Over the last few years I've heard a lot about dying churches. I've been pastoring a very small church with an aging congregation, so my vocational life has revolved around the question, "Can these bones live?"
At every gathering of pastors and church folk I've been to, there has been a discussion of whether small churches are dying. More than that, there has been an insistence that small churches should die--that at a certain point small churches suck the life out of the broader church, using up resources that could be "better" used to start new church developments and outreach programs. This conversation appears on twitter with startling regularity.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the idea of "hospice." As in, "We need to train pastors to be hospice chaplains to help these churches die." There are even folks thinking the entire PC (USA) denomination is on its last legs, and that it needs to die to make room for something new.
I have a few problems with this manner of speaking (along with the habit of suggesting that "old" pastors need to retire to make room for the ones coming up behind them).
1. Corporations are not people. The hospice analogy can only stretch so far. But ok. Let's run with it. Corporations are made up of people, and there are often signs of distress that suggest a corporation will go bankrupt or be forced to sell itself off. The people in the corporation need help recognizing those symptoms so they can try to fix the situation. When it is no longer fixable, the people in the corporation may need help realizing this, and that is where a "hospice" trained pastor might come in handy.
2. In medical situations, however, it is not the hospice chaplain diagnosing terminal illness. Relatives don't offer diagnoses either, although plenty of opinions in a family. It is the doctor who certifies a patient for hospice, and the patient who chooses to accept hospice care in lieu of other interventions. Everyone else? Loving support.
3. The folks calling for smaller, aging congregations to die in order to make their resources available for new ministries, etc. are NOT hospice chaplains. They are more like cousin Joe who suspects he is in the will and suggests that you pull the plug to get the ordeal over sooner. Y'all are giving hospice a bad name, and it's not helping those of us who are trying to help churches evaluate their situations.
4. If you haven't worked in one of these small churches, I believe you are severely underestimating the stubbornness of a tiny, aging congregation. They may just live to spite you, especially if they know you are impatiently waiting for them to die off.
5. People put their time, talent, and service into building up these churches. Some of my folks literally stacked the bricks of our building. If you think for a second it is helpful to hear, "Curse God and die already," then I think you should return for another round of CPE.