By Jeff Brumley
The death of a church isn’t an easy subject, particularly to those who are losing their spiritual home.
But it is something being talked about more and more as church closings are becoming an increasingly regular occurrence — some estimates are nine a day in the United States.
The trend took on a very high profile Dec. 28 when Baptist author and pastor Rick Warren gave the final sermon at Mars Hill Church, the Seattle-based megachurch that dissolved after Mark Driscoll, its lead pastor of 20 years, resigned amid church discipline and leadership issues.
In a pre-recorded video beamed to Mars Hill’s numerous campuses, Warren urged members of the dissolving church to be gracious and forgiving to Driscoll and other church leaders during their grief. He urged an avoidance of bitterness and gossip, and an embrace of forgiveness and gratitude.
Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California, said God often changes the plans for his people. Mars Hill’s demise should be looked at as a new opportunity to find and do God’s will.
But are Christians even capable of such a spiritual perspective, and feeling such positive emotions, when faced with something as demoralizing as the death of a church?
Brett Younger, an associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, told Baptist News Global it depends on the spiritual maturity of the congregation.
“But the answer is yes — you can be grateful when your church is no longer going to be,” he said.
Younger responded to a number of questions about church closings.
Given the dire predictions about church decline, do you think this kind of preaching is something that should be taught in seminaries — or is it already being taught?
I hope we’re giving students skills that will help them in all kinds of different situations, but I have never heard of a class on what is your last sermon going to be. … Local churches that cease to be have been the routine throughout church history. None of St. Paul’s churches still meet on Sunday morning. Any sense that our churches were permanent was a misunderstanding of the church of Jesus Christ.
What skills would prepare future ministers for that?
The mistake is thinking that the minister’s job is to make the institution stronger …. The minister’s job is to make the institution more Christ-like, and that does not always mean you will be successful [sustaining the institution] …. The fact that we preach sermons for churches that will no longer exist is a reminder that our hope is no longer in the local church, but that it’s bigger than that and more eternal.
What scripture passage, if any, illustrates this situation?
1 Chronicles 16, where David says “remember the wonderful works God has done.” That is a farewell to a church, or it can be. The three points for any closing sermon are “remember, be grateful and imagine.”
Since a church closing is often a time of mourning, should these sermons take on a funeral tone?
I think there are times when the demographics are so against a church that the job of the minister is hospice — it’s to care for them through this difficult time and to help them recognize that the end of their life is not the whole of their life. There are ministers for whom the pastoral care becomes the center of their ministry. But even in those situations, they need to keep pointing to a bigger hope, a more eternal hope — a future that’s bigger than Mount Pisgah No. 3.
In his sermon, Rick Warren urged the members of Mars Hill to envision a new calling. Is that kind of clarity possible during a time of such loss?
One of the lessons of Mars Hill may be that they were too dependent on a charismatic leader and not dependent enough on faith in Christ. They are going to have trouble being faithful because they haven’t been through the seasons a normal church goes through. They had phenomenal growth and rapid decline. Most churches live together longer than that …. In some ways, Mars Hill is not your model. What people need help with is how do you help the church that’s filled with senior citizens who can’t pay their bills and they have to say goodbye to their friends? That’s a different situation.
Can you think of examples where churches went out on a positive note like that?
There are churches that have chosen at the end to be true to who they are. They sell their property and give it to something they believe in, and then go join another church and make it stronger.