Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Burying a Church

An anonymous friend wrote this article and asked me to publish it here.

This brother is not alone in his struggles.  And while I believe it's meet, right, and salutary for a pastor to feel a sorrowful sting every time he looks down from the pulpit and sees that no nursing children or newlywed couples have taken the seats of the saints he's been burying, he ought not feel like a failure.

When we look at a congregation of senior citizens who cling too tightly to the past with one hand and perhaps not tightly enough to the Word with the other, we see something to disdain.  

But this is not what Christ sees.  Rather, Christ sees a flock of wrinkled sheep that He will never cease to feed and love and defend, a collection of saints that He is still preserving with His life, even when all five of our senses tell us that death has already consumed them.

So no matter many times you've received no response when you've commanded Lazarus to arise, and no matter how hoarse you've grown from calling out his name, keep shouting.  You do not speak this word in vain.  And Christ will continue to bring life and resurrection through your lips that preach and your hands that baptize and commune.

Burying a Church
by an anonymous Lutheran pastor

Once, my wife told me that she thought that my strength as a pastor was comforting the bereaved, preaching at funerals, burying the dead. 

I was angry with her for saying that.  But she said that she meant it as a compliment.  “That’s probably the hardest thing for a pastor to do,” was something like what she said.

Burying people is probably near the top of the list of things I have done consistently and successfully as a pastor. 

On a given year I usually confirm around one, two, or three adolescents.  I may confirm or receive by affirmation of faith about as many adults.  I baptize around 8 babies, most of which are the grandchildren of members who don’t live nearby or the children of members who don’t attend Divine Service more than a few times a year. 

But I bury between 20 and 25 people every year.  About two people a month.  My work among the living is like a civil war officer trying to keep his command from routing, trying to get them to advance, to keep advancing.  But ground is lost every day. 

My work among the dead and the mourners is a constant labor during which I am largely isolated from the congregation, preaching to family members who are alienated from the church or who have forsaken the Lutheran church for communions that still seem to win victories.

Burying the dead often seems to be my real work, that and caring for those for whom death is now a houseguest. Preaching and teaching to those who are still healthy feels like preaching to the deaf, or like saying, “Lazarus, come forth!”  and he doesn’t.  Or like a ghost preaching to a congregation of ghosts.  Trying to work with the congregation’s leaders to administrate feels often like the restless movements of the bedridden—not only on their part but mine.  So much not only of what the congregation wants, but also of what I want—perhaps it is vain.  We think we are living and we can make things happen.  We feel like it is our responsibility.

One of the reasons why it is possible to comfort the bereaved and to comfort the dying is because I do not feel as though I am responsible to stop it.  With a congregation it is different. 

When I first arrived at the congregation I was confident that I could get people fired up and working together.  That’s poor theology, but theology is easily diverted or diluted by what we want and what we need—what I would be more quick to call “idolatry” in the face of congregational criticism.

Six years in, I feel utterly powerless and mostly exhausted.  You try to rally the troops and lead some charges, not realizing that many of the troops have been on many charges and are too tired to do it anymore.  But a few go with you, maybe against their better judgment.  Probably as many more want you to fail.  And the mass don’t pay any attention.

After awhile, you can’t do it anymore.  The politics within the congregation continues.  The numbers decline in church and school.  There’s no time to go after the sheep who are never join the rest of the flock by the pulpit and the altar.  There are no volunteers to help give rides to church or check on why others aren’t attending.  They’re overwhelmed with the inroads the enemy makes into their areas of responsibility—their children, grandchildren, sick parents and spouses.

And yet—the death of a congregation can be averted—can’t it?  Should we always chalk it up to God’s hidden will?  Or does God sometimes allow the congregation to decline because He wants His congregation to seek Him?  He hides Himself, desiring to be sought?  He wants the congregation to examine herself, to fast and pray for the lost sheep, to listen attentively again to His Word?  “In their distress they shall earnestly seek me…” Where is that verse?

Even with dying people we counsel them to accept God’s will as coming from the hand of a gracious Father.  “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”  Yet we also do not stop praying for the recovery of the dying—if it is God’s will. 

Often with the elderly it isn’t easy to know what to pray for, particularly if they’ve been suffering a long time.  And yet, I’ve seen families who—with good intentions, out of love—keep telling a dying family member, “It’s okay, grandma…it’s okay to go see Jesus now.”  But they don’t realize that sometimes it is not okay; it’s not because grandma doesn’t want to go.  She’s wanted to go for days or weeks; she is tired of the pain. 

But God is not ready yet.  He says, “No”.   But we keep telling grandma it is alright to go now, as though grandma decides when she lives and dies.

Because death is inevitable, we don’t want our loved ones to have to keep fighting it forever.  But burying a church?  It’s different.  There are young people and old people in a church.  There are those who are tired and those in the midst of their years; and there are children and infants from whose lips God has ordained praise, to silence the foe and the avenger.

One member of the congregation, I’ve heard, seems to want the congregation to die. “Why don’t you just let it die in peace!”  he’s supposedly said.

This often angers me.  But we’re in different places.  I’m 35 and this is the first congregation I’ve served.  This person is 80 something.  This person has had enough and no longer has the energy to keep leading charges.  Even though I’m worn out, if I was convinced it would accomplish something and I could get anyone to come with, I could probably lead scores more charges.  Let’s paint this!  Let’s convert that!  Let’s show mercy here!  Let’s study this!

But if I get this tired at 35, I can only imagine how I’ll feel at 85.  I would not give an 85 year old a guilt trip for not wanting to endure radiation treatments or chemotherapy. 

But a congregation doesn’t exist only for 80 year olds, even if they are the majority.  What about the 35 year olds?  What about the 20 year old mothers in the projects up the streets, and the 7 year olds with no father who don’t know the gospel of Jesus Christ?  What about the children who are the age of my son?  They are the ones who are going to have to come of age in a country in which the wealth and power we enjoyed have become ruins.  They are going to see the collapse of the great tower of Babel built by our great grandfathers, where the church and the Greeks and the Romans were built together in a great city that housed  Bach’s music and Luther’s theology as well as Thomas Jefferson and Robespierre and Nietzsche and Freud.  All of that is going to be a ruin by the time my son is older.  It is already becoming a ruin.  But then the barbarians will be scavenging marble from the aqueducts to build fortifications and vandalizing the statues of Apollo.

It’s easy to preach the pure Gospel at a funeral and say, “Your mother doesn’t have to lead anymore charges.  She rests with Jesus.”

What about for a congregation that wants to die, that wants to be able to die and say, “It was inevitable.  It couldn’t be helped.  The neighborhood was bad.  The old people were bad.  The school was bad.  The pastor was bad.”?

How can a congregation want to die?  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Much of the congregation wants to die.  Or doesn’t want to avert it’s death.  

Because death is upon it.  Sennacherib is surrounding the city.  But no one humbles himself before the Lord.  The church does not pray and fast or weep in dust and ashes.  The congregation does not rouse itself and seek the word of God.  It wants the good days to come back, and if they won’t come back, then nothing is worth working for or saving.  Let our children live in the ruins like owls in the wilderness.

But I think there’s a problem with my preaching and theology, too.  I scold the congregation, as though the dead could raise themselves.  Or as though the lame could strengthen their own wobbly knees. 

There may still be time left, but the congregation is no more able to contribute something to its own healing than the mourners are able to comfort themselves.  Mourners try to do that a lot.  They invent false comforts.  “He’s in a better place,” is the one we hear most frequently.  The funeral homes print stupid poems up on cards: “When you stand at my grave, do not weep.  I am not there.  I do not sleep.”

The first task is to take those away without giving the impression that you’re sadistic and you hate them (if possible.)  But it can be done, if there is compassion.  Because no one really believes the stupid poems.

Probably this has been one of my gravest sins in the ministry—that I foolishly preached and acted as though the congregation had any resources to effect its own repentance.  Or as if I had them.

No, neither the minister nor the congregation has the resources to prevent its death. Repentance and renewal in faith and the continued existence of the congregation are in God’s power alone.  All of the three depend on His will alone. 

Perhaps I should pray, “Lord, grant the congregation repentance and spiritual renewal.  And grant me to preach Your Word rightly, so that I don’t act as if our salvation is in our own hands.  And if it pleases You, let the congregation continue to proclaim Your Word and Your mercy to the next generation.”

It would probably be a good thing if my pastoral work among the congregation took lessons from my work among the dead.


Mark said...

My first reaction to this is this:

"I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."

(Ephesians 4 ESV)

Sometimes the hard pavement of the Lords Truth is the only answer. The application of this truth can only be accomplished through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Pastor of this Congregation.

Answers are often hard, but can always be given in Love.

As an "outsider" I think if I was the pastor I would pass this post out to the members of my church or better yet tell them from the pulpit and a mailing to all members. If you get no feedback you have lost your church. At least you would then know and have closure.


Dawnfire said...

I get the feeling that Mark missed the point of the post.

I wish to thank this Pastor for his work in bearing with/and counseling the dying. Thank you so much and may God answer your prayers.

Matt said...

This, dear Christians, is why we must pray constantly for our pastors. The Office of the Holy Ministry looks like an easy job from our perspective in the world; seldom do we see how much these guys suffer and worry on our behalf as they strive to obey Jesus who called them to the office.

After I read this, I called my pastor to tell him that I support him and that I'm praying for him. Prayer is the main thing; but a kind word can also work wonders.

Mark said...

"I get the feeling that Mark missed the point of the post."

You may be correct.

I assumed the church was in an area with young families.

If the church is in a community with none for whatever reason then you you are correct. and your comment as well as the one below yours is the correct response.

Jason said...

Matt, thanks for calling your pastor, I wish one person would have called to encourage me. I might still be a pastor today.

Mark said...

If the situation is this then I would stand by what I said above.


Hive I still missed the point?


That is a wonderful Church building and World Harvest Christian Church will enjoy it.

Nothing could be done?

Area church’s name changing Aug. 19

By Colette M. Jenkins
Beacon Journal religion writer

Published: August 8, 2012 - 11:18 PM | Updated: August 9, 2012 - 08:50 AM

Members of Harvest House Christian Center move into their new location at the former Grace Lutheran Church on North Portage Path Wedensday in Akron. (Karen Schiely /Akron Beacon Journal)

The name on the church building at 989 N. Portage Path is changing,

For more than four decades, the building has been home to Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod). Beginning Aug. 19, it officially will be home to World Harvest Christian Church

“The Grace property is tailor-made for our ministry. The layout of the building fits into the biblical description of the church functioning from the altar out. It has the classroom space we need. It gives us room for growth, and its location is in a great harvest field.

There aren’t a lot of other churches in the area.

The 450-member World Harvest congregation began moving to the Akron property this week while members of Grace boxed up its belongings to be moved next week by Two Men and A Truck.

Grace, which does not have a new permanent worship location, The last regular worship service at the current location is 10:30 a.m. Sunday, with a special farewell vesper service at 3 p.m.

The move is bittersweet for the congregation, which has dwindled to about 22 active members.

Wally Techau, Grace’s president, said that while the church building holds fond memories for the congregation, members recognize it no longer is feasible for them to stay.

Grace was founded in 1920 at the former Grace Elementary School as a Lutheran presence in West Akron. Church services were held in the school gym for 10 years, before the congregation dedicated its first building on Trigonia Drive.

The congregation moved to Portage Path in 1969.

Arnold Sandmann, a member of Grace since 1931 and the brother-in-law of Techau, remembers the days when the church was bustling with activity. The congregation boasted more than 500 members when it moved to Portage Path and enjoyed a Sunday school that attracted more than 150 students.

“I’ve spent 81 years in this congregation.

While the Lutheran congregation is praying for growth, those at World Harvest are thankful for a ministry that has experienced growth since it began in April 1989 in the basement of its founding pastors’ home in East Akron.

The local church offers a variety of ministries, including those for men, women, seniors, young adults, teens, children and single mothers. It also has dance, music, homeless, jail, addictions, audio-visual and bereavement ministries. Graduate level college courses in counseling (accredited through Merced, Calif.-based Friends International Christian University) will be offered at the church beginning in September.

The church is changing its name to World Harvest in conjunction with the move to its Portage Path location, which it is purchasing via land contract for $650,000. The 13,773-square-foot building has an area for a day care or a school, a sanctuary that seats 500, a commercial kitchen, a fellowship hall that seats up to 500, offices, classrooms, a smaller conference room with a half-kitchen, and four bathrooms.

“We are very conscious that the Grace congregation is going through a grieving process, having to leave a building where they have put in time and labor. We will continue to pray for them,” Parker said. “One bright spot in this for them is that the church building will continue to serve the community. We are committed to making people aware of Christ and building Christ into the lives of the people in the world.”


Laura said...

To the Author:

I come from a very similar church and two things are making a difference with our elderly congregation.

1. Probably most importantly is the constant prayer for the Holy Spirit to rain down on the people as you preach.
2. More of an extension of #1... The Lord sent you as a gift to your church. The Holy Spirit is 100% responsible for you being there. I encourage you to remain faithful to the message he brought you there to preach. Remember Phillipians when you are discouraged and downtrodden!! Paul gave thanks to God that he could be prisoner for Christ! 3:7

I'm not a preacher, or a minister, I can barely hang on to thought long enough to teach... But that knowledge is a comfort be she's I know anything I speak which helps others is not me. It's Him.

Let us bless His holy name!!

Unknown said...

My heart goes out to this pastor, but there is some faulty thinking on his part.

He talks about leading charges as if these efforts could turn the church around, if his members would support him. But these things are secondary to his primary calling of Word and Sacrament ministry. To think that these other things will rebuild the congregation is Church Growth thinking. He needs to be first a steward of the means of grace, and trust the promises of God that are connected with them, rather than look to other means. Likewise, if the congregation faithfully hears the Word and receives the Sacraments, it may be that age or the responsibilities of their vocations prevent them from joining these charges. A pastor ought not burden his people beyond what God requires of them.

He is rightly concerned for people near his congregation who have never heard the Gospel. But only the Holy Spirit can work faith in their hearts through the preaching of the Word. If they persevere in rejecting the Word, this is not something this pastor or congregation can control. The pastor is called simply to preach in season and out of season.Today the Word is often out of season, but our pastors need to keep preaching the Word. The rest is in God’s hands.

This pastor is concerned about dying civilization. It well may be that our culture will die within his son’s lifetime, but only God knows that. Christ has never burdened His Church with the responsibility of saving a dying civilization. The pastor compares our current culture to Israel, but ancient Israel might be compared to the Church, not to western civilization or to the United States. Neither of these enjoy the promise of God’s eternal favor, while the Church does. The Church is more than western civilization and will survive its decline and fall. The pastor also compares our culture to Babel, the culmination of the knowledge of good and evil. As such, it has long carried the seeds of its own destruction. He also compares our dying civilization with the fall of Rome. But Rome rose to power under paganism and fell under Christianity. We can have faith in Christ’s promise that His Church will prevail against the gates of hell, while kingdoms rise and fall.

This pastor is frustrated with his congregation. He says he has lashed them with the Law more than is right. As a member of a dying congregation, I have felt the lash of the Law . It can foster apathy, hurtful politics, even longing for the congregation’s death. Rebellion and despair are common responses of sinful people to the Law, and the remedy is not more Law. He has gained some insight that he is wronging his congregation but he should look deeper. He is being deceived by a theology of glory. If the congregation is dying, he thinks, they must be sinning. If they would repent, then they would grow. But are his people more sinful than the members of a thriving congregation? If they repent of sins they are guilty of, would that cause their success? The theology of the cross would give needed comfort and strength.

My congregation died last year. My husband and I stayed to the end, joining and leading charges. We have now joined a thriving congregation. Have we become less sinful because now our church is successful? We’re doing a lot less now! We haven’t changed, just our circumstances have.

There is a difference between a congregation and the Church. The Church is anywhere the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. As God draws people to Himself around a ministry of Word and Sacrament, human beings come together and culture happens. Congregational culture is potlucks and family nights, food pantries and giving trees, buildings and cleanup days. These are good gifts of God’s creation, but they are passing away. Picnics and potlucks will perish, but the Word remains forever. Congregations will die, but the Church will never die. Cing to God’s promises. He has not forsaken His people. Enjoy whatever gifts of congregational life remain, and rejoice in God’s undying grace.

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Theosmusicballa said...

I cannot focus on one thing while reading this blog post because it would become too long and it would miss the point. Thank you for this most beautiful post. I appreciate all you do with your sense of humor and I love your acknowledgment of Whose hands salvation is in. I'm sorry for your pain and frustrations, yet I know, to His is the kingdom, power, and glory, now and forever (maybe not historical, but true as there is any Truth!) Peace and Amen.

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