It wasn’t my best moment. It certainly wasn’t what my friend Luke was hoping for when he poured his frustrations out on the table between us.
Luke was a relatively young clergy person at the time. He and his wife, also ordained, had just been assigned to a small but promising congregation. Before their excitement for the possibilities and opportunities ahead of them had faded, denominational leaders sat down with them and showed them the books—not just for their new church, but for the denomination and other denominations as well.
In short, his higher ups, the very people who should have been inspiring and leading him, told him the church was dying.
Luke poured all this out to me. All his pain for his new flock and all the other flocks out there. All his anxiety for facing student loans, house payments, and raising two children on two careers that might not be there next year. His sense of betrayal that no one shared this with him earlier. When he’d said everything, he stopped and looked at me. And waited. He wanted me to share his outrage, or to offer comfort and assurance, or maybe even wisdom.
But I couldn’t help myself. I looked at Luke, tried to suppress a smirk, and said, “If only our faith talked about what happens after death.”
The Rumors of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
I have been hearing about the death of the church for nearly four decades now. I’ve heard a lot of anxiety, anger, sadness, desperation, and even blame, but very little hope and even less talk of resurrection. That is a failing of church leaders—be they ordained or laity, staff or volunteers, formal or informer leaders. More specifically, it is a failing of those of us whose call to church leadership takes the form of communication.
If we truly believe the promise of resurrection, how might the way we communicate about church trends and church life change?
I don’t have any checklists or templates to offer.
I don’t have an editorial calendar to share.
I don’t have practical tips that make this simple and easy.
But here are a few ideas I do have, and as I think about them and share them with others, I begin to find some clarity, a glimmer of a way forward. Hopefully they will offer you the same.
1. Every Church Is Two Things Simultaneously
First and foremost, the church is the body of Christ. That church isn’t going anywhere. That church has survived persecution, corruption, the Dark Ages and countless schisms and fractures. It will certainly survive demographic shifts.
But the church is also a specific group of people in a specific place. It provides a setting and structure for its members to worship, learn, experience community, and serve people in need. It owns property and employs people.
Make sure your communication represents both churches.
Get those event notices out. Promote the stewardship drive. Call for Sunday School volunteers.
But share spiritual messages as well:
- Mine the sermon transcript for a few key sentences or big ideas.
- Share what staff and pastors are reading for inspiration.
- Recommend a quick and easy daily devotional or develop your own (we schedule daily readings based the sermon on social media).
- Share prayers or messages of grief, comfort, hope, or—yes, even anger—during natural disasters or local tragedies.
2. God Is Not Done With the Church
It easy to see our own lives as a work in progress. But we tend to see our institutions as timeless, or maybe just the end of a long process, as if everything has led to this final iteration of the church. But the church is far from perfect. The more we acknowledge the church itself is a work in progress the easier we can let go of what is no longer serving our needs and God’s vision.
Talk about new ways God is calling the church.
Talk about the changing needs of your immediate community, your region, and the world at large and how the church is responding to those needs.
Share exciting, innovative things other churches are doing, not as just as ideas for your church, but as a celebration of God at work.
3. The Church Experiences Death and Resurrection All the Time
Once popular programs die from lack of interest. Key leaders retire or move away. Attendance drops. Familiar spaces get renovated. Bulletin boards get taken down (seriously, I was just at a meeting where two people were talking about how sad it was that a couple of bulletin boards had been taken down—over five years ago).
How we talk about those little, seemingly minor deaths, creates either a culture of ‘fear of death’ or one of ‘faith in resurrection.’
The construction my church is currently undergoing could easily be seen as sign of decline. We are moving from two buildings to one, downsizing to save space and money. Our communication team works hard with leadership to craft the right message. We don’t talk about construction or remodeling. It’s our Transformation. Every choice, every change is tied to our vision or to stewardship of resources or to improving programing.
That’s a big example, but it has made me aware of the little ways we express fear of death in our church communication. I was a member of a church were “If XYZ doesn’t happen we’ll have to close our doors” was a constant refrain. It’s been 20 years and they are still there, but I suspect that refrain is still heard. It’s a powerful narrative to change. We don’t have to be all sunshine and roses, but be aware of how much of your communication carries a whiff of anxiety about death.
4. Vitality Is More Than Numbers
Numbers are vital to running an organization. Members and attendance numbers impact giving numbers, which lead to budget numbers, which become money for staffing and programing numbers—not to mention heat, electricity, and internet connections. Analytics tell us our website is helpful and our social media is effective. Numbers are a quick way to measure if the church organization is doing things right.
But what about the church that is the body of Christ? More and more I am coming to believe that church should be concerned with two numbers: one and everyone. How are you measuring the work of the church that simultaneously cares for each lost lamb and for the universal flock?
Tell stories of lives changed.
- Tell them in worship, in the newsletter and on social media.
- Share them in staff meetings to remind everyone why we do what we do.
- Interview children at Vacation Bible School about what they learned.
- Start meetings by asking everyone where they saw God recently.
- Ask people of all ages how God has been at work in their lives.
Notice how long it takes the building to empty out after worship. Are people rushing home or are they lingering to talk? That’s how you know your community matters to people.
Notice people you don’t know. Where did they come from? How did they end up here, at your door? Ask them and find what you offer that no one else does.
Hang out in the hall outside the support group meeting (discreetly, respecting privacy). Hear that sound? That’s the sound of God at work, thanks to your church. Tell those stories.
5. Honor Anxiety and Grief But Don’t Wallow
It may not be as eternal as the body of Christ, but the church as organization plays a huge part in members’ lives. People will grieve buildings, traditions, programs, and yes, even bulletin boards. That’s OK. It’s a natural part of death and it is what opens our heart to the possibility of resurrection.
Ten years ago, my church decided to merge with another church just a mile away. There were all the logical reasons why our church would move in with the other church, but that didn’t make the move easier. We planned to move after Easter.
On Ash Wednesday, after we had all received the ashes, our pastor took the ashes, walked behind the altar and drew a huge black cross on the wall.
An audible, unified sob when up. It was brutal.
But we all walked into that new church after Easter ready to create something new.
When death happens, let the community mourn. Announce the day care is closing and bless the teachers as they move on. Bring the last three members of the women’s group up and give them a round of applause and thanks. Have goodbye dinners for staff when they leave. Live stream the wrecking ball bringing down the condemned education wing. Listen to the pain behind the bulletin board talk.
Then slowly, gently, move the conversation to the new thing that is being brought forth.
6. Tend to Your Own Fear of Death
It’s easy for church leaders to forget they too are invested in this temporary organization and its traditions and customs. We are just as likely to be anxious over the future of the church as the people we serve. Maybe more so. In my more cynical moments, I wonder how much of what my friend Luke was told was an expression of the anxiety of church leadership’s own fears for the future.
I love the small rural church I grew up in, the big suburban church where I work, and the eclectic city church where I worship and belong. The thought of them dying breaks my heart. The thought of them even changing significantly makes my stomach clench. But when I remember that the body of Christ is bigger than my beloved organizations, I can face changes, and yes even their death, with faith and a sense of hope.
Our fear and grief are natural. Give yourself time to listen to them, talk about them, prayer over them. If you don’t, they will come out sideways and your communication will start to sound desperate and fearful.
All Things Come to an End
So remember these six thoughts about death and church:
- Remember that the church is two things at once—it’s both the timeless and universal body of Christ, and it’s also a temporary, messy, organization of people that inevitably leads to bureaucracy.
- God is not done with the church. God is doing and will continue doing new things in churches. Look for them. Celebrate them. Be a part of them.
- Things die all the time. Death and rebirth is the process of life. Let it happen.
- When you’re looking for signs of life in a church, look beyond the numbers.
- It’s important to grieve. Celebrate the work done. Grieve the loss. Then move on.
- It’s not just the people in the pews who won’t let things go. Sometimes we church communicators hold on too tightly and fear the demise of our favorite initiatives.
As people of the resurrection, we shouldn’t fear death. It’s true for our lives, and it’s true for our churches.
Beth Beaty wrote this originally at Church Marketing Sucks .