Last Sunday the local church where I have served as pastor for nine years closed. Thankfully, it closed well, but not without tears. The church had a faithful, yet roller-coaster history and for reasons too cumbersome and complex for this post, the decision to close was a “severe mercy.” Severe in that it is always hard to end a church’s history and merciful because the faithful folks who hung in to the end were fatigued and needed a clear, sharp decision about their future.
I had to do some painful soul-searching. When I agreed to take the call to be the part-time, interim pastor of the church, I was told, “John, you may just be there long enough to give the church a good burial.” This potential (short) future of a ministry did not set well with me. I thought, “No church is going to die under my watch.” That was nine years ago.
As the ministry entered into its final two years, issues in the church’s DNA, frictions with members, and the inability of the church to negotiate healthy change, the church entered into what our denomination calls an “at risk” status. Using a medical metaphor, the church went into cardiac arrest and was on life support in the last eight months to a year. It’s hard to get a church on life support to become more missional. Energy levels drop and morale flounders. I came to a hard realization: churches do die and this one was dying under my care.At our denomination’s once-a-year annual meeting, I would attend as a delegate from our church. Delegates celebrated and voted into the denomination new church plants and churches switching denominational affiliation. Delegates also were informed of and voted on churches that closed. I knew that churches do, indeed, die. Yet, I would always say to myself, “Not the church where I serve. It won’t happen.” A pastor’s pride, a leader’s stubbornness can sometimes become the block to the larger purposes of God. I had to wrestle with this.
My experiences as a pastor have shaped my ecclesiology. I no longer idolize big churches (mega-brands). I was the teaching pastor of one of those for 24 years. I ended my ministry there very wearied and in a dark-night-of-the-soul condition. On the other hand, I no longer think little churches only have one future: to grow into healthy, missional communities. John the Apostle’s pastoral wisdom in Revelation 2-3 is very significant to me. The only glorious One is Jesus who walks among the lamp stands, his local (real geographical) churches. As a pastor I am owning into the ragged humanity of the “body of Christ,” glorious as she will be in the consummation.
Big or small, churches are fragile because of the lingering power of the Fall in and on human relationships. Let him who boasts, boast only in the Lord.