The End Is the Beginning
When asked to describe my work, I will often say that I am a pastor to the pastor. I serve as a bowl where they can pour out the pain and anxiety of their difficult work in order to sort it through with God. For the last month, there has been a theme in every minister that I have sat with, around the globe.
Ministers are experiencing deep despair and fear at the state of the church. They convey to me a sense of their own personal failure and acknowledge the decline of membership, giving, and involvement. These are good ministers who do good work. They are faithfully calling their churches to deeper discipleship and yet the results seem to worsen with every call. “What am I doing wrong?” They beg to know and would fix anything that could be named.
When a refrain is repeated this often and carries such an emotional charge, it is wise to name the elephant that is taking up so much space in the room of our collected being. And, as these brave pastors name their despair and fear, I am commissioned to name the truth. Lean in close: sometimes churches, local groups defined by religious similarities, die.
Even as some churches are dying, the kin-dom of God* is not dying. We are not powerful enough to kill the redemptive movement of bringing humanity into fuller relationship with God. The mysterious and good God is on the move, and the end results are out of our hands. Power structures are being turned upside down, as Jesus promised they would be. Outsiders and insiders are awkwardly finding common ground, as Paul encouraged. The marginalized are becoming the leaders just as it was 2000 years ago. The family of God is healing and maturing, the dream whispered throughout the story of Scripture.
Pastors, hear this truth as well: God is not disappointed in your genuine efforts to mature those in your spiritual care. God is not afraid of shrinking congregations. All the resources of this universe are God’s. The power that stopped the sun, healed the sick, and raised the dead is still at work in this world and this time, even in your church. God is not angry with you.
Breathe deeply again.
Trust that the story is still true.
Hold the results of your work more loosely.
Look for God’s infinite creativity already working out new solutions.
Remind yourself that those solutions will be good, for that is who God is, even if you can’t see the goodness yet.
Does this mean that your church membership will be as you know it in 10 years? I don’t know.
Does this mean that your staff, your job description, your salary will be the same in 5 years? I don’t know.
For some, you may discover that your work in this season is to guide your church toward dying well. This is noble, hard, God-filled work, and it is intricately nuanced as well. There is deeper discipleship to be found in learning to die with your eyes on generativity and grace. You will first need to glimpse the vision before inviting your church to do the same. So choose to turn your worrying, fretting energy to softening your gaze toward the future.
God’s work has been unfolding since before time began and will surpass your understanding and management of it. Search the story of Scripture with eyes to see how God has moved in the past. Use that vision to search for where God is already moving. Join there. Move in this direction. This is looking with resurrection eyes into an unknown future.
The faith that this season requires of all who are faithful to the kin-dom of God is to believe that death is not the end.
Death of a person is not the end.
Death of a dream is not the end.
Death of an expectation is not the end.
Death of a church is not the end.
We follow a risen Christ; did we forget that you have to die before you are raised?
*Kin-dom of God is a phrase in feminist theology, a nuanced expression of the family of God introduced by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz as an alternative to kingdom, which alludes to power, hierarchy, and domination. You can read more about the phrase here.