The Death of a Church and the Rise of Something New | Sojourners

The Death of a Church and the Rise of Something New

Small rural church, JeniFoto /
Small rural church, JeniFoto /

Last weekend, I attended the Memorial Celebration of Bergthal Mennonite Church. Bergthal is closing its doors in a months time, and many gathered to remember and to say good-bye.  

On such occasions it is natural for people to ask what went wrong. Why is this once vibrant congregation unable to sustain itself? Declining rural populations is one reason as this church is in the middle of Kansas. But surely if a congregation is faithful, God will sustain it. Surely if the love of God is clearly present in such a place, people will travel a few miles to participate. 

The demise of this church is even more mystifying and troubling as one learns about it or gets to know the present and former members. These are marvelous people, committed to social justice and peace. Even with membership bottoming out in the teens, these folks pooled resources to put together more than 1,500 school kits this year alone. Clearly committed to following Jesus and loving neighbors, how can such a church fail? As I listened to the pastor, Lynn Schlosser, deliver a thoughtful, heartfelt, and deeply moving sermon, I thought, "Surely no one present could believe the fault lies with the pastor." (Though I may be biased since she is my sister-in-law.) Still I have heard many speak of her as a brilliant preacher, and I know her to be caring and intelligent.  

So, what went wrong? I firmly believe the answer is: nothing. Sure the congregation made mistakes. Sure there is a chance some radical changes somewhere along the way might have resulted in a different outcome. But primarily, the reason for this church’s fading is because it is time for something new. Something beautiful is taking shape amid the rubble of this church and others like it around the country. Something is rising.  

I have spent much time blogging out of frustration with the church, gnashing my teeth over the church’s shortcomings. Some have called this negativity. Some have asked me to be more specific about what I want the church to do. I could not do this before. First, I needed to pinpoint my frustrations and disassemble my previous understanding of church. Out of the rubble of my own disillusionment a vision of something new is beginning to emerge. It is time to share this vision however blurry it may be.

This something new looks like congregations so committed to following Jesus by loving all of God's children that they will pour over their current budget and activities to see what can be altered to make room for greater service to the poor and the outcast. Such churches might come to the conclusion it is unconscionable to pay for the upkeep of a building for the sake of its use a few times a week.  

This is a tension-filled topic. As Bergthal made public their intent to disassemble and ultimately tear down their building, many could not understand. For some, there is such a deep attachment to our church building, we would rather it be turned into a house or a barn or just anything as long as it can be saved. I have read the upcoming generation is not as sentimental when it comes to material things. I think this is a good and necessary movement but is sure to bring some tension. Finally, we must realize the church is not about buildings, but about people.  

What this will look like will vary from context to context. In some places I see this meaning a congregation will gather each week wherever the need for service is to be found.  Gathering at a food pantry one week to stock shelves, at Habitat for Humanity House another week to do construction, borrowing space from a school another week to assemble school kits, and so on. In other locales it might mean keeping the building but putting it to better and more complete use: providing office space for non-profit organizations free of charge (free of strings too but that is a topic for another day), sharing the space among several congregations, and other creative uses.  

I see congregations taking a hard look at the duties of a pastor. How many of the pastor's duties are necessary in our calling to follow Jesus? How many could be done by others in the congregation? How committed are we to the priesthood of all believers? Could we streamline the pastor's duties enough to make the position part-time or share the pastor with another congregation? In small congregations, a huge portion of the funds are used to pay the pastor. Is this the best use of resources? I suspect the position of pastor will evolve into something different from what it is currently. I can imagine the evolution being furthered by a parallel evolution in our seminaries which might become traveling teachers, sharing their knowledge directly with congregations rather than primarily training up pastors.

I see congregations reconsidering the use of boundaries to define who is in and who is out. What constitutes membership in a particular congregation? What beliefs must one ascribe to? Is it the role of the church to define who is in and who is out? 

I can imagine some might find membership to be a concept of the past particularly if the church is defined by its commitment to service rather than the way it worships, or a set of beliefs. Imagine if obituaries in the future might read, "John served with the Methodist church," rather than "was a member of the Methodist church." Imagine further if such a description of John would tell us little about his particular beliefs because the church’s commitment to service would be such that many would recognize working with the church, in whatever its local form, would be the most effective way of helping the poor and the outcast. Thus, we would work alongside secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, the recently notorious "nones," and anyone who wanted to act for the benefit of all people and all of creation.

I see new flexibility in worship so that it is something that happens in order to strengthen us for service, taking place wherever and however seems best. I see our education based on how it informs our service rather than how it defines our beliefs. I see people serving side by side, mentoring each other and sharing our wisdom regarding issues of justice, and finding our own unique way to make the world a better place.  

These are just a few ideas of what the new might look like. I could be wrong. But, I feel fairly certain the new that is rising is not about changing our music or adding a few new service projects. What is rising from the rubble of our past churches is a radical transformation calling us back to following Jesus. What is rising is so beautiful and full of hope that it transforms even rubble into ingredients for fertile soil from which the new will flourish. 

What is rising will not only transform the church, but it will change the world. I imagine all the saints who have gone before raining praise, not recriminations, down upon Bergthal Mennonite church, saying, “It is time. It is good. Well done, faithful ones.”

Sheri Ellwood is a mom, wife, farmer/rancher, and former Lutheran pastor. She lives in Kansas and blogs at

Image: Small rural church, JeniFoto /