It’s seldom easy to accept change. We may often hear people say, ‘In the good old days … ’ and ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’. Still, as worship numbers dwindle and congregations struggle to remain viable in parts of the LCANZ, we wonder what the future holds for our Lutheran communities. Pastor and writer Reid Matthias asks if this is the end of the church as we know it, what’s next?

by Reid Matthias

It’s painful to write this.

When someone you know and love is nearing the point when end-of-life decisions must be made, we tend to desire miracles. Pleading with God, raging against the machinations of a seemingly fickle existence, we pray that the disease might be taken away so that we can return to normal life.

All of us know someone, maybe many, who is dealing with a debilitating and/or terminal illness. Whether cancer, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s or dementia, these painful attacks on the body cause us to confront our own mortality, but even more pressing, the mortality of those we love who are about to be moved into the dreaded realm of memory only.

In times like these, the dying process can be helped by utilising palliative care where the aims are ‘to give the best possible quality of life to someone’ who is seriously ill or about to die. ‘It helps people live their life as … comfortably as possible’ (Health Direct definition). During the palliative process, the dying and their families are given options. In palliative care, the patient and family do not necessarily end all treatments, but they select which treatments are important and which are not.

Similarly, the church, as we know it, is dying. There are many diseases that have ravaged the body over the centuries; yet it has survived. I won’t list the cancers or syndromes which have been chronicled ad nauseam by a particularly virulent anti-religious world press. But it feels like in the past 25 years or so, the writing has been on the wall.

The church we’ve known and loved, the place of relationship and connection, of spiritual health and healing, of music and ministry to the joyful and the bereaved, is waiting for the end.

There are options, of course. Treatments will not end. Worship in buildings will continue. We will share the stories of the past with great fondness. Similar to attending to a loved one as they move on from this life to the next, sharing humorous moments, times of connection, we, the church, will gather to reminisce about the time Jane accidentally tipped the communion cup onto the floor, Ezra knocked out a window playing cricket in the church hall or those wonderful Christmas services where we came together to celebrate a God who descended to us as Immanuel – a baby born for all people.

Yes, we will still share the stories and we’ll make the church feel comfortable as the pain overtakes it. As it intermittently writhes in agony, with the shock and fear of what comes next, we will attempt to treat it with loving kindness, hold its hand and tell it we loved everything about it – the good, the bad and the exquisite.

But, the statistics don’t lie.

We don’t need to be spiritual doctors to read the charts. All metrics for church ‘attendance’ are down. Buildings are being closed and repurposed. Financial donations are shrinking. A secular world, that has no interest in the things of the Spirit, tears down faithful, caring and serving communities.

Can you see that the building is crumbling?

And yet isn’t this the very thing that Jesus spoke about when they were on a lovely morning walk? ‘As he was going out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look! What impressive buildings!” Jesus said to him, “Do you see great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another – all will be thrown down”’ (Mark 13:1,2).

In John 2:19–21, ‘Jesus answered (the Jewish officials), “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days”. Therefore they responded, “This temple took 46 years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?” But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.’

Isn’t Jesus still speaking about the temple of his body? Isn’t the body of Christ still the people of Christ, the living, moving and breathing church? The people who, from the very beginning, ‘ … were God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared ahead of time for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10)?

As the church buildings from around the world enter the final phase of their existence, the next generation of faithful people, those who have received the stories of a loving God from the faithful before them, must have ‘their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2). The living, moving and breathing church, the people, must seek God’s vision for the people post-church-building/temple age. What does this look like?

Firstly, we have the opportunity to treat the building-centric church with dignity, care and respect. We continue treatments of joy and celebration for all that God has done. We remember.

Secondly, we engage the collective energy and wisdom of new generations of believers who are champing at the bit to understand both their faith and how it is utilised in the same world that has brought about the last gasp of the building-centric church. We, as older members of the body, diligently take a step back to hear and to be led by the newest church builders full of what John Perry Barlow calls ‘Digital Natives’, who understand the next phase of building up the church and reinforcing it with spiritual pillars rather than those of stone.

Lastly, we thank God for the gift of life in Jesus. Many things may pass away, but the Word of God will not.

Reid Matthias is Lead Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Para Vista, in suburban Adelaide. He is also the author of the faith-reflection internet blog I Reid, where this story was first published as ‘The Church in Palliative Care’, and the novels Butcher and Baker.

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