Some members who had faithfully been attending were angered. Where have these people been? Maybe if they hadn't left, we wouldn't be here closing this church today! This is a natural response, I think, when a community you love will die by afternoon's end.
We shared communion together one last time, and moved from fellowship hall, where we worshipped for two years, into the sanctuary. There, in that cross-adorned sacred space that dons a banner reading "Celebrate Life!" we spoke words of blessing, closure, and release of our pastors. We sang our last hymn together, "The Church's One Foundation," and stood in the sanctuary for what seemed like hours, not quite sure what to do next.
Complete with people coming out of the woodworks and a communal meal following the service, the final worship felt like a funeral for our church. Our pastors recited Scripture and preached briefly, and four speakers shared their own words, eulogizing the church that they've loved. What a gift to be part of the remnant that stayed to the very end. Had my family left prematurely, we would have avoided some pain, yes, but also denied ourselves rich blessings and relationships deepened through shared grief. We did what Christians have done for thousands of years when a loved one has passed on—celebrated life, treasured memories, and grieved a deep loss together as the body of Christ.
Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer, speaker, and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. She is a contributor to Gifted for Leadership, and is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Angie is the creator of "I Love My Mom, But…" a Christian workshop that brings hope to strained mother/adult child relationships. Follow Angie at www.angiemn.com, on Twitter @RevAngieMN, and on Facebook.