We all know talking about death is hard. We all know accepting that we will one day die, or accepting that we are dying, or that a loved one is dying, is difficult and painful. We know this. We believe in resurrection and yet we still don’t know what that is like.
We have been trying to use this language for the church for some time and I’m just not convinced it’s working. Or that it is helpful. Sure, we’re a resurrection people! And we love that metaphor of the church as Christ’s body that Paul uses throughout 1 Corinthians.
But let’s go back to grammar school. A metaphor is, and is not. The church is Christ’s body. The church is not a body that will be resurrected in the kingdom of God. We will be resurrected. The church will not be. Therefore, perhaps this resurrection imagery isn’t doing us any good. Neither is the dying part.
Maybe we’re sick of the words change and transformation, but I still think that’s better than dying and resurrection. At least, I think it describes more accurately what many of us are going through.
-Many churches are making difficult decisions about downsizing staff or reducing hours.
-Many churches are making difficult decisions about selling buildings and property.
-Many churches are making difficult decisions about closing or merging.
In the church universal, we like to use the image of the butterfly as an image of resurrection. However, once again, it’s a metaphor: we emerge as something new. We do not emerge from a chrysalis or cocoon, because we have actually died and have come to life.
I think the butterfly image is much more appropriate for where the church is at now. If the church is dying, it has to become something completely new. If, instead, the church is transforming/changing, maybe we can see a little easier where it is going and what it will be. And let’s face it, there are some things we don’t want resurrected! I’m sure the power structures, the meetings, and other bureaucracy involved in church life in the past is ready to go. Or to be completely changed. But we don’t want it resurrected.
While there are some churches that completely close down, sell their buildings and then reopen as a brand new church organization, most instead are going through the transformation/change process. Selling their building and renting space. Moving into more public spaces such as coffee shops and pubs and community centers. Pastors are changing from having office hours in a building with a desk and telephone with office hours clearly printed in the bulletin and newsletter, to posting where they will be online and hanging out for coffee (or at one church in Boston, a local ice cream parlor). Bible studies and faith conversations are happening in public spaces rather than the privacy of church walls. Things are changing, everywhere.
I believe fewer congregations are actually closing and restarting as much as they are dying. The rest are transforming or changing. And maybe that is because we are still stuck to the old ways in some part. We still enjoy singing hymns on Sunday morning and following orders of worship that have been practiced every Sunday for weeks on end. We are still following the liturgical calendar and reciting the Lord’s Prayer together.
I know, there are plenty of congregations who aren’t changing. Who aren’t transforming. Who don’t want to budge at all. And yes, maybe they will die. But I think many of us are changing and transforming into something new.
There are two big challenges facing the church when it comes to change/transformation: creativity, and money. Let’s start with money. We need money to keep our facilities open, to have our staff, to run our programs. Moving into public space allows us to use funds to invest in our community. Meeting at a bar or coffee shop means servers are being tipped, chefs are being paid, a small business is—well, getting business. If the majority of our budgets are being used to maintain old buildings, we may need to think differently about where and how we are investing our money.
Creativity is needed in talking about money. Creativity is also needed by our clergy. As a member of the clergy, I can assure you I want to get paid. I still have student loans to pay off for at least five more years along with other debt and monthly expenses. However, I’m also aware that we need to be creative and understand that our role is changing/transforming. Maybe a position can be shared between two small congregations. Maybe we have to become bi-vocational. Maybe we work in both the local church and the regional church to have a full-time position. There aren’t easy solutions but we have to start being creative about our role, and if ministry moves away from the way of the past there may be more opportunities in other areas to serve in different, new ways.
Yes, churches are changing and transforming. And some are dying. But I’m not sure we want much of what is dying to be resurrected. Instead, we should be transformed here on earth to do Christ’s work on earth as the church. As believers, may we be ready for resurrection in the reign of God.