The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.
Just a few hours after I write these words, I will be performing the funeral service for Faye Schaff, our sister in Christ and a long-time member of First Christian Church. Although Faye’s health was already in decline when I arrived here in January 2007, I still marveled at her level of activity and laughed at her wry sense of humor. I will miss Faye greatly, as I know so many people in our church and community will also—most of whom have known Faye much longer than me.
In a church our size, a member’s death is acutely felt. Not only is there grief over that member’s accustomed place in the sanctuary now sitting empty, but there is also an absence in the life and ministry of the church—especially when the member who has died was as vocal and active as Faye. Chances are, given the number of members in their 80’s and 90’s, First Christian will experience more moments of grief and absence in the months and years to come. Although the numbers of deaths may not be any greater than in years past, for those who have been at First Christian for a long time, the number may seem larger, because our overall church membership is smaller than it was 20, 40 and 60 years ago.
I will be speaking to the individual grief of Faye’s family members and friends this afternoon, but in this column, I wish to speak of the grief and fears of First Christian. First Christian as a community of faith has grieved the death of hundreds of members over its 160+ years in existence. In more recent years, particular deaths have been felt by our church in a very visceral way. Names such as Maxine Clinkenbeard, Ruth Springstead, Virginia Magner, Warren Neudorff and other longtime faithful members who have died still resound in our hallways and meetings. Each death has meant that the church must grieve its loss and adjust to that person’s absence in terms of who will take up the responsibilities held by that person in life.
In mainline churches such as First Christian which saw their largest memberships in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the decline in membership since that time can result in a lot of grief. Long-time members can and often do grieve for a past “greatness” that is now gone, and as people from that era die, the grief for each individual is matched by a grief for the church that used to be. This “compound grief” is accompanied by fear—fear that the church will never regain its former glory, a fear that the church may close or die and a fear that the sacrifices of the past may be forgotten. All of these fears are to a certain extent valid: we can’t turn back time; churches do close (and sometimes they hang on by their fingernails long past the time when they should have closed) and all humans tend to forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before them. However, none of these fears seems particularly valid to me, at least in terms of the future of First Christian Church, St. Joseph, MO.
When I interviewed for the position of minister at First Christian, the first question at every meeting went something like this: “Our church is in decline, what will you do to grow the church?” My response then and now is “I don’t know. I don’t believe in trendy church growth programs, but I do believe in church members being faithful to God and serving their communities in real and tangible ways. Such faith and service results in the only growth that matters: spiritual growth.” After all, it is you the members under the leadership of our loving God, rather than me your minister, who will grow First Christian. This certainly has been the case since my arrival here.
Since coming to First Christian 14 months ago, I have sensed that the fear has subsided even though the grief has remained. My hope is that both will be replaced by an optimism and vision for our church’s future. In just the past 14 months, our average Sunday attendance is up, the number of children in our children’s ministry has increased, the number of youth in our youth group has increased, 17 new members have joined the church (9 of them in 2008 so far), adult children of older members have begun to return and new ministries have been started. Most importantly, the membership of First Christian have been faithful to its calling to be an open-minded and welcoming church, just as it always has been. The numbers are just evidence of the faithfulness of God and the membership of First Christian, and all of the good accomplished in the last 14 months is just a foretaste of what is to come.
We may grieve each death here at First Christian—after all, we care about people here and it is appropriate for us to grieve for them—but we need not be afraid of what will come of us who are left behind. Some of us may grieve for how things used to be, but we need not fear the exciting things God has in store for our church in the future. We may worry that the sacrifices of those who have gone before us may be forgotten—and that our own sacrifices made for First Christian may be forgotten too—but in my opinion, this church does a very good job of remembering its past, so I do not believe we need to fear forgetting as we face what is to come. We may have to say “goodbye” to those whom we love, but we are promised by our resurrected Lord that such “goodbyes” will only last until we soon have the chance to say “hello” again. In the meantime, we here at First Christian will say “hello” to more new members and more new visitors who stop by as they continue their faith journeys. To each and every one of them, we will offer gracious hospitality, opportunities to minister and words of witness to a faithful and loving God—just like we have done for over 160 years.
Grace and Peace,