We were headed for separate coasts, they to California and I to Pennsylvania. But for a long stretch of four hours we were sojourners in adjoining seats in the lobby of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. At first the conversation was about our separate reasons for being in Minnesota. Over time, he related that he was a small-town newspaper editor and I shared that I served a Lutheran congregation.
That's when he related that they were Lutherans also and belonged to a small congregation whose future was in doubt. At one point he said there was hope that the Lutherans could share facilities and costs with local Episcopalians but their bishop had closed them down. Now with a retired pastor serving that Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, these folks doubted their church would survive beyond him.
Though hardly new, this is a familiar and growing phenomenon across America. Churches, thousands of them, organized for the proclamation of the Gospel, whose fortunes have changed, now find themselves barely in a survival mode. We know there are many factors in this trend, among them, changing demographics, dysfunctions, a dying "Builder Generation" of committed people who are not being replaced and congregations without a purpose beyond their doors.
I can remember being drawn to an imposing church building years ago only to discover that it had been abandoned. In some urban areas, I have heard it said the only urban strategy they have is closing churches. That, of course, isn't true. I know bishops, pastors and lay leaders who, across our country, pray and agonize over congregations at risk.
In a recent press release the ELCA announced that starting new congregations would be a priority. As the son of a pastor organizer who started three mission congregations, I welcome that. But are we as intentional about saving congregations and growing healthier ones?
I don't think so.
Earlier this year I preached at a mission congregation in Arizona whose pastor and people impressed me deeply. Their story is one of struggle and survival but with a tremendous will to live and grow. As I understand it, perhaps five years ago, their Grand Canyon Synod bishop told them their "mission" had been completed and it was time to close. Funding was cut off, recognition ended and the pastor dismissed from this call.
But a core group of members, along with this pastor, had a vision for mission and refused to disband. They reorganized, changed their church name, and joined the then newly forming Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. They are committed not only to build an addition, but also to reach the Mexican population for Jesus Christ. And it is working.
The key often is letting go of old models, being flexible, trusting the Holy Spirit and staying grounded in the Word. It will not return empty.
Growing Christ's church is hard work and requires dedicated pastors and bishops who surrender pride of office and position to continually build each other up for the sake of the kingdom. And nothing else.