Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy features the Prince of Denmark contemplating death and suicide. He compares the nobility of hanging in there as opposed to a quick (merciful?) death. His quandary is due in part to not being certain of what happens after death*. Regardless, he sees the option as either one thing or the other. To be, or not to be. That, he believes, is the question.
Either black or white. Either death now, or death later.
As congregations see a steady drop in membership and a steady rise in the average age of members, Hamlet’s question is whispered in coffee hour and in the parking lot after Session.
To be? Or not to be? It’s a false dichotomy. Let me fix it:
To be, or not to be… or to become.
As people of the Resurrected Christ our options are never limited to death now or later. As those who worship the One who destroyed the sting of death itself, the question cannot be one of when to die, but rather how we choose to live.
Churches DO close their doors. However, there is a difference in whether a congregation simply waits out the inevitable or chooses a legacy that continues the gift of that congregation. The difference isn’t just semantics. It’s intent.
Consider the following examples:
Saints Preserved Presbyterian intends to continue “to be” and has focused all its energy on their building and the care of the existing congregation. They have partnered with a childcare center that will provide much needed funds to pay their bills. They will continue in this fashion until the last member turns off the light.
Saints Alive Presbyterian intends to become a new creation. They have decided to work with the presbytery to sell the building to a group that will provide an entrepreneurial kitchen for folks in the community as well as an adult day care facility. Following the sale of the building, Members have agreed to meet monthly for coffee but to also channel their energy into other local congregations.
Both churches close their doors. In the second example, the church and congregation are not dead but rather live on in a new way, and with new purpose. They have become a new creation.
Everyone dies in Hamlet. Only Horatio lives to tell the story. In the first Act (and in apparent contrast to the black and white philosophy offered by Hamlet in his great soliloquy) Hamlet says to Horatio: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Where is the church headed? God only knows. Fortunately, we believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can begin to imagine as God creates a new creation in our midst. Our work is to discern how God is calling us to partner in that work.
* Shakespeare may be commenting on the Reformation here – does purgatory exist, or do the reformers have it right? His interaction with Ghost (his father?) suggests the former, but as a student at Wittenberg he was likely taught Protestant theology. Don’t you love trying to read stuff in context? (Yes, I am a geek).