I declare this congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, to be closed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
[Service of Leave Taking; Evangelical Lutheran Worship-
Occasional Services for the Assembly]
I recited the above words for the first time in public on Sunday, December 28, 2014, at the end of the service of Holy Closure, the final worship service at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Youngstown, Ohio.
Although I had rehearsed the rite several times in the days before the service, it was the first time I had proclaimed them before a live assembly of the faithful who gathered to grieve the closing of this 202-year-old church. As I looked out at the mournful faces, my jaw quivered, my voice trembled, and my eyes filled with tears. I never imagined it would be so difficult.
But it was, and is, like presiding over a funeral of a dearly loved parishioner. I had never met the overwhelming majority of these people before that Sunday, and yet here I was, lamenting their loss. I had had some contact with them electronically in preparation for the day, but it wasn’t until that last Sunday in December that I heard them share their stories and recall the treasured memories they had of this church building. One person after another echoed the same or similar reminiscence: “I was baptized in this church.” “I was confirmed here.” “I was married in this church.” If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.
Our Director for Evangelical Mission, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, had done most of the necessary planning for the closure, including meeting with the congregation’s leaders to discuss the future of the congregation. As I stated in my homily, which you can read in my previous post, the conversations were necessary and regretfully, long overdue.
It was a day unlike any other in my brief four months in office. I was closing a congregation for the first time. I am struck by the reality that it won’t be my last.
Even though I was on another continent when I began writing this post, a half-world away and nearly two weeks removed, my heart was still back in Youngstown, mourning with the people whose congregation is no more. My mind swirled each night for the first few nights, wondering what the future holds for many of the congregations in our synod, and asking myself what God is trying to teach us through this time of decline. How do we become better at doing ministry? How do we discover new ways to make the Gospel meaningful to those who no longer find it relevant? How do we make Christ known to those who have not yet heard the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness?
These are the questions we will struggle with in the coming year.
I came across a quote from noted Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, which states: “In our contemporary circumstances of ministry, I suggest that despair is the defining pathology that robs the church of missional energy and of stewardship generosity.”1
I find myself lapsing into that despairing mode more often than I care to admit. And I’ve discovered that when I raise the issue of declining congregations in any public forum, the mood of the conversation turns somber. In one of my reflections for our synod newsletter, I mentioned the statistic that 139 of our congregations are in decline. A pastor who visited my office mentioned to me that one of his parishioners latched on to that statistic and, in effect, blamed that pastor as if somehow the entire decline of the synod was his fault!
I had quite a bit of time to gain some perspective during my study tour in Europe. Even though Germany, where I visited, is the birthplace of Lutheranism, nearly 80% of the people there are unchurched. Although on nearly every corner there is a symbol to Christianity and/or Lutheranism – churches, statues, monuments – people, for the most part, look upon them as just symbols and nothing more.
Part of that has to do with the fact that for over half a century, the country was under two oppressive dictatorships. There were the Hitler years from 1933 to 1945, and the Soviet domination that governed the eastern half of Germany from 1945 until 1989.
But what does it mean to be church in a country – or, to be honest, in a world – that doesn’t care about church?
I want to explore this question over the next few posts. I think it is relevant to all of us as pastors and lay people to analyze what is happening in our synod, in our country, and in the world. I would love to engage any of the readers to this blog in the conversation. I am not an academician so I promise not to make this some scholarly treatise. But I would be interested in some good, honest reflection.
And I also must stress that while I may be sad at the moment, my faith is ever anchored in a God of abundance; a God who is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful in return; a God who will welcome us with open arms, though we reject that welcome. We may be fighting an uphill battle, but my hope is that God’s divine wisdom and mercy will endure forever. I am comforted in particular today by two verses of Scripture, one from the prophet Isaiah and the other, a brief snippet from Psalms.
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
And from the words of the psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” [Psalm 30:5b]
May this day be for you a day filled with the joy of God’s love, grace, mercy and peace.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home, Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 7