There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Deuteronomy 32:50
“None of us are getting out of here alive.” Jim Morrison, Valerie Harper, Evel Kneivel, Colin Murphy, Hilary Swank, Jill Shalvis, Elbert Hubbard (and these are just from the first couple of pages of results on Google)
Life is terminal. We all get that. Dying is just a part of living, and that is an eternal truth. We may not like it, we may not be ready to fully embrace it, but it is truth. And eventually, it is a truth with which we simply must deal.
But have you ever thought about it as it relates to churches (i.e., to local bodies of believers)? Have you stopped to realize that there is not a single “local church” which has been around from the very beginning? All those “churches” mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3? Gone. Even the good ones. And the church you serve right now will die one day as well. It is the natural order of things.
Churches are, metaphorically speaking, living organisms. They breathe, they multiply, they regenerate, they get sick, and eventually, they die. They exhibit all the same signs of life (and of death) as any other living organism. My perception of “church” changed pretty significantly once I began to consider the implications of this.
In the first place, churches need nourishment and exercise in order to be healthy. The nourishment is the Word of God. The exercise is the stretching and bending and reshaping that Word constantly calls us toward. And it also is the challenges (even the persecution) which God permits us to experience. Exercise only makes us stronger.
Second, this concept made me look at missions and church starts differently. Reproduction is just a natural function of churches. Starting new churches is something every church should be a part of doing in one way or another. It is the natural spread and propagation of the gospel…of making disciples.
But the most disturbing way churches are like living organism is that they die. It is a part of the natural order of things for them to do so. Neighborhoods change or go away altogether. Ministry opportunities likewise shift underneath us. Key leadership families leave or die off. Congregations age. Churches sometimes grow less and less relevant to the rapidly changing communities they serve. Churches grow older and tired and unable to meet the vast needs around them. Rather than growing and becoming more and more vibrant, they shrink and wither and find themselves having to make horrendous decisions about personnel and ministries alike. The difficult truth is, there are churches all around us who, frankly, just need to be given permission to die, to shut their doors and fade away. There is no shame in that…not after a church has long since fulfilled its purpose for being.
When a church recognizes these signs and decides to wind down, and leaves its resources (its buildings, its assets, maybe even a few of its people) to a new work…one more able and willing to meet the needs of the community it serves, one with youthful vitality and passionate people longing to love and to be loved…when a church is willing to face that music and give birth to something new, even in its death, then its legacy lives on even after it is gone. That is what dying well looks like for a church.
Maybe you know a church which is just waiting for someone to love them enough to give them permission to enter into rest. Maybe you’re in a church like that. No shame in that. Nothing to hide from. Embrace death. It is part of life. Find a way to create a legacy. Die well.