Shortly after graduating from seminary, I signed up for some unspecified “service” at a church convention in a big city. My assignment came in: go to the Alzheimer’s wing of a local nursing home and hang out with the residents. I had been imagining something with a little more pizazz–maybe playing with a bunch of vivacious and suitably multi-ethnic kids. I could go to the nursing home any day of the week. I wanted something more…life-giving. So I tried to change my assignment. Thankfully, the volunteer coordinator would have none of it. “We can’t change it,” she said. “You’ll just have to go.”
I’m embarrassed about it now. I had a lot to learn: about accepting challenges rather than avoiding them, about caring for people in all stages of life, and especially about learning to love the dying.
I mean dying people, who I loved in theory, but in this case, didn’t love in practice–at least at first. I figured it out with their help after a bit of crafts and halting conversation and singing. Their lives were just as valuable and worthy of my attention as any child’s. But I also mean all that is dying: dying dreams, dying plans, dying churches. Especially dying churches.
Think about this with me. The Church–the Bride of Christ–will never die. We’re good to go for eternity. God is an expert practitioner of resurrection. But local churches die all the time. Good people with good intentions watch as their congregations gray and dust gathers on the cry-room changing table. There’s a bang or a whimper or–if a few people manage to hear the Spirit–a gracious wrap-up.
I’m convinced that a core Christian virtue is learning to love the dying, including dying congregations. In fact, I think that a lot of the church-hopping that characterizes our contemporary moment has to do with a fear of being associated with death. It’s the same reason we avoid the cemetery and the nursing home. We don’t want death to rub off on us. We don’t want to be associated with decay and defeat. Check out that new church down the road with the smoke machine! They’re so young!
Here’s the thing: our faith in Christ is not that everything will work out, that if we believe the right things, our dreams for congregational resurrection will be fulfilled. We hold onto something a little subtler–and a lot harder. It’s this: that if you follow brokenness all the way down, it will always hit the seam of God’s love.