I’m pretty sure when church people read the words from John the Revelator, “Behold I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5), they never thought their beloved churches might be a part of that which is being made new. And yet here we are: church membership and attendance are down, money is down, church vitality and health are down. This makes us worry. We hear the words from Gil Rendle that “1/3 of United Methodist Churches will be closed by 2030,” and we quiver with fear. Surely not our church!
And in our worry and fear we go back to old John’s words from the Lord: “Behold, I am making all things new!”
Besides making individual lives new, Jesus is speaking a gospel word to our local churches, annual conferences, and our denomination as a whole – Get ready, new things are on the horizon!
Most every church I know says in their moments of struggle, “We need a resurrection here.” And they’re right. As Christians, we are a resurrection people. Jesus got off the cross to conquer sin and even death – that’s what we say we believe and even stake our hope on. And dying churches do need resurrection. However I wonder if we know exactly what we mean when we say we want our churches to experience resurrection?
John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus appeared to Mary and when she finally recognized him, she exclaimed, “Rabbuni,” to which Jesus replied, “Don’t cling to me” (John 20:16-17). Interestingly John never tells us that Mary lurched forward to grab and hold onto Jesus. This has always struck me as an odd passage of Scripture, and then I ran across a commentator who said maybe it was a rhetorical statement Jesus was making – Rabbuni was my Friday name. This is Sunday. God has done a new thing!
When we say we want our churches to experience resurrection, how tightly are we holding onto old stuff? What about programs we do because we’ve always done them – even though we can’t remember why we started them in the first place? What about mindsets on how the church should look or dress or who should be sitting in our beloved pews? What about images of the past we cherish and mourn the loss of – even at the expense of passing up potential new opportunities to engage in ministry? What about buildings that have long served their purpose, cost too much to maintain, and aren’t being used on a regular basis due to lack of people and ministry?
God is calling us to a new era of ministry where churches do the courageous work of letting go of old stuff in order to discover how God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). This is why I believe repositioning our churches through strategic partnerships, shared ministry, and even mergers is the faithful new work God is calling us to.
We live in a world that fears death and tries to avoid it at all costs. And yet Jesus tells us, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever will lose their life for my sake will save it” (Matt 10:39). This counts for our churches too! Friday is here and it’s time to consider the things we’re willing to let die in order to experience the new life of resurrection.
Is it letting go of a beloved program that was once faithful but whose purpose has expired?
Is it letting go of a building and downsizing in order to become more financially healthy and missional in the ways we spend God’s money given through our offering plates?
Is it considering a creative partnership with another church nearby knowing that while it means giving up a church life we’ve always known, we will receive a new life in return and an opportunity to reach new people for Christ?
It’s time for our local churches to stop looking at one another as competition and start seeing each other as partners in mission (we’re better together, after all!). It’s time for annual conference leadership to do the hard work of establishing benchmarks for faithfulness, lovingly holding churches accountable, and prayerfully discerning the best ways to lead congregations through this very difficult, yet faithful, work of living their discipleship together.
We must learn to let go of Friday things in order to embrace a Sunday of new life!
Leadership consultant, Roselinde Torres, gives a TED Talk where she talks about the traits of great leadership. She says great leadership begins by asking three important questions: 1) How diverse is your network to help you make decisions? 2) Where is your next change? 3) Are you courageous enough to abandon the past? Maybe we should start asking these questions in our local churches and in our annual conferences…
The church as we know it is in decline, and yet God is calling us into a new day of being church. Do you feel like your church is at a stalemate and needs to begin a process of major change? Are you asking the hard questions about what could/should change in your local church in order to reach new people for Christ? Are you asking your DS and conference leadership to help you make tough decisions?
To put it another way, is your church asking the fundamental question of discipleship – Are you willing to die in order to be resurrected to new life with Christ?
The Rev. Ben Gosden serves as pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga. He blogs at Covered in the Master's Dust.