As I finish my Clinical Pastoral Education residency, I’ve been working as a pulpit supply preacher for Park View Christian Church, a small Disciples of Christ congregation in Chesapeake, Virginia, as they begin the process of looking for a new pastor.
Even though I find myself working a lot of hours between my hospital and this church, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to help this small, but caring, congregation in their worship service each week while learning about the intricacies and dynamics of parish ministry.
However, at the same time, I’ve begun to experience the same feelings of concern and helplessness that many in small, mainline church ministry have as they try to do ministry in an increasingly unchurched world.
With on average only 15 in our worship service each week and only two of these regular attendees under the age of 65, I’ve witnessed the anxiety church members have about the future of their congregation. And while this church has been trying new ideas such as offering different types of music, preaching styles and exploring new methods of engaging the community, nothing seems to work.
“Let’s face it,” one congregant told me last week. “We are a dying church.”
As part of the younger generation of those in ministry who are trying to explore new ways of doing ministry outside the same four walls where our grandparents worshiped, I believe there is a need for us to not only create new ministries outside the context of traditional churches through initiative such as 1001 New Worshipping Communities. But I also believe there is a need to help our “dying churches” see their possible closure as a metamorphic change into something new.
Hospice ministry is a component of my CPE residency. I work with a hospice chaplain as he helps patients not view their death as the end of their life, but rather view their death as being the beginning into what he calls “the next phase of life.”
Like mine, many congregations are facing dwindling memberships, shrinking financial incomes and lack of youth to carry on its legacy. If we accept the idea that our churches may close, we can be more open in finding ways our churches can do ministry long after the last Sunday worship service takes place.
From helping churches donate their buildings to new faith-based community centers, to helping churches sell their buildings and using the revenue to create faith-based community initiative foundations, if we can find ways to turn a church closure into a new ministry opportunity, we can show how the church has the ability to evolve, change and find new life even after death.
One of the ways my church is embracing its future is inviting other ministries to use their historic building. Every week, a new outreach ministry uses our building for its worship services two hours before ours begins. While at first I thought members of my church would have resentment of a newer ministry using its building, I was surprised how our members embraced this new start-up ministry and even benefit from its younger members who help tend to our buildings needs and care for our older congregation.
Even though its a realistic truth that many wonderful church communities who have done engaging ministry for generations will not be around 20 years from now, if we as a denomination can help churches members view their possible closure as not being a failure, but rather an opportunity to carry on their legacy through new ministries, then we would no longer view a dying church as being the end of a church. But rather, we would view a dying church as merely undergoing a metamorphic change into a new one.
Christopher Schilling is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.