My dad died on December 30, 2008. I remember exactly where my sister and I were when we received the news. We rushed to our childhood home to be with him and the rest of our family. He was lying on a hospice bed in our family’s dining room. I climbed up on the bed and cried so hard I was worried I would run out of tears.
He was a great man, great in all the ways that counted. He was generous and kind and gentle to all the people he met. Two weeks later, over 1500 friends and family members gathered for his memorial service. I often wondered how someone so naturally quiet could have developed such a following. He seemed too private to be so widely loved, but he was.
Something inside you begins to shift when a parent dies. The words of Ash Wednesday begin to sink in more deeply, “From dust you came; to dust you shall return.” Even so, most of us live in denial of our death, including me. For this reason, it is not difficult for me to understand why churches live with a sense of permanence that defies all rationality.
A group of people, by God’s grace, start a church. By that same grace, they nurture its growth, and, depending how effective their efforts are—or probably more importantly, how responsive their surrounding community is to their efforts—they grow or decline, sometimes in spurts and waves.
Then, at some point, maybe decades down the road, or centuries, the energy and adaptability that once sustained them in their mission are no longer strong enough to keep their mission afloat, and their journey ends. Sometimes they close with a great amount of intention and celebration, leaving a powerful legacy for those who follow, and sometimes they just fizzle out. But in the end, every congregation closes its doors. I don’t know of a single New Testament church that is still in existence today.
Now here’s the crazy thing. This can be a tremendously liberating word for Christians. Acknowledging that no church lasts forever, not the church at Ephesus or Philippi or Saddleback, has the power of unfettering Christians from an irrational, and perhaps, unfaithful pursuit of permanence. It also has the power of freeing us for an increased sensitivity to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do right here and now.
In addition, exposing the myth of permanence has the power to open us up to whole new forms of church that are more concerned about relationships and God’s Living Word than about buildings, bucks, or bodies in the pews. When we cast off the expectation of permanence, we have a better chance of accepting that our best experiments have yet to be run, and be committed to run them with faith and generosity.
I have suggested that all churches have a beginning, middle and end, but the Church with a capital “C,” lives on for eternity. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed and our belief in the “Holy Catholic Church,” we confess that the Church is universal, that it is an organic whole in all its many expressions, and that it last forever.
Just as I am my father’s legacy, we who call ourselves Christian are the legacy of every church that ever lived. The way we honor that legacy is to discover all over again what it means to be Christ’s presence in our own time and place. The more we focus on that reality, as opposed to the myth of permanence, the more we will honor the people who were faithful in their own time and in their own way. We can make them proud.