Saturday, October 31, 2009

How Do You Know When a Church is Dying?

"The church is dying!" a concerned member declares. And who feels they can argue? Average attendance is down considerably from those past glory years. The Sunday School looks quite a bit smaller than it did a generation or so ago. It seems that there was more energy, more enthusiasm, more sense of mission in those 'old days.'

Are these then the irrefutable signs that a church is on its way to closing the doors for good? In popular models of the church numbers are especially key. When attendance goes down along with general membership, so does the hope of any meaningful future. Other signs are rather subjective, and depend on one's definition of "exciting" or "enthusiastic."

I am hesitant to even attempt to define what it means when a church is dying. For starters, can we impose a certain number of criteria apart from a reasonable view of the church's historical context? In others words, is it fair to nakedly assess a church's future based on a chart-like comparison where 'up' is good and 'down' is bad? Is is possible that congregations instead have a history that comes in 'waves,' some rolling in high swells, and some, just as in life, dipping deep into the darker recesses of suffering and struggle?

As I look at my own rural parish I realize that numbers will never truly tell the story or future of this little corner of the Kingdom. Built and planted over 120 years ago as concerned Lutherans attempted to minister to increasing numbers of those carving out a place in the Northwoods to farm, the congregation grew naturally right long with those burgeoning farm families. At its peak it was not uncommon to see a household of as many as 14 children. Can you imagine the kind of Sunday School you could have with such 'mega-families'? Yes, 50 or more children in those days was not at all uncommon. Youth groups really never required recruitment. They were the expected part of what then formed the center of the social activity of those days.

Times, of course have changed. Radically changed. Families are smaller. Much, much smaller. Farms are fewer. Many other activities compete for the attention of young people that couldn't be imagined in those simpler times. Morals are often in shreds, the world having crept in the back door of a generation that enthusiastically embraced it and all its enticements. We battle new demons in these days. Demons that seem more sophisticated and crafty than before. Now it seems that we can be in the middle of a bustling city yet feel like we are a lone outpost in the prairie. Indeed, we are cultural outposts, for a culture alien to our ancestors have since surrounded us and left us as islands.

Yet still we do not die. Babies continue to be brought to the font to be given new life in Christ. Marriages continue to be blessed at the Lord's altar. The sound of children still resonates in the basement hallways as teachers patiently attempt to teach them for one more hour. True, we are older and fewer. But we are still here.

How does one gage life and death in these cases? If life is of Christ, we must start with Him. Is Christ still proclaimed? Is His life-giving flesh still offered in the Blessed Sacrament? Are children still buried in the tomb of the watery grave to be raised to new life through Christ? If all this is true, then life is present.

Quite often a doctor will listen intently to a faint pulse, but will not declare the patient deceased. He wouldn't even say the patient is dying. It would be unthinkable. Why then would we want to declare a church dying if the pulse of her activity at a given moment seems weak and difficult to hear to our sometimes poorly tuned ears? Bombarded by the loud, harsh sounds of our culture we lose the ability to feel the softer vibrations of genuine living reality.

Any time we attempt to call the moment of death in a church we risk making the wrong call. God does not need large wealthy congregations, or buildings flush with people and activity. He can use these things, but He is not dependant on them. He also is know to allow his children to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, so that in faith they might learn anew, grasping only the cross for comfort, that He is with them, and they will not fall.

So for today I'm not going to think any more of what it means when a church is dying. I guess I'm no longer sure if it's a question we can even ask.

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