You look around your sparkling sanctuary and feel the pit in your stomach grow larger. Your feet no longer carry you as far as they used to and your arms no longer can lift the heavy weights they once did. Your voice no longer carries out into the open streets. Your mind, once sharp as a tack, is stuck on repeat, stubbornly refusing to listen to the pleas of the doctors who try to convince you of the things you need to do to get better. You say you know the truth, but inside the wheels of anxiety are turning, wondering if you’ve been off base this whole time. Christ’s blood slowly pumps through your veins, but your fingers have started to go numb. You’re going through the motions but you know it’s only a matter of time. Your church is dying.

I think all of us church-goers have experienced this scene before, either in our own congregations or in a neighboring one. There are more and more empty seats each week. There are fewer “amens” from the congregation during the sermon. The music sounds off beat. The lyrics sound hollow. The colors on the art have faded. The pastor doesn’t seem to care anymore. New things are attempted but quickly discarded when results aren’t immediate, and old habits and patterns revive themselves. If it happens to the church down the street, we feel sad but we swear that it would never happen to us.

The place I call my home church has been in its current building for close to 30 years. We have seen other churches in the area come and go. A Lutheran church down the street dissolved a decade ago and the building was recently bought by a church with multiple campuses. Another church, of the United Church of Christ, moved out a while ago, so another church plant came to take its place (although it failed to get off the ground with the virus going around). Yet another church died off around 15 years ago and became a meditation center. The thought of that happening to us has haunted our leadership to this day. You can hear the fear in their voices whenever it’s mentioned: “We can’t die off. Our work cannot result in a meditation center.”

That fear is real and very much understandable. Many of our Church leaders from all different congregations have worked far too hard to see their legacy vanish in a generation. It makes sense that they will do whatever they can to preserve their witness in whatever neighborhood they are a part of. They develop more ambitious programs, host more events, focus more on children’s ministry, create a bunch of opportunities for new people to come through that door in hopes that some of them will stick around. Maybe the pews will grow more crowded. Maybe the new families will become devoted members and generously give to the church. Maybe their praise spreads and suddenly their church is a booming economic entity with more programs and outreach than ever before. Maybe….

But then it doesn’t work. It could work for a while, but none of it sticks. The new people file out as quickly as they filed in, being nothing but a number in a turnstile. Some of the regulars start to look around and not like the direction the church is heading, so they leave too. All of a sudden, there are less congregants in your pews and there are less resources to fund your ambitious programs. The excitement has worn off and apathy has taken its place. Throw in a virus that is preventing your church from gathering and things look more bleak than they ever have. “How many people will still gather when we come back? Everyone? Half? Are any new people going to show up ever again? Worse yet, how many people will we lose because of this?”

So here we are, standing in empty sanctuaries wondering if this is the end; wondering if our crops will ever amount to the labor it took to sow it. We see our dwindling numbers and we decide that we just aren’t trying hard enough. If we put in more of an effort, we would get more resources and then we would be able to grow strong again. All the while, a voice in the back of our minds tells us that perhaps this is God’s doing. We try to push that voice down, but it keeps returning: we just aren’t good enough! If we had more numbers and more money, it would be proof of God’s blessing. The absence of those things tells us that we are the problem, that we have somewhere along the line fallen out of favor with God. If we could just get it back, if we could just do the right thing, like focus more on the Gospel, pray more, hold more Bible studies, preach louder and with more conviction, maybe then God would hear us and turn his face upon us to bless us.

We work until we are too tired. We reach out until our arms no longer have the strength to hold themselves up. We push ourselves until every fiber of Christ’s Body is stretched to its limit.

Rest.

Stop working.

Rest.

There is grace and peace.

Rest.

It is finished.

Church, you must rest.

The number of people in your congregation is not an indication of God’s favor. The amount of money in your bank account is not an indication of God’s blessing. The beauty of your building, the quality of your staff, the amount of programs you have are not indications of God’s provision. They may not be mutually exclusive, in that you may be blessed and you may be a growing congregation, but one cannot use prosperity to measure blessing. The World measures success as prosperity – Christ’s economy does not function that way. Do not hold yourself to the World’s standards. Rest.

The “rightness” of your theology is not a pretext for the Lord’s favor. The amount of time you spend in Scripture does not incur the Lord’s blessing. The quality of your worship sets, the depth of your sermons, and your zeal for prayer do not invite the Lord’s provision. Certainly, you should strive for sound theology. Certainly you should preach as well as you can, worship as loud and as undignified as possible, and pray without ceasing. All of those things are are expected of you as the Body of Christ, as those dedicated to following Jesus. But it does not mean your numbers will grow nor does it mean that God needs to empty the vaults of heaven and shower you with blessing. Your work does not merit God’s grace. Rest.

I understand your fear of fading into history. I understand your anxiety about becoming obsolete. Death is a terrifying aspect of life.

But Church… We worship a God who died but would not stay dead. We worship a God who embraced the reality of death in all its fullness, stared it in the face, was overcome by it, but then destroyed it in the glory of the resurrection. We worship a God who died so that death would have no power over us anymore. Oh Death, where is your sting? Oh Hell, where is your victory?

We do not need to be afraid of death. If the numbers do not come and the money does not flow in, it’s true that we might die, but that is not the end. As sad as it is when a local congregation dies, the Spirit will continue to move long after they are gone. New churches will rise up in the power of the Spirit and the congregants who disperse from the remains of the old church will find life wherever the Spirit leads. There is the hope of resurrection – a restored Body in the image of our resurrected Savior. Churches die, but the reality of the risen Christ lives on. Death is not the end.

But death is also not an indication of failure. Blessed churches do not always continue and condemned churches do not always die. Your faithfulness to God is not indicative of whether or not your church dies off. You may have fought the good fight. You may have run the race well. God may be standing there telling you “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It just might be your time.

So keep running, church! There is freedom here! This is your chance to build into the your congregation and deepen those relationships. It is time to focus on growing spiritually and theologically and challenge those in your midst to step outside their comfort zone. Pray more, but don’t pray for growth: pray for life. Pray for a vibrant community. Pray for a congregation that seeks justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with the Lord, then do everything you can to make that a reality. In all of this, remember that your results do not change God’s opinion of you nor does it measure God’s satisfaction with you.

You are loved by God, church. Even if the numbers do not come; even if the bank account dries up; even if your church dies, we have a God who is worthy of praise. We have a God who is alive! Use every ounce of breath that you have left to proclaim that.

And rest.

It is in the hands of God.

Rest.