The Rev. Dr. Martin Tozer was a Mission Director for the United Lutheran Church in the 1950s. His job was to start congregations, and he did. But somewhere along the way, someone named him “Tozer the Closer”, because “he closed more congregations than he opened.” I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not sure anyone does. What I do know is that we need a Tozer the Closer. We need someone who will walk with congregations as they die.
The death of a congregation is the sad conclusion of a lost battle with sin. The tools of fighting that battle, the spiritual disciplines of the congregation, in some way failed to prevent the illness from taking over the body. Those disciplines: worship, prayer, study, giving, serving, inviting, and encouraging, are to be the very source of wellness and redemption for a congregation. Somehow, they became infected. What once was a means of binding the community together, becomes a means of tearing each other apart.
As it says in the Lutheran Book of Worshipwedding liturgy, “sin, our age-old rebellion” is at the heart of such perversion. To love one another as commanded by Jesus is the only remedy for our natural brokenness. Once love has been weakened, the disease sets in, and unless re-strengthened, it dies. This leaves sin to take over and further weaken the body until the battle is lost. As Paul warns in Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”
I have heard colleagues say that the death of a congregation is sinful or that the leadership of a synod’s failure to save the congregation is sinful. I would argue that the death of a congregation is not sinful. It is the natural consequence of sin. What is sinful is how the faith community abandons the dying. A dying congregation is usually diagnosed behind doors at conference meetings, synod gatherings and parking lots, and then left for dead. The dying congregation is like the guy in the Good Samaritan story who is left in the ditch, who most people circumvent in order to avoid whatever it is that has befallen him. If the congregation has money, they are typically allowed to hole up with their money and wait for death. Those who failed to garner such resources are typically allowed to turn on each other like wolves sensing the weakest member. They dis-member each other until nothing is left but to sell the building or give it away.
Unintentionally deepening the pain of death are denominationally funded initiatives preaching evangelism techniques and the thrust for renewal and growth from denominational hierarchies which may leave congregations with a lingering sense of guilt or failure. These thoughts can be debilitating and are hurtful to communities and ignores their steadfastness to God, denomination and community. Long histories are not celebrated, but rather are diminished in the eyes of the congregants and denominational leadership because the congregation is dying. Years of baptizing, proclaiming, building, teaching, praying and serving are washed away by the onrush of death.
Case in Point, a e-news post from the Lower Susquehanna Synod: “From The Message to Mission to Ways to Pray” to “Congregational Stewardship”, have written and will offer these new courses specifically designed to equip your congregational teams for mission and ministry. Thanks to our partnership with the Stevenson School for Ministry, these equipping opportunities are cost-effectively offered online to entire tams in five or ten week modules beginning mid-February.” Excerpt from WE News of the Lower Susquehanna Synode-newsletter, January 3, 2019.