By Karen Georgia Thompson
Death and Dying
As we continue to move through these days of pandemics – racial and viral – I find myself contemplating the ways in which death and dying continue to be an impolite topic of conversation. Even in the midst of the masses dying every day, there are very healthy ways to talk about death – even in the church.
My own confrontation with the topic is personal. I was ordained in 1999 and served in the parish for a number of years. In April 2018 when my Mother died, I planned and conducted her funeral. It was the first funeral service I planned and completed. I had journeyed with my Mother from her onset of dementia through here illness, which got progressively worse. I had been with her at her bedside when she did, so when my father asked me to conduct her funeral, it seemed fitting.
Less than two years after her death, as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into New York City, my father died. He was a health, active 85-yearold who contracted COVID-19 and died of complications caused by the virus less than 12 hours after going to the hospital. His death was sudden and given the social distancing requirements in New York at the time of his death, we were unable to have a funeral service for him.
Death is a challenging topic and yet, death is as natural as living. The seasons and cycles of life point us to endings and beginnings, to death and rebirth. Beyond weather as seasonal change, the earth cycles through periods of planting and harvesting. Seasons give us different fruits and vegetables, they indicate rainy and dry seasons for some. In all of these is evidence of change – transformation that brings us into new ways of living on the journey.
I also find myself thinking about the cycles of life as it pertains to the church and to our institutions.
Seasons of Change
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1
The passing of my parents taught me a lot about life and living. These are lessons I continue to glean every day as I make my way in the new normal without their physical presence to reference. These words of Ecclesiastes come often, bring with them the contrasts listed on the verses following this chapter opener. What does it mean for us that there is a season for everything?
For me it means that there are times when things have to come to an end. Relationships end for a variety of reasons. Among them is the separation that comes when one moves away from a city, a country or even takes a new job. These moments too, require grieving and bring with them deep loss. They require their own sense of letting go – sometimes ritualised with visits to the airport, phone calls and emails to stay in touch, and even visits that assist in connecting and adjusting to change.
Seasons of change are not easy, yet they invite us into pause for reflection and encourage our awareness as we seek to move into the newness that change brings.
In the church, we find ourselves in seasons of institutional change as well. The past few years have seen a stark decline in the mainline churches in the West, while the churches in the Global South continue to grow. Congregations range in size from small churches to the mega churches with large memberships and abounding resources. As congregations decline they are faced with hard decisions.
The Pew Research Centre is a US based nonpartisan think tank that focuses on conducting public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research to identify and inform the public of trends and issues that are shaping and changing the world. Over the years, the Centre has provided insights into the on-going challenges facing religious institutions and churches in the US and globally.
In a study conducted in October 2019, Pew Research reported on the decline of Christianity. The headline accompanying the results of the survey read: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace: An update on America’s changing religious landscape.” (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/pf_10-17-19_rdd_update-00-020/).
The results of the study show decline in the number of adults who self-identify as Christians, even as it shows an increase in the number that are identifying themselves as “none” in response to claims of religious self-identification. These religious “nones” have been a topic of interest since the Pew Research Reports in 2007 and 2014 started pointing to this growing category for religious identification.
These studies have been the course of many discussions in the mainline churches. As the numbers in the pews shrink, so do the resources that are available to provide programmes and services in the communities that are in the vicinity of these congregations. This has implications for the middle judicatory and national settings of our denominations as the resources from the pews also provide support for these areas of the church as well. We hear talk of the church dying and yet I find myself wondering at where is the opportunity for transformation among us. In this moment of decline, how do we embrace the work of the Spirit among us?
In the most recent statistical report in the United Church of Christ (UCC), the UCC is also reporting evidence of this decline. “From 2009 to 2019 alone, the UCC encountered a net loss of 435 congregations and 277,843 members. Some of this decline, however, began prior to the formation of the denomination in 1957 as the number of congregations steadily decreased despite membership increases in the UCC’s early years” (https://uccfiles.com/pdf/2020statisticalreport.vfw.pdf).
As we continue to see this decline across the mainline churches, I wonder at how we are seeing this moment in the life of the church. I see it as a moment of transformation. A moment that invites the church into seeing itself in context in these times which we are living. Even as the UCC is seeing this overall decline, the denomination has also added congregations over these years. The UCC statistical report notes that: “In total, 82 congregations received standing and were added to the UCC over the last five years, which is equivalent to a new congregation being added about every three weeks.”
This is cause for celebration!
Change vs. Finality
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” Isaiah 43:18-19.
Our opinions have a major part to play in how we understand death, decline and change. I miss my parents. I miss talking with them on the phone. I miss my Mother’s laughter and the wisdom she provided for me. I am thankful for the ways in which they raised me and grateful for the values they instilled in me. I can celebrate their presence and love the many memories that come from time to time and even cause me sadness. I am working my way towards letting go of their physical presence and learning to embrace the reality of their spiritual present with me.
For me, death is not final. Death is a step on the journey that is life. Those we love are remembered in a variety of ways as they transition from this life. In Ecclesiastes 12:7, we read: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Death is a part of life, a part of the seasons of change that come with our humanity. And in those seasons, we mourn, we grieve and we are transformed as we let go of what we knew and find our way to healing.
The church is in a place of transformation, an invitation by the Spirit to be present in the new thing that God is doing among us. There are opportunities for the churches in the West and the North to learn from the churches in the Global South. There are opportunities for us to move away from the ways in which we are doing church and engage those who are seeking to meet God through Jesus Christ and the church.
Much has changed in the past years in the 100 years of the 20th century in the church. This has included movements for justice and inclusion, new ways of understanding the Gospel and God’s love given for all of God’s people. There were moves toward inclusive language and including women in the life of the church. The church has spoken out about injustices and has taken on leadership on issues around the globe. Decolonising the Bible and Christianity have been named as important in confronting the legacies of slavery, the oppression of indigenous people and the increasing poverty and marginalisation of people.
There is much that we can celebrate and at the same time, there are practices and processes that we need to let go. As the church is seeing decline, perhaps it is time to think about the things that are no longer serving the spread of the Gospel, and the “new thing” that God is doing among us.
The decline in the church is not a sign of death. It is a sign that we are changing that the church is being pruned and ready for new growth, if we are willing to endure trimming away the dead branches and welcoming the movement and joy of the Spirit.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2).
We are a resurrection people in the church. Our witness and hope is rooted the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are believers in God who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). The new thing God is doing requires that we let go of ourselves and fully rely on God through Jesus Christ.
The new things God is doing invites us to be present with heart and in spirit to hearing God in new ways as we live into this twenty-first century. Even as we move through this season of COVID-19, we are seeing congregations adapt to new ways of being church. As social distancing and isolation continues for many, the church has taken to Zoom and other platforms and are seeing an increase in numbers. People are joining the church from their homes. They are visiting the church from their homes, sometimes joining services across the miles. This is a new thing, it may not be the only new thing – we can start celebrating what we see breaking forth around us in this season of change.
Our transformation is on-going as people, and as the church. Jesus’ words point to the pruning and letting go that is necessary for a tree to bear fruit. God as the winegrower prunes and trims so that the tree can flourish and yield its capacity of fruit in its season. God is doing a new thing among us, trimming and pruning in the life of the church. It is time for the church to let go of the branches that are not flourishing and to find its way to being open to the Spirit moving in a mighty way among us that is beyond the numbers in the pews and the shrinking resources. God must be at the centre of who we are and all that we do, and then this season will bring forth new life among us.
This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of INSiGHT, a bi-monthly CWM publication. Read our latest issues at: https://www.cwmission.org/insight/