The resurrection of a dying church

When the deluge sweeps in, we can hope in the idea that we are only just learning to swim.

By Alex Gallimore

I became a pastor during the scorching summer of 2012. Although I was right out of divinity school where I had been trained to think theologically and had accumulated quite a bit of local church experience, the skills of translating those experiences to practical parish leadership was very much still under construction. I was unbelievably green. Excited, for sure. Hopeful, optimistic and ready for the challenge — but also very, very green.

When the moving truck arrived at our new home, I was greeted with the news that a church member, whom I had never met, had died. With my life still packed in boxes from local liquor stores, I went to work.

Our congregation had been an aging congregation for many years. That first day in town revealed to me that we were also, quite literally, a dying congregation. Since then 20 members of our beloved community have gone on to glory, including two former pastors. As an idealistic seminarian at Wake Forest, I never imagined making a name for myself as a funeral preacher. Yet there I was, in the churchyard, sweating through my suit in the 100-plus degree heat. Little did I know that God was brewing something else that summer — something that would reverse the trajectory of our congregation and renew us with a new sense of energy and purpose that would span multiple generations of our church.

Shortly after beginning my ministry I facilitated a conversation during our Wednesday evening Bible study that asked three questions: Who have we been in the past? Who are we today in the present? And who do we want to be in the future?

As one could imagine, it was easy for us to discuss the past. Ours is a very historic church boasting epic stories of the good old days, a golden age when numbers were up and church seemed easy, stories of plenty and boom. People came, served, gave and stayed.

The present was a little more difficult to discuss, but still overwhelmingly positive.

When we got to the future, anxiety fell upon the room. Aware of the realities of our own decline, everyone in the room echoed a similar sentiment. “We really need to find a way to get more younger people to church.” That was the fix. If we, a historic, traditional church, could find a way to draw a younger audience, everything would be OK.

Every church says they want to reach young people, that they want young families involved in their ministries. This, to any church, is a sign of “growth.” As I reflected on these cries for a more youthful congregation, something profound struck me. More than a desire to capture the younger demographic as a sign of growth, our church was longing for a sense of life and health — two precious commodities that, after 20 funerals, was fading fast.

That season of death had weighed on our church. It had weighed on me. Truthfully, during that difficult season in and out of funeral homes and parlors, I almost lost myself. I had grown close to many of these people. I was their pastor. I loved them. Although most of them were elderly “shut-ins,” these were the builders and pillars of the church. How do we go on without those who paved the way? How could I, as the leader and shepherd, remain optimistic and continue to move us forward in the midst of such loss?

I spent more time than I care to admit gazing into the abyss, doing absolutely nothing. It was almost paralyzing. Yet, as every possible emotion came over me, eventually, the abyss, as Nietzsche promised, began to stare back. In the darkness of death, I, the pastor, was reminded of the hope of resurrection.

We were not alone. God had not forsaken us. The dry bones we placed into the ground and the dry bones that had overtaken our church could live again. We could be revived and renewed. Although we felt that we were in a season of meaningless, it was out of that valley of death that our salvation found us.

On the first Sunday of Advent 2013, I took a daring risk as a pastor. By that point I had performed seven funerals since Labor Day, and although there was no reason to make such a promise, I entered the pulpit and declared that 2014 would be a year of jubilee for our church.

Building on the Old Testament concept of a year in which all that had been lost will be restored, we, as a people, charted a new direction. Instead of a church filled with sorrow over the loss of so many members, and instead of a church obsessed with trying to imitate heath with the presence of youth, we were going to come together and seek the promised jubilee of God. Instead of dwelling on all that we had lost, we decided as a covenant community to embark on a journey toward all that God had yet to give us.

This sounds like a cheap “name it, claim it” gimmick; however, it was much more than that. It was perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned as a pastor: That when we are at our absolute wit’s end and cannot prevent the deluge from sweeping in, we can hope in the idea that we are only just learning to swim.

As their pastor, I was blessed to be the person to own their grief and redirect it toward the coming kingdom. Our bones were still dry, but we believed a new life was coming.

When it comes to pastoral leadership, we’re always talking about the healthiest ways to lead change and transform our churches. New methods to apply and books to read. I have quickly realized that the best way to truly lead and renew a church is to simply pay attention to the events that are out of our control and love people through them while connecting them with the promises of the gospel.

Those 20 funerals could have killed us. Instead, they were a new source of life. They brought us together as a church and reminded us of what was most important. As we walked through the valley, we rediscovered who we were and where we truly wanted to go. We were a people of the jubilee. We were a church for whom the truly good days were yet to come.

Seven months later, our prophecy is being fulfilled. Our ministry has been resurrected from the grave and is more vibrant than ever. Ironically, we also now have a thriving young adult ministry. We found our stride once we were willing to lose it. We were risen to new life when we died to the old. We found our life and health and began to share it with others the moment we believed we could.

Jubilee, jubilee — we’re all invited to this happy jubilee!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.