By: Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell, Regional Executive Minister
“The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let dead things go.”
I see this quote pop up on memes shared in social media every autumn. By the time you read this, most of the leaves might be on the ground or bagged up, but they seem to have held on a bit later this year.
Autumn is also the time for planting bulbs. Though we’ve experienced our first freezes, as long as the ground is workable, you can still plant for spring. Bulbs, as you see at the local nursery, are nothing beautiful to look at. They look like onions. But the most beautiful flowers come from things that don’t appear to have life.
Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Death is a part of our lives that we want to avoid as much as possible, until we cannot. Until it interrupts and shatters. The five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross proposed over fifty years ago are commonly known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief experts tell us that the stages are not linear—we can go back and forth among them—and we experience them in various degrees.
But the truth is, especially in Western Christianity, as much as we claim the resurrection of Jesus, we often avoid talking about death as much as possible. It makes people uncomfortable. We even try to use terms such as “passed on,” or “gone home to glory.” While this is true, we sometimes short-circuit the grief process.
If you suspect I’m actually talking about the church and the death of Christendom, you’re right. We don’t like to talk about it, and even when we do we want to say, “We know that, let’s move on already” so we can get back to doing church the way we know. Even our acceptance is denial, because we really don’t know what to do with it.
We don’t know what to do with the fact that the church is not the center of life for society anymore. A majority of people are not out searching for a church. Polls have shown consistently that the largest demographic of religious affiliations are the “nones.” Yet nearly half of the US population considers themselves religious and another one-third as “spiritual but not religious.” We’ve seen this trend for at least the last ten years if not longer. And another poll in 2022 shows that “Jesus polls higher than his followers” with 84% stating that “Jesus was an important spiritual figure.”
But what does this all mean for us? The church in general has been asking these questions for at least a decade, and in some cases longer (the first articles on the death of Christendom were published in the early 90’s). For many of our churches, we’ve been able to put off questions around the death of Christendom because we’ve been surviving just fine.
I don’t know of a single church that has been able to go back 100% to the way things were in 2019. I don’t know of a single church that did not lose members or experience a drop in financial giving. I don’t know of a single church that has been able to resume all the ministries they once had.
But I do know churches that have begun new opportunities to engage in digital space. Congregations that have assessed the needs of the neighborhood and have taken time to revision who God is calling them to be and what God is calling them to do. Churches partnering together in new ways to share their resources and ministries rather than being in competition with one another, sometimes even across denominations, and working with interfaith partners to advocate for those whose voices are marginalized. There are some amazing, creative ministries being birthed. Some priorities that have shifted. Ideas that were once dismissed as impossible, such as online church, now embraced, and expanding.
Those amazing ministries are happening in churches that are not afraid of trying something new, even if they lose by it. Even if it costs them money or members in the short-term. It goes without saying that we should care about long-term members of the congregation, but that the reality is, even before Covid, people came and went. For years people have joined and left churches. We should not be afraid when a few people decide this isn’t the right church for them. Sometimes the way that manifests is in unhealthy responses, such as sending an angry letter or storming off, but often the truth of why someone is leaving is that they are grieving what they have lost, or what they thought they have lost. They are grieving the death of what they once knew, and it isn’t necessarily coming back in any church.
The church as we have known it is going through a slow, painful grieving process. We’ve been in the denial stage for a long time. We’re now seeing more of the anger popping up. If we look at all the stages, perhaps we recognize our own feelings about changes in the life of the church. Perhaps we can recognize where our own anger is manifesting, and that maybe it’s not about the church changing, as much as it is about where we have experienced loss, and how ill equipped we are to go through that pain. We’ve been in denial so long.
But this is the good news—what Jesus said about bearing fruit. “Unless the grain falls to earth and dies, it remains a single grain.” Notice that. We can cling to what we have known and remain exactly as we have been. “But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Something new can happen if we are willing to let go and trust the unknown.
Some of our churches will close in the next 5-10 years. Instead of hanging on through denial until it gives way to anger or depression, what does it take for us to get to acceptance—and in that acceptance, what beauty can we experience now?
In our own personal lives, why does it take a funeral to bring our families together? Why do we hold off on rebuilding those relationships that have fallen away? Why didn’t we get together before that, knowing that death can interrupt at any moment?
For the church, what does it take for us to come together and remember what our purpose and mission is? In this autumn season, what does it take for us to begin to see the beauty of the leaves as they prepare to fall? What bulbs might we start to plant? What new life could begin if we are willing to let go?