On death and dying, as it relates to churches

May 16, 2022

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, wrote the classic book On Death and Dying. This work, chronicling lessons she learned with terminally ill patients, outlined the five stages that all people go through as they near death.

Beginning when they are informed of their terminal condition, the stages are as follows:

  • Denial: a suspended period of disbelief, thinking there’s been some mistake made, or that the situation is not as bad as they are being told
  • Anger: an emotional reaction suggesting hostility, even betrayal, at the situation and projected often toward those felt responsible for the condition (God, loved ones, medical personnel, etc.)
  • Bargaining: an attempt to placate those felt responsible for the condition by coming to an agreement of terms, often changing behavior, in hopes of different results
  • Depression: a “giving up” sense of resignation to the irreversible situation and circumstances that leaves one often leaving totally alone, vulnerable and without hope
  • Acceptance: the reality of death embraced, maybe even “at peace” with the inevitable end that is coming, and greater concern with eternity and/or with those who will be left behind

I share all of this to make this point: Churches facing the need for revitalization and replanting experience the same five stages that affect their collective life and psyche.

Early in the process, when initially learning the church they love and serve so faithfully is struggling (plateaued, at risk, in trouble, etc.), the knee-jerk reaction of almost everyone is denial. “No way, that’s not our situation” is a common response. Or “We’re fine; it’s just a bump in the road. Soon things will be back to normal.”

Later, when things don’t turn around, members can get angry. “We should have gone back to the way we did it in the good ol’ days.” “We didn’t have this problem when Pastor So-and-So was here; why did you mess things up?” And there’s the classic, “We don’t do things like that around here.” Turnaround pastors are often terminated at this stage, or churches split because of their anger over the inability to move the congregation back in the right, progress-making direction.

At some point, however, bargaining – in the form of compromise – begins to set in. Pastors may be told by members they will change and embrace new ideas if certain experiences or expressions of church life stay the same. Leaders and staff make trade-offs, hoping this will appease the concerns of others. And of course, appeals to the Almighty are made to see if the church can persuade Him to reverse course on their direction and offer a path out of the wilderness. Negotiation is the name of the game.

Down the road of experience, when there’s no rescue and help is not on the way, people start leaving in greater numbers, like mice abandoning a sinking ship. Deep depression begins to set in for those who remain, and they question their value, worth and significance. They buy into the idea they are a “small church” – meaning “of no consequence” – and resign themselves to an uncertain future devoid of impact and meaning, filled only with obligation and duty. They begin to believe there may be no way out of the predicament they find themselves in.

Ultimately, their desperation gives way to acceptance. They see the “writing on the wall” that their demise is certain, and the end is near. The final chapter they write, while fatal, does not have to be futile. They often look beyond their own needs at this point to see if their death can help someone else’s life. They search for legacy, and it’s often found in giving.

So, if you’re reading this today and your church is struggling — where are you on this spectrum? The challenge for dying churches is to recognize what’s going on in their collective life and to respond correctly, biblically and, I might hope, in a way that reclaims God’s glory for the years to come.

by David Jackson  
/  North American Mission Board

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Jackson is a replant specialist with the North American Mission Board. This article originally appeared on namb.net. Used with permission.

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