I am writing after yet another sacred experience with a stranger and her family who desperately needed to know God’s love in her last moments on earth.
Evidence of the decline of the institutional church causes considerable anxiety among those of us who have a stake in that church. The congregations that seem to be prospering are those with the fewest connections to denominations or tradition. Young people turn their backs on their parents’ church, which we [mainline congregations] represent. To the degree that they are at all spiritually inclined, they form new clusters with people their own age. Those of us leading mainline congregations are urged to reject the role of “hospice care” to dying congregations and instead emulate the nontraditional way of being the church.
In the face of this, what I am about to say sounds shocking even to myself. After all, I have been fighting hard to make our theology and our services communicate with the culture in which we live, and I too am frustrated at the barriers created by tradition in doing this. But here it is: the decline of our church may be a blessing. The demise of the institutional church is an opportunity for us to function less in wedding mode and more in funeral mode.
OK, that statement is a public relations disaster!
But I know of no pastor who prefers doing weddings to funerals. This often surprises people because weddings are such joyful occasions while funerals deal with loss and mourning. But at which does a pastor feel more useful?
At weddings in today’s culture, the pastor is a role player in a pageant. The Word of God is at best a moment of reflection in a very busy day. At worst, it is a simply part of a complex and vaguely understood ritual that includes tuxes and flower girls and rings, or even a reluctant concession to a pastor who might not perform the service in its absence.
At a funeral, the Word of God is pretty much the only thing that matters. At a wedding, I often feel like one of many functionaries, along with the photographer and cake decorator. At a funeral, I feel all eyes on me. People don’t know what my role is; they only hope to God that I know what it is. At a wedding, I question whether those in attendance have much interest in what I have to say. At a funeral, I know they are listening — some of them desperately — to what I say.
For many years the institutional church in America has been a bit player in support of cultural tradition; we’ve been one of the less interesting but morally appreciated elements of life. I’m not sure how needed we have been. The exodus from our churches suggests not very. The decline may force us to surrender our former “wedding pastor” role to more successful, noninstitutional churches.
The institutional church may have to instead become the funeral church, the church that no one cares about except when they are lost and have nowhere to turn. We may have to become the place that serves those whose lives are falling apart. We may have to become the church that provides life and meaning and service to those in desperate need.
We may not lead large, thriving congregations in the future. We may not be respected or appreciated. We may struggle financially. But we will bring the Gospel to those in pain. We will exist not because we are liked but because we are needed. I do not fear that Christ’s church will disappear; for when we bring the Gospel to those who are in pain, blessing for all involved is profound.