Earlier this year, to assist our churches and faith communities to be involved in mission, MLT have set up three incubators: a "Pioneering" incubator to assist churches develop new initiatives such as missional communities, church planting, evangelism, and community services; a "Revitalisation" incubator to resource churches and pastors to transition their church to be mission-shaped and a "Palliative Care" incubator to develop a process and provide resources for a churches to "die gracefully".
Previous articles in Catalyst have focussed on the Pioneering and Revitalisation incubators, this one looks at the Palliative Care incubator.
Having a Palliative Care incubator may initially appear negative or morbid, in reality it is far from it. Birth and death are common to all living organisms, and churches are, at heart, living organisms. Just as with any organism they are born and breathe; multiply, regenerate, get sick, and eventually die.
So we shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge that sometimes churches die. It is a part of the life cycle of life. Obviously, we are talking about local congregations on street corners and not the universal Church that is the bride of Christ.
There are many reasons why these local churches may die. Neighbourhoods change and sometimes disappear, ministry opportunities change with changing demographics, key families and leaders move on, and sometimes they just grow old. There is no reason why we shouldn't see the death of a church as normal and natural.
The aim of the Palliative Care incubator is to help churches to courageously and honestly face the question of whether it is time for them to close. There is no shame in this, it is just a reality of life. However, in just the same way that some elderly people deny the need to prepare for their own death, churches often do the same hanging on for many long, sad years.
Facing up to the reality of our situation and honestly preparing for a churches death is not easy and obviously takes a step of faith. God call us to trust him, even in death. Jesus said, "Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24).
That death is not the end is a foundational truth to our faith. It is true not only for individuals, but churches as well. So we have every reason to have hope. What is more, with Jesus, even death can be fruitful. It has the potential to be the foundation of a new future. In fact, Jesus says that death is absolutely critical to a fruitful future.
What this means is that the death of a church doesn't have to be the end of its ministry. In fact, death is often the necessary precursor to a fruitful future. The death of a church has the potential to be a blessing to others and to continue the mission of Christ in the world through his church.
Perhaps one of the greatest acts of ministry in the history of a local church could be the unselfish investment of itself, through its death, back into the Kingdom of God. By giving up their life for the sake of others could be the catalyst for a rebirth of that church, or the planting of a new church, or some other initiative that will only bear fruit in years to come.
There is no shame in a church asking the question "Is it time to die?" In fact, it may be the Godliest question your church has asked for a long time.
Death is a part of life and a dying church has a choice to do die well. Perhaps it is time your church did just that. If you do, there are some clear signs that signal it is time your church should be thinking about dying well. Signs, such as: Is there a lack of interest in leadership positions? Does your lack a plan to address your current situation? Do people join and remain at your church out of obligation or family connection? Has the passion for worship and service is gone? Has your church lost its purpose? If your answer is yes to any of these questions it is time your church ask some hard questions.
The three incubators or Pioneering, Revitalisation and Palliative Care exist to help your church be fruitful. One way a local church can be fruitful is to die.
Death is not the end, but a new beginning. You may finish with heavy hearts, but it need not be without high hopes. You can die with dignity and leave a legacy. You can move from fear to gratitude and release your resources for future mission and ministry. it need not be a time of doom and gloom but a time of celebration, generosity and gratitude, after all our God is a God of new life and resurrection.