I have been mulling over a post John Meunier wrote on a talk Adam Hamilton (pastor of the huge Resurection UMC in Kansas) gave at the Indiana Annual Conference (for any British Methodist readers, an Annual Conference is kind of like a District). John gives a short summary of Hamilton’s talk which appears to be a rallying call against the fatalism that runs through the church, even to go so far as to say if God is calling the UMC (or any of its churches) to close, we need to fight God all the way.
I read John’s post within a day or so of standing in front of the Blackburn Circuit meeting requesting permission for one of my churches to close (I posted what I said at the meeting here), so I will apologise to John right off at the start in case I am reading him in a light he didn’t intend. I don’t think I am in a situation where I can fully appreciate what Hamilton said. Regardless, his post has highlighted the struggle I have had to make sense of exactly what I am doing (and will do for the next three months). Whilst I admit that there have been times of doubt over whether or not I should have botherd, I have not doubted that it was the right thing to do.
So here are some questions/thoughts I have toward what a theology of closure of churches would mean:
- Death and Resurrection: God is indeed a God of new life, but each Holy Week many churches will stress that the only way to Easter is to pass through Good Friday. Yet in the sense I hear it most often, ‘new life’ seems to mean one thing and one thing only – churches shouldn’t close. Can a Good Friday death always be avoided (or should it be)?
- What does resurrection look like? Buildings are the albatross around the neck of many churches. I had one person in our circuit say about his church, ‘I would love it if the council would come along to buy this church as a community centre and then we could just rent a part when we needed it!’ How would it free up our resources and people to make this kind of break so new life could happen?
- Following on from that, how did buildings become so entwined with what we mean by church? Maybe this isn’t an American problem, but I find many for whom removal of the building is a removal of the church full stop.
- Where is the line between ‘saving’ the church and ‘survival’? Do churches have a full grasp on the difference? Discipleship and evangelism haven’t been categories discussed because we seem to assume a) people will come because the church is there and b) they know what Christianity is about when they walk through the door.
- What is at stake for the church to ‘fight against God’? What if God is sitting up in his throne room with churches marked with a big X and it is his will that a church close (I doubt this, but I hear a similar scenario described as going on in Methodist Church House). What does it mean for us to stay open? What is at stake for us? (position, power, etc.). What if rather than desperately wanting the Methodist church to stay open, what if God would rather us look more ecumenically? (Craig Adams reflects a good bit on whether or not God truly wants the UMC to continue.)
- Role of the Spirit: If my wife or child lay dying in hospital and someone told me that if I had enough faith, God will heal her I would likely hit that person. Other than wackjob fundamentalists, I doubt I would hear that from anyone. Yet, it seems to be OK to say that to the minister of a dying church. I have been told that if I have enough faith in the Spirit, God will bring revival to the church. Does God’s Spirit work that way?
- The Parable of the Vine: Is Jesus’ parable about pruning a vine relavent? A friend in another circuit will use this parable a lot when he talks about churches that simply want to exist for themselves on a Sunday morning.
I imagine that Revd. Hamilton and I are in very different situations. A 15,000 member church is a far cry from an 8-church circuit of only 500 (total) that are all in a precarious financial position. Closing a church is difficult, but it doesn’t have to represent failure. When we are determined to think it is a failure when a church that has lived faithfully for years, but can’t find a way to do so with all the situtations around it (or, pershaps, forgotten/never truly knew what faithfulness means), then that seems to be a theology of a ‘God of death’ rather than a ‘God of life’. God will bring us through death, even if he doesn’t save us from it. How this works in the midst of closure and trying to understand where to fit this all in theologically is where I am struggling at the moment.