Author's Note: This is the second part of an article that I started before the pandemic. My goal was to make the point that grief is a path for growth in our lives AND in churches. I did not know we would be in a time when the world is experiencing a collective grief.
What does it mean to grieve with hope? Most church growth strategies don’t start with grief ministries and older adults. But what if we did? Grief is often relegated to the sidelines of our culture. It is something we do in private with the exception of when the public figure dies or when a great tragedy impacts a community. But what if the church actually helped people grieve with hope? As I suggested in my previous article, legacy churches are dealing with continuous grief. There are a lot of people in our communities that need someone to model grief right now. This is our opportunity to give witness to the hope we have in Christ. Here are some specific ways
Grieving our loss of place – Older believers have gone through this grief. They left a workplace that was a regular part of their routine for years. Their identity is no longer tied to their career or children in the home. They may have downsized their home to an apartment or a retirement community. They have watched their church buildings move from “comfortably full” to “mostly empty.” Our world has lost its familiar places in this pandemic. Work places, restaurants, parks, entertainment and places of worship are not accessible to us. Older adults in our churches can give voice to this grief.
Grieving the loss of our cognitive and physical abilities – Despite all of the advances in medical technology we do not have an answer to the loss of cognitive abilities through dementia and strokes. It is the most common fear I hear as a pastor. So many senior adults talk about what they were once able to do at the church that they are not able to do any more. The fears and grief related to physical and cognitive decline are very real and present in most legacy churches. Our communities are full of people who are dealing with this in isolation. We all know of many people who are caring for a spouse or a parent and that has led them to be isolated from their church and their friends. Churches understand all of this grief. We need to do a better job of saying to our community “we understand” and “how can we help?” A church that does this will find all the ministry growth it can handle.
Grieving the loss of our family and friends – Griefshare has been a part of the ministry of two churches I have served. I found Griefshare to be helpful when my dad died. In the church I currently serve I thought Griefshare would be our ministry to widows. But so many of our groups have included parents, spouses and siblings of those who have died because of an overdose or suicide. I never saw that coming. How many people are grieving alone in your community? I am grateful for the work of funeral homes in my community but we have almost put grief work under their business plan. Grieving is the work of the church in a community. When we do it – people will find hope and we will find people.
The hope in “giving up.” I have been with too many people and families who have fought so hard and have exhausted every possibility to hold on to life. I get it. But there is a wonderfully sacred moment when we “give up.” That doesn’t mean we accept defeat, it means we transition to a place of ultimate hope through our faith in Jesus Christ. Too many people in our world do not know how to make the transition from “giving up” to hope. That is a journey of faith but it’s a journey they need to see and hear lived out. Most of us are “fighting” this pandemic by buying supplies (i.e. toilet paper), doing yard/gardening work and evaluating the science so we know when we can “open up” again. We all need to find hope in “giving up” on what we can control during this time.
Moving forward from grief I have found Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief to be very helpful in my life and ministry. But I have struggled with my misconception of the “acceptance stage.” I understood that to be the “you can’t do anything about it – so you might as well just keep going,” stage. But that’s not what it is. It is the stage where we find meaning in life again. That’s not a “light switch” moment, it is a gradual moment and it is beautiful to see. I have had the privilege to pastor a number of people who didn’t “grin and bear” their grief for the rest of their life – they found meaning, joy and hope in life again. They launched out in new endeavors knowing that the journey of faith is always a forward movement. It’s a powerful witness to the truth of our faith.
So can our “old, dying churches” find ministry vitality in grief? Absolutely. Let’s stop chasing ministry vibrancy in places that we are not (young people, cool bands, etc) and let’s be the model of those who “grieve with hope.”
Dan Carlton was called to serve as pastor at Culpeper Baptist in August 2014. Dan has a passion for seeing legacy churches continue to grow and connect with the surrounding community, while maintaining traditional values and relevant ministries. Culpeper Baptist Church was birthed in 1774 in the soil of religious liberty by its first pastor Nathaniel Saunders, who was imprisoned in the Culpeper Jail and its third pastor, John Leland, who helped establish religious freedom in the Constitution.