This past Wednesday my church had the sort of meeting no church ever wants to have. We met to decide whether to continue as a church or disband. When I joined the church shortly after moving to the area three years ago, I never thought things would come to this. It was always a small church, but it was vibrant, with lots of college students and young professionals. Church services were (and still are) joyful but also a time for deep, quiet reflection; sermons were rich and encouraging. The church wasn’t really growing, but that was largely because so many of those who left had been inspired to go to seminary or enter church work of some kind. The future seemed bright.

There were a few problems. We were a small church, and there weren’t many people to do the work that was entailed in keeping everything going. Some members started complaining about the workload. About a year ago, a few members left; so as not to burden the remaining members, the steering team cut back on some things we were doing. That affected programs, and some people became dissatisfied that the church didn’t have the programs they wanted. More people left. In about the past three months the loss of members cascaded, and, finally, there was a church service in the middle of August that nobody attended (that’s not quite true; the pastor and five people were there). So, the natural question became, should we continue or just disband? And if we continue, how can we become a sustainable church again? Thus the meeting.

Twelve people attended, plus one via Skype. There was a couple in their fifties and their daughter, a couple in their forties, two couples somewhere around 30 (I’m bad at estimating ages so this sentence may be mostly inaccurate), the pastor, and his wife. I was the oldest person there. A teenager, daughter of the second couple, joined us after work. Our only remaining college student had a class and couldn’t make it.

The pastor and the head of the steering team had drawn up a list of four options, three of which were to go on in some fashion and the fourth of which was to disband. We each talked about how we saw the church and what we thought would be the best course of action. Several people mentioned being discouraged by the work that it would take to rebuild the congregation. A couple with young children said they thought it might be best for their kids to go to a church with more programs. Someone asked our pastor whether it would be a relief if he no longer had to lead a struggling church. He didn’t think so, but said he was shaken when only five people came to a service and thought he didn’t have the energy to cope with that happening many more times. His wife broke down when she talked about how hard it is to set up for a service not knowing if anyone will come.

At the same time, about half of us were leaning toward continuing. Even those who were leaning the other way talked about not wanting to give up the community we have together. We are, indeed, a family to each other. We have gotten to know each other incredibly well and care deeply for each other. One person who is thinking of leaving asked, “But couldn’t we still meet together to talk about faith?” Isn’t that kind of what church is? The teenager said she loved her church and that all the adults treated her like a person, not just a kid. Everyone was open; everyone got support even if they expressed views different from the rest of the group. We couldn’t find resolution, though. Toward the end of the meeting I didn’t want the church to disband but I had a sense of dread that we might have to do so. I think I wasn’t alone in that dread.

We decided to wait one week before making a decision. I hardly slept at all that night; I was in misery since I couldn’t see a way forward. Early the next morning, as I reflected (or maybe obsessed) on the meeting, it dawned on me that something remarkable had occurred there. These twelve people (I won’t include myself because I was the last of those present to join) had invested themselves in the church without holding back. Everyone had picked up the slack for someone else who either wouldn’t sign up to help or signed up and didn’t follow through. I suspect everyone felt abandoned by members who seemed committed or even led the church (did I mention that all but one member of the steering team left this summer?), then disappeared. If anyone had a right to throw up their hands and walk away, to rail at those who left, to blame the pastor or leadership or God or anybody else that came to mind, to say “I told you so” about suggestions not taken and warnings not heeded, to remind us all of how much they had done, it was these people.

Yet none of them did. No one said they wanted to walk away in disgust, no one vented, no one blamed.  Every person there was open, often to the point of rawness, about their feelings, and none of these feelings were toxic. Everyone listened, everyone empathized, everyone encouraged the others. More than anything else, everyone loved each other. I believe that God’s Spirit was present, ministering to each of us through everyone else. Thinking back over my sixty-plus years of participating in various churches, I could recall only one other meeting in which I sensed the Spirit was present to this degree.

I shared these thoughts with a friend who has been a pastor’s wife for over thirty years. Her take was that God must have been working for years to get us to that point, stripping away the illusions and false hopes so just love remained. She and her husband had a similar experience once early in their ministry. The church they were then serving went through a tremendous struggle and were left with just a faithful few. They considered closing, but didn’t, and now are serving their community in wonderful ways. She said something like this: “God doesn’t accomplish his purposes by building big churches with lots of programs. Christ works through small groups who have been purified for his purpose. You’re one of those groups.”

Maybe we are. I was still left wondering what it would mean for us to be a successful church. We’ve been thinking that we need to build our numbers up. It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.

And what about all the programs and activities that other churches have but we don’t? Some of those seem appealing to me as well. But aren’t those programs and activities for the purpose of spiritual formation–to change our hearts and minds so we become more like Christ? If that is happening to us in such a powerful way already, how many more programs do we really need? How much sense would it make to disband and go to other churches so that we can get into programs to teach us how to get what we already have?

How about the kids? We do have a worship time for them during the sermon, but they are missing out on the rich array of educational activities that many churches have. We probably can do better. Still, there are lots of kids who grow up in other congregations going to those activities and end up disliking the church and keeping their distance from all things religious. Are they really better off than our kids, all of whom seem to love our church as much as the teenager in the meeting does?

None of this means that we aren’t in a difficult position. We aren’t in financial straits yet, but will be eventually if something doesn’t change. At this point, I don’t know if we’ll decide to continue on. Still, since the meeting, my thoughts about what makes for a successful church have changed totally.

A couple days ago, I sent an email to those at the meeting, suggesting that maybe God’s intention all along was to bring us to this point where we love each other the way we do. I added that our church has become the most successful church I’ve ever been a part of. Just so they wouldn’t think I’m nuts, I carefully specified that I was using as my criterion of success that we become Christ-like. They know me  well, though, and probably knew before the email that I can be kind of nuts. That’s OK. They love me anyway.

So, we’ll meet again on Wednesday September 16. I ask for your prayers for us. And while you’re at it, pray for yourself, too, that, if it hasn’t happened up until this point in your life, you will someday be part of a community that loves God and each other the way we did on Wednesday. As I know all too well, being in that sort of church can be painful, but the joy far outweighs the pain.

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UPDATE: When we met on Wednesday, we decided to continue meeting for at least a year. We’ll focus first of all on getting closer to each other and finding a way of worshiping that those wary of God or church might find easier to participate in. We started that process with our worship service today (9-12-15). I’m excited about what God is doing among us!