When a Community Grows Old
While analogies between individuals and organizations are never perfect I am seeing some parallels between an aging person and the church these days. The membership of the church I serve is growing old, no new members are joining, and so some start to see that our community of faith could die. The United Church of Canada is seeing many churches close these days and so that possibility looms large.
As with individuals it strikes me that the church can plan for its death. We can think through the inheritance we will leave behind and so doing may even give us some sense of peace as we near the end.
Again, as with individuals, I think we have three categories of things to bequeath to those who follow. The first is the material stuff. We have a massive building and it is filled with our many possessions. The second is sentimental items, things we value highly but which have little meaning to others. And thirdly we have some wisdom to pass along, things we have learned by being an intentional community for many years.
As for the material stuff, while it may occupy most of our time in planning, it will be the easiest to pass on. Some organization or company will repurpose of the building and property, hopefully in a way that brings life to the community.
As for the sentimental items, sadly they are unlikely to find a new home. We may grieve the fact that no one wants a lovely pulpit bible but beyond adorning our communion table such a thing has little purpose.
As for the wisdom we possess, this is what I would truly hope to see preserved. We have learned important things such as, “imposing one’s own identity and values on others causes damage.” This may seem self evident but people do this over and over again to one another. When you meet someone who worships differently, thinks differently, lives differently listen to them, ask them why. Somewhat connected to this is our insight that God is at work beyond us. We may focus on the good, we may strive to do the right thing, we may spend a lot of time discerning the will of God and aligning ourselves with that will but we are never the complete or only expression of that will. God is at work beyond us and we do well to remain humble and celebrate the good being done by others. Finally we have learned that we don’t need as much stuff as we thought. We never need as much stuff as we think we do. We made our church as big as we could possible afford but we would have been just as happy with half the space and stuff. Keep it simple.
There are undoubtedly other lessons to be gleaned from our lived experience. I hope we reflect on what those are and offer them up as part of our legacy.
I should clarify that the end of our community of faith is not imminent. We are pretty healthy right now. But just as with individuals one should not wait until one is at death’s door to begin planning one’s legacy. Reflect on the wisdom you have to pass on to your children. Reflect on what inheritance they will really treasure for years to come. Life is defined by change, by mortality. May the acknowledgement of this reality be gift rather than curse, blessing rather than cause for fear. May you know peace. Amen.