Oh Lord, why is my church dying?
God, come to our aid
Restore our fortunate, like you did in years past
For you are the God of faithfulness
Stir our hearts Lord, let our passion beat for you
While there is no Psalm 151 in our Holy Scriptures, these words reflect a frequent cry from a growing number of churches. The church I serve did one of the most courageous acts possible this year; they canceled Vacation Bible School. Soon the laments reached my desk. “Our church is going to close!” “I remember when we had thousands of kids here every summer, now we are abandoning our mission!” “What did we do wrong?”
My response continues to be, take heart. For many of our smaller churches, the loss of Vacation Bible School represents a larger more painful shift. As we stare longingly at the mega church down the street, silently wondering if we are still relevant and useful to God, saying goodbye to a pillar like VBS seems like the beginning of the end. We smell the aroma of death in our beloved congregation and brace for the worst.
How quickly we forget that the church, more than any other institution, is in the resurrection business. In John’s Gospel chapter 11, Martha and Mary run to meet Jesus, full of grief because their brother Lazarus has died. Full of emotion, I imagine with some passion and anger they tell Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s easy in the face of death to turn to blame. If parents would just bring their kids to church, if the Bishop would just appoint us a better pastor, if we just looked like that church down the road… The demands of the sisters are matched by the questions of the crowd surrounding. Well Jesus, if you are the Son of God, why didn’t you do something? Again, they look for someone to answer for this death. Well pastor, if you are passionate about our kids, why couldn’t you make this work?
Jesus instead does not directly address the demands. He refuses to enter into the blame game. Instead, Jesus does what Jesus does best – he offers hope. He sees what others cannot see. When logic and sense see the end, Jesus instead sees a new beginning. “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
Can we believe that the death of VBS is instead, a doorway to life? Instead of lamenting a past that cannot be resurrected, can we instead with the eyes of faith, see what new thing God is birthing in its place? I have a suspicion that when Lazarus came out of the cave, he was a new person. He couldn’t go back to an old way of living, not after experiencing resurrection power. Our churches have that same hope, regardless of our size.
Even if I had an unlimited budget, countless staff, and thousands of kids lined up outside the church, I am not sure I would have Vacation Bible School. VBS began as a program to address a missional need in the community – kids were bored during the summer and needed a safe place to learn about the love of Jesus. The church can still offer them that, but in ways that better reflect the needs of our communities today. Most children are the opposite of bored during the summer. Between sports programs and all-day daycare, many of the parents I know feel burnt out and obligated to drag their kids to one more activity.
Instead, my church is asking new questions. What was our goal in hosting VBS and is there a better way to be relevant and faithful to God’s call? Our church’s purpose for putting together VBS was to build new relationships and connections with families in our neighborhood that do not attend church. Rather than pour countless hours, recruit tons of volunteers, and spend too much money on cheap trinkets, we decided to host a Friday night block party. We are creating a space for families to come find joy, not worry about cooking dinner, and move our church outside of our comfortable walls. Our other goal for VBS was to help children grow in discipleship. We decided that a better investment would be to organize a family mission trip where parents and students can serve and grow together. Notice that neither of these goals focus on increasing membership or giving.
Lazarus’ story in the Gospel of John ends with two options. For some the power of resurrection caused many to believe in Jesus. For others it drove them to the established religious authorities, who began creating a plot to kill Jesus. Your church’s story can either be the beginning of something new, something wonderful, something beautiful. Or it can be the beginning of a path that leads to death. It all hinges on where you place your faith.
By Rev. Dr. Katie Nix