Monday, February 25, 2013

Must congregations die?

I have spent a lot of time in recent years spouting off about how some older and dying congregations ought to be willing to die and make way for the birth of other congregations that better meet the needs of the people attending them today.  I stand by this to a certain degree, but I was also really humbled yesterday.  

I went to hear my friend Asher preach at his teaching congregation, Salem English Lutheran, in Minneapolis yesterday.  This church is part of an interesting ministry model in which three congregations share worship space as well as education, social justice, and fellowship activities. Salem English Lutheran church shares its very old building with two other congregations, a UCC church and a Disciples of Christ church.  Three small and dying congregations combined to form a thriving new community called the Springhouse Ministry Center.   I went to the 8:30am service, along with about 20 other people, and I was the youngest in the room by at least 30 years.  The 10:30am jazz service is apparently thriving (I was not able to attend that this week) but this 8:30 service was very traditional and you could tell that the congregation had been together a very long time.  The most touching aspect for me was watching an elderly man shuffle to the back of the room and kneel on the very old kneeling rail during the confession.  This congregation was no longer meeting in the sanctuary and met in a renovated chapel in the basement (probably a meeting room at some point) and this kneeler was moved from the upstairs sanctuary to this space because this elderly parishioner, and others like him, had probably been doing that very same thing for the last 50 years or more.  Maybe he had been kneeling in this same way with a partner and children and now was alone doing the same thing.  There was so much history in that room and it matters.  This is a home.  

When we talk about whether or not congregations should die to make room for others, there are real people involved whose stories and histories and traditions matter. In a way, it is a lot like chaplaincy.  Every person, every congregation, is a world in and of themselves.  They are valid by virtue of their presence in the Body of Christ.  I feel a draw to mission redevelopment congregations and I feel a draw to chaplaincy, and I think they are in many ways the same thing.  Meeting people where they are at, engaging with the brokenness of the world, and being a non-anxious presence as a pastor.  I am thankful for that lesson yesterday.  

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