From near-death to life through ‘Vital Merger’

By the Rev. Gordon Hendrickson, Coordinator of Congregational Development

(Jesus) cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”   John 11:38-44 (NRSV)

Why does a local church exist? 

Its primary purpose is to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission: to make new disciples of Jesus Christ by spreading the gospel and helping believers to grow stronger, deeper and more active in their faith. In its mission to call forth disciples, the church helps many who suffer to emerge spiritually from death to life, imitating what Christ did for Lazarus.

Ironically, when this stops occurring in a local church, it has reversed that process, taking on death, a natural, if unnecessary end-stage of life. But rather than wait to let a local church die, we in the conference Cabinet and Congregational Development Team (CDT) want to be proactive about helping it to revive. We want to try looking at creative ways to resurrect and unbind a church for a new life in ministry, based on the true reason it exists.

Over the next four years, the CDT will be sharing in meetings, written articles, video interviews, and training events where we may be headed. We have spent time with the Bishop and Cabinet working to address what has to be done to grow the Kingdom of God throughout our Conference. 

One of the most difficult issues we face is how to revive ailing and dying local churches. Vital Church Mergers is one way to be proactive.  Each district will identify a group of struggling churches in geographic proximity and invite them to participate in a workshop to learn about creating one new church for their area using their collective gifts and graces. 

Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together (2013) is an excellent book by the Rev. Dirk Elliott, a former pastor and now Director of New Church Development for the Michigan Conference. Reading it before the workshop will help churches understand this process of coming together, like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s dream, to experience a new, connected life in fruitful ministry.

I was at a 50th anniversary celebration for Bethany UMC Wescosville recently.  Five decades ago several small churches were asked to merge to create a new vital church in their community. Three decided to begin this journey together. Their hope was to create a church with as many as 250 in worship. 

God blessed them with a church reaching the community and growing in worship over four times greater than they could have dreamed or imagined.  Yes, a couple of churches decided not to join the merger.  But they died and no longer exist, leaving only buildings now used for other purposes. 

More recently, another miracle of faith, also in the Northeast District, created Faith Alive UMC in Bowmanstown.  A handful of churches were invited to join together, to form a family; but not everyone chose to be a part of these mergers. As we look back at those congregations who said no, it is sad to note that some closed and others are near closing. 

Yes, this is a difficult decision for a local church to make. For many, the building is all that’s left from great moments in their lives and once-notable ministries in their community. But they are no longer able to fulfill Christ’s very demanding commission.

Friends, our missional focus has to shift from past to present and toward a new future with hope, where a new vision is cast to reach our changing, less-church-oriented communities for Jesus Christ.  With a combined new vision and new gifts, a new passion and purpose can emerge that will enable us to once again pursue and fulfill Christ’s Great Commission.

Don’t be afraid to let go of your individual past stories to write a new story and create a new, collective future as a vital, growing church family.  May God be with us in this new journey.