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  • Writer's pictureDavid Gregg

Death Is An Invitation for the Church

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On Wednesday, December 28, I climbed the three flights of stairs to my condo in Chicago, looked out my windows at the familiar steel gray of Lake Michigan in winter, smelled the terroir of my life, and practically wept with joy. I listened to my own stereo, fumbled through my own clutter, lay down in my own bed, and ate my own home cooking. It was as life-giving a day as I had felt in months.


I hadn’t meant to be away so long. I had traveled the week before Thanksgiving to Ann Arbor for some medical treatments and to spend the holiday with my family. I am a cancer patient at the University of Michigan medical center and was finishing up a round of chemotherapy. The Tuesday following the holiday, when I was supposed to have my last treatment and then return to Chicago, I fell quite ill from a lurking infection my weakened immune system hadn’t rid. We went to the ER where I went into septic shock.


Although no one has said it quite so starkly, I came close to dying. I ended up spending two weeks in the hospital, at the end of which I was quite deconditioned and weak. So I stayed with family for PT, home nursing, wound care, sleep, and general recovery. After two more weeks, I finally got permission to return to my Chicago home for 10 days between follow-up doctor visits. What a blessing, simply to inhabit my own abode. As is perhaps evident, I have come to believe that inhabiting one’s own home is a basic ingredient of humane living.


Indeed, our spaces define so much about our lives, literally giving them shape. They house our treasures. They shelter our endeavors. They proclaim our values. And they bear witness to our identity, both mirroring to us and elucidating to others who we strive and confess to be. The foibles of messiness or hyper-neatness are instantly apparent. The desire for expanse or closeness, for hospitality and cloister by turns, can be read in one’s space like the wallpaper. Style choices, furniture arrangements, plants and wall hangings and floor coverings all alike testify to taste and sensibility. Want to know who someone is? Visit them at home.


This same is true for churches, to commit a bit of an abrupt transition. Professionally, I serve as the executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, the shepherd for a mainline Protestant judicatory. Each of our 60 churches is unique in ways both spectacular and subtle: by race, theology, spiritual practice, worship style, ethnic history, and missional identity. Among them are a contemporary mural of Black Jesus, arms spread wide, a frieze from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a set of Lewis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows, historic pipe organs and original Hammond B3s (complete with Leslies), hand-made seasonal banners from generations back, fresh flowers every Sunday, and more than a few historic landmark designations. There are rooms where current grandparents once went to age-graded Sunday School, where now their grandchildren gather for Tik Tok ministry and Souper Bowl Sunday. “These are the aisles where I ran up and down after worship cleared, while we waited for coffee hour to end.” Want to know a faith community? Visit them for worship.


Permit me one more abrupt transition, applying my recent experience to that of so many of the churches with whom I work: one’s sense of space changes with the dawning of an acute sense of mortality. For me, to return home after illness was indeed a comfort, an important return to spiritual center. It also brought a sense of new anxieties. All the hoarded extra that needs to be cleaned out, either by me or by my survivors, should it come to that. All the treasured knick-knacks that mean nothing to anyone but me. The few truly valuable pieces like the aforementioned stereo, that would need a fitting home. And the value of the condo itself! Who would get it, and how best to effect the transfer? And further, while my financial situation is currently stable and sustainable, what could happen if that changes? How to know when to sell the apartment for the equity, or do something like a reverse mortgage? And further, if things go poorly, will I even be able to continue to live in my third-floor walk up, or will it become inaccessible and useless to me? New questions arise about my space, even as old comforts hold me close, as I grapple with the possibility that someday in the foreseeable future I might need to relinquish my beloved home on the shore of Lake Michigan.


In many local churches, the situation seems at least this dire. Shrinking membership and financial support threaten many a church’s very ministry. As society becomes increasingly secularistic and traditional forms of religion appear increasingly irrelevant, communities of faith are challenged to make the necessary shift: from culturally established social club to remnant outpost of counter-culture mission. The new situation requires a new proclamation, one that lifts up an alternative to the isolation, consumerism, and tribalism that now dominate our culture. And our communities of faith require a new mandate, to go into the surrounding world with an invitation to sacred/civic partnership, rather than to withdraw into enclaves with our dated sectarian ways.


Key in this transitional and transformational work, I have become convinced, is the use of the church’s building, its physical space. This is for reasons that are both theological and practical. Theologically, the last five years have provided us with a case study in the dynamics of isolation and togetherness, loneliness and companionship, in the thriving of God’s human children. We need each other. And we need spaces for this coming together to find spiritual and physical home and shelter. Our public spaces have become increasingly privatized, as malls, corporate campuses, and fee-for-entrance amusements replace the public square, which itself is increasingly policed and restricted as to its use. The physical facility of a community of faith offers a powerful alternative to this move to privatization, as a place where everyone is welcome and where the activities are not determined so much by profit motives as by human need and human thriving. In Christian terms, such facilities can be manifestations — base camps, if you will — of the Heavenly Kin-dom that Jesus proclaimed.


Practically, most of the churches I work with have too much space that costs too much money. True, some of our ministries are expanding, building out, even eyeing new and larger facilities. But for each of those, there are a half dozen or more that feel the burdens of a facility that was built during the heyday of cultural Christendom and the baby boom, with classrooms (or even an entire educational wing) that go unused. Maintenance has been deferred, and unused space mothballed to its detriment. Many churches are a boiler or a roof away from bankruptcy, even as their base of financial support shrinks. The practical challenge for so many communities is financial sustainability in the post-Christendom era. To return to that core mission of serving as an outpost of the Heavenly Reign, in many communities, the problem of the building must be resolved.


These challenges, the spiritual-theological and the financial-practical, converge in something like an institutional existential crisis. The church suffers from Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death,” the refusal to be a whole and fulsome community on the terms of the Divine. The church seeks to save itself on its own terms, through “each one reach one” membership drives and “I upped my pledge … up yours” financial campaigns. But even in this new world, where so many are hungry for the sense of community mission corroded by the pandemic, the church that seeks survival on its own terms rather than God’s is an unattractive option. Too many churches, to paint the situation in its most grim light, yearn for “church growth” as nothing more than a denial of death, the desperate outreach of a terminal community. As if to say, “we must survive, or else what will come of our beloved building?” These priorities are utterly backward.


I do not mean to seem unsympathetic. I understand. Walking slowly up the three flights of stairs to my apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, having survived septic shock and facing cancer, my love for my own space and its appurtenances seems like a compelling reason for more life to me as well. These church buildings are in many cases lovely, and in every case they vibrate with the spiritual residue of generations of love, community, and mission. The fact that they no longer serve is a difficult one to accept, especially among members who are themselves, often, aging and facing (or denying) their own mortality. I do understand.


Nevertheless, even in the face of our institutional mortality, we can yet find a path to new life. Life of a different kind, perhaps. Life not despite death but through it. Perhaps in the shadow of Ash Wednesday (“remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”), we can rediscover what dust is good for, as the very ground on which our edifices stand. In the face of Kierkegaard’s existentialist dilemma, the Christian theologian Paul Tillich urged us to build our foundations on the Ground of Being — the true and holy ground under our feet. To claim the Courage to Be on God’s terms, not our own. In my own journey, I find new invitations to live more fully in the face of illness, a sickness that may truly be unto death. In darker moments I am tempted to remember Flannery O’Connor’s bitter and sardonic line: “She would have been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Facing the barrel of a loaded gun is indeed a bracing call to reprioritize. But the tradition itself offers us words that are, though at least as bracing, more hopeful and inspiring. And perhaps in Christian scripture can be found inspiration for Christian communities to find a new way forward.


The verse that comes to mind is John’s rendition of Jesus’s teaching: “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). This is along the lines of Jesus’s teaching in the other gospels, that “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). But John’s version offers an extra possibility. Mark’s version is a statement about faith. John’s implies faith with a practical edge. John’s version implies not just that we should lose our lives for Jesus’s sake, but that the stuff of our lives, once relinquished, can bear much fruit. Not just faith, but mission. To lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake is to lose one’s life for the sake of his mission, the coming of the Heavenly Reign. To put it crassly, it’s not just that you “can’t take it with you,” but also that you can do some good with it as you go. And maybe, just maybe, you can find your own salvation in the process.


As they face the challenges of buildings that are too large, old, and expensive for the ministry they are currently doing, some churches are cultivating this Ash Wednesday mentality about their buildings. They are realizing the futility of trying to save their spaces or return to the old, Christendom-style of church program, and wondering about how these edifices can be used for mission. These are hard conversations and risky explorations. As I’ve mentioned, these buildings are beloved, sentimentally significant, and in many cases quite beautiful. For many churches, they are intertwined with a sense of identity, as if to no longer own or control the building would be a diminishment of the church itself. Many churches cling to their buildings even while knowing, at some level, it is a millstone rather than a rescue buoy. And so, seeking to save their institutional and missional lives, they lose them.


But in churches willing to have these hard conversations, willing to cultivate an understanding of the beautiful and beloved space as a resource for community and mission, extravagant possibilities for new life emerge. In the judicatory I serve, at least a half-dozen communities (a tenth of our membership) have sold their buildings to community partners according to innovative financial and space-use arrangements that allow them to maintain use of the building nevertheless. Other churches have found financial sustainability and missional relevance by redesigning and repurposing their unused space for community space-sharers: treatment clinics, homeless shelters, nonprofit office space, or performance venues. More ambitious plans include building health clinics or affordable housing on top of the church parking lot or other property — and without losing any parking! Non-religious nonprofit partners have access to revenue and capital funds for redevelopment and retrofitting and can even pay rent. In this way, a church can almost miraculously meet three goals at once: financial stability, full use of previously neglected spaces, and new mission. To reach out into the community and to invite the community in is the essence of that mission to be the outpost for the Kin-dom of God; whether those who come in the door are formally members of the church, from a missional perspective, is far less important than the impact the church can have on their lives.


Of course, the cost of the transformation is high. At first, both vision and administrative execution are required. There are many who can help with this: developers who work for the common good, governmental partners, and consultants like Sympara, for which I serve on the board of directors. But it requires effort and commitment on the part of the church. Spiritually, too, this comes at a cost. The community must be willing to have that Ash Wednesday moment, to look in the mirror and acknowledge, “We are dust. This church is dust, and to dust it will return, with its sagging roof and crumbling stone.” But if it is dying, let it die like a seed, to be planted and made use of and yield much fruit. If we are threatened with financial ruin and an end of our life together as we have known it, let us die for God’s vision of the world, and in that find new life.


I hope I don’t come off as blithe or flippant here. It is a horrible and painful moment of introspection for a community, as for an individual. As I look at all the extraneous possessions I am surrounded by, the collection of decades of living on my own terms, not knowing whether I will survive this illness or not, the grief I feel in contemplating these transitions is immense. But to put the question of surrendering my life in terms of love, justice, and community gives even death meaning, if only I can muster the courage and faith. Should things end poorly, I will have done my successors and beneficiaries a service getting things in order. And should they end well, I will be in a position to live more freely and sustainably, unencumbered by the things that are less important and for the sake of things that matter far more to my own life’s meaning and to God’s vision for the world.


Your church is dying. It will die. You know better than I how fast it will happen. Is it on the brink? Or does it have a sustainable model for the foreseeable future? Likely, it is somewhere in between. Like a cancer patient, of course you want to do everything in your power to survive as long as you can, to look back from years hence at the current crisis as something you averted long ago. But you waste the moment, and perhaps your best chance at true survival, if you do not look into the abyss as well. I doubt one can avoid death by avoiding the contemplation of death. Remember, O community of faith, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. And mine whatever wisdom you can find from this old Christian claim: “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.” What fruit will you bear?


The Rev. Dr. David Gregg is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He is a Sympara board member.

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