Let It Die: Why More Churches Should Embrace Institutional Death

Originally published September 24, 2018

“No one with a brain really believes in religion,” the man declared.

It was an odd way to respond to my revelation that I was a seminary professor. I had never seen him at the gluten-free coffeehouse before. He was standing in line just a few feet from the table where I was writing, over my favorite breakfast order of a ham and cheese waffle. The bright orange “Mercer” sticker on the back of my laptop had grabbed his attention.

“What are you studying?” he asked.

“I’m not a student; I’m a professor. I teach in the school of theology.” He gave me a blank look. “I teach people who are preparing for careers in ministry.”

That was what led to his pronouncement that people like me must not have a brain.

“You know how I know Christians don’t really believe what they say? They’re supposed to believe in life after death, but if you go to a Christian funeral, they’re all crying! They’re a bunch of hypocrites!” He waited for me to take the bait.

“Well, that’s one way to look at it,” I said, returning my attention to my breakfast. I really just wanted to eat and write in peace.

Christians are awful about letting the institutions we create die.

There was some truth in his critique, but not in the way that he meant. Christians aren’t hypocrites because we mourn the deaths of people we care about. One can believe in resurrection and also lament no longer having a person in our lives. We are human, after all, and faith and grief are not mutually exclusive. The truth in his criticism lies elsewhere: Christians are awful about letting the institutions we create die.

Several years ago, I attended a meeting between seminary staff and a group of ministry leaders who would be supervising seminarians in contextual education. The meeting began with a time of sharing, as each leader discussed the joys and challenges of their organization. The representative of an innovative community revealed that they were preparing for the death of their founding leader. The ministry’s vision was so unique to him, and so tied to his leadership, that they recognized that it would not exist in the same form without him. The community was starting to discuss what their future would look like. Some of their work could continue in its current form under new leadership. Some programs were strong enough to become independent ministries. Much of it, though, might need to die.

As we listened to her, the rest of us were astounded. Never had any of us heard of a church embracing its own death. When it comes to our lives, Christians are a resurrection people. But when it involves our organizations, churches, and ministries, we see death as an enemy to be vanquished. We look at growth and maintenance over time as the marks of a successful ministry. We see the death of our organizations as a defeat, a failure, a sign that we have done something wrong. Even when a ministry seems to have outlived its purpose or context, we fight to hold on to immortality.

What would it look like if we stopped fighting institutional death?

What would it look like if we stopped fighting institutional death? If we instead embraced the idea that every ministry is designed to serve a people in a particular context at a particular point in time and that when that context no longer exists, we should plan for burial?

In my city, I see churches on the verge of death daily. There are multiple signs that they are on life support: massive sanctuaries with nearly empty parking lots; the absence of children and youth; church signs that practically beg people to visit; signs announcing that a separate nonprofit or congregation is sharing the space. Honestly, I want them to go ahead and die—not because I coldheartedly celebrate the death of institutions, but because it may be the only way for something new to grow.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 NRSV). Far too often we Christians exert far too many resources trying to preserve a single grain of wheat, sometimes for so long that it no longer holds potential for germination. We are trying to hold onto visions of ministry meant for a different people in a different context at a different point in time.

We are trying to hold onto visions of ministry meant for a different people in a different context at a different point in time.

If, instead, we were to let our ministries die a good death, we might encourage new visions of ministries meant for this people in this rapidly secularizing point in time. We might realize that we don’t have to hold on to our institutions so strongly, because we indeed serve a God who is in the resurrection business: a God who takes dead things and transforms them into entirely new forms. Clinging to the husk of a seed is no recipe for growth.

Or maybe the guy at the coffeehouse is right, and we would rather mourn than claim the new life Christ died to give us.

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a clinical psychologist, public theologian, and minister whose work integrates healing, justice, and reconciliation. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Mercer University McAfee School of Theology, and utilizes her interdisciplinary background to write, speak, and teach about self-care, racial and gender justice, and reconciliation. She is the author of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the myth of the StrongBlackWoman as a function of gendered racism. She is currently working on her second book, which focuses on racial reconciliation. This article first appeared in Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute, and is reprinted here with permission.

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