Can These Bones Live?

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon, who blogs at patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip and who tweets at michellevanloon.com

Some in shriveling churches have prayed a form of Ezekiel 37:1-14 for their congregations. The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of dry bones, and as he spoke in God’s name over them, God supernaturally reassembled them into a vibrant living body. God told Ezekiel that the vision was about the return from exile of the revived Chosen People to the land he’d given them. The appropriation of these words in prayer over a failing local church tends to signal the congregation is in its final stages of existence.

In 2010, my husband and I visited a Chicago-area congregation we used to attend three decades ago. I wrote about the experience here. Visiting after so many years was a shock.

It was once a vibrant community full of the fruit of the Jesus Movement, but had withered to a numerical and spiritual shadow of what it once had been. The musical worship was a grim revue of the popular praise songs of the late 1970’s, back from the church’s glory days. The thirty of so people who were still hanging on were our age (that is to say, middle aged) or older. The nursery and children’s ministry rooms had long fallen silent. I had the sense that the pastor was recycling his old messages as I listened to his speak that morning. He left as soon as the service was over.

While some bash a graying church, I believe these gatherings of “two or more” with gray hair to gather for worship, prayer, and fellowship have merit. But there are small, aging congregations that have life in them, and there are congregations that exist only out of habit. The church we attended with such joy in our 20’s was dying of those tired old habits in 2010.

My husband was an elder in a dying church in Wisconsin in the late 1990’s. Intramural politics split then decimated the congregation. He and the other remaining elder made the call to close the church doors after the congregation dwindled to a couple of handfuls of people with nowhere else to go. A house church gathering merged with those remaining in our church and carried on in that form for a number of years. Watching a congregation die was one of the saddest church experiences we’d ever had. When we visited our Jesus Movement church in 2010, I thought I saw the same sort of bone graveyard I knew from our own experience in Wisconsin.

About 3 or 4 years ago, a young friend of ours accepted the call to lead the dying Chicago-area congregation. At first glance, our friend, a funny and brilliant son of a pastor, seemed poorly matched to the congregation. Though they’d been on life support for several years, a few believed that maybe those dry bones could live again.

Our friend took a physical therapist’s approach to rehabilitating the atrophied church. In tiny increments and with great patience, he asked them to exercise their spiritual muscles by again taking ownership of their congregational life. There were some hard conversations along the way. He recruited some help with music. He and his young wife had two young kids, and there weren’t any other children in the congregation. There hadn’t been for years. But they hung in there through loneliness and the exit of one or two people who simply didn’t want to move forward. Change has been slow.

My husband and I have had an opportunity to visit this congregation again recently. The congregation has grown by about 50%. There were enough children in attendance that they now included prayer for them during the service each week before dismissing them to a classroom time. The music was no longer stuck in the 1970’s. They’d reorganized their congregational government, and they were gathering with resurrection vigor for study and prayer outside the weekly worship service.

Can these bones live again?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. When is it time to let a church die a natural death? When might it be wise to take a physical therapist’s approach to attempt to bring new life to an atrophied body of believers?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.