In years past, I have often assumed (rather smugly, I’m afraid) that the category of “dying churches” was fairly uniform. My mind’s eye pictured a dying church as having a somewhat aging building with somewhat aging members, but the real factor that put it firmly in the “dying church” category was a mental image of members rigidly refusing to acknowledge the changing community around them and a pastor lazily contented with merely holding the congregation’s hand as it slowly passed away.
Such an image was a stereotype. A personal bias born from pride. As such, I admit that I was wrong to assume that all dying churches could be roughly thrust into a single pigeon-hole.
I still assume that there must be a dying church like that out there somewhere, but I’ve never seen it myself (funny how stereotypes never seem to exist in reality, isn’t it?). But I have seen a number of other kinds of dying churches, and like each human death, each of them carries a unique kind of grief. I’ve seen still-born churches that for some passed away almost without notice but for whom the agony of unrealized hopes tore the spirit and soul from others. I’ve seen churches like the oldest resident in a nursing home, quietly resigned that the friendships of youth have faded away one by one but not having had the grace of one’s own eternal rest yet given.
I’ve seen churches with undiagnosed and unrecognized diseases; hale and hearty on the outside but inside having a congenital defect, a ticking clock that moves inexorably forward to the day it will simply stop. And I’ve seen churches with a virulent cancer that unceasingly consumes everything that is healthy within itself, a hunger that is never filled, a thirst that is never sated.
I’ve seen churches with mortal wounds gasping their final breaths even as dedicated medics worked to save them. And I’ve seen churches whose wounds, though once severe, have long since healed but the memory of pain and the visible scars have left them with a nervous fear.
Friends, I have stared death in the face more times than I ever care to remember. Sometimes from a polite distance, other times at such close proximity that the church’s death threatened to envelop me with it. I have seen Satan opening his cruel maw as he eagerly expected a fresh meal to devour, and I have seen even God’s own people shake with fear.
But Satan forgets one thing: I. Am. Yet. Alive. God’s people yet draw breath and walk upon this earth. And the God in whom we live and move and have our being dwells within us, His unending life propelling us towards an eternal future. In the relentless and fever-pitched battle for the souls of our community, only one army has the guarantee of victory! Neither side shall emerge unscathed, but only one shall lift their swords in shouts of triumph!
What is the difference between a dying church and a living one? The church that holds God’s Word and speaks it, the church that possesses God’s gifts and stewards them, the church that holds fast to the cross with one hand and shakes the other in open defiance of the Devourer’s impotent rage, this is the church that lives. She may have scars, she may have wounds, but as long as she yet draws breath and walks upon this earth, she lives in Christ and Christ in her.
Christ is alive. God's people are alive. I am alive. His church yet lives.