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Ask: Why Fear of Death is Killing the Church

A telemarketer called the church. She was selling neighborhood mailing lists. I told her no thank you.

“I’m just trying to help you grow your church! Don’t you want your church to grow??” she shouted angrily. Whoa. Where was this coming from?

I said (with the manners of a saint, given her tone), “we have a budget for resources like this, but it’s been designated for other things.”

“Yes,” she said, “but the church doesn’t really run on a budget, does it? I mean, it’s all donations, right?”

And those donations are, what, monopoly money?

I said ‘no thank you’ again and finally hung up on her, because it occurred to me she could be a randoms just trying to get the church credit card number. In any case, her business tactics stunk.

Regardless of the legitimacy of her product, I gained a valuable insight from her accusation–that the church does not use REAL money, and yet, that we somehow have the capacity to buy whatever…whether we need it or not. It was not the first time I’ve noticed that people think this way. Whether it is someone trying to sell us something; somebody asking for rent or utility assistance (which we may or may not have at the moment); or a family that does not give to the church, getting angry about where we do and do not spend our money; all point to the same simple truth: public perception is that “Church” (big C) is an endless pool of resources. If we do not pay the rent, or buy the product, or fund the youth trip, we are sitting on a big ol’ pile of money and just being selfish with it.

Where does this come from, this idea of the church playing with monopoly money while our neighbors go hungry? I have some theories.

We are, quite simply, afraid of death.

If Grandma and Grandpa are afraid to talk about death, the first thing that happens is: they do not include the church in their will. Perhaps they’ve given faithfully, every time the plate was passed, for 90+ years, but there was no estate planning in place. (You’ve got to talk about dying, after all, in order to leave a legacy). So, however faithfully these folks supported the church in their lifetime, they set up no expectation or obligation for their children to do the same. Their lifetime of savings and hard work goes to said kids, without even a tithe to the church. Or, in extreme cases, it all goes to the state, and the kids have to fight for even that.

Did i mention–it is possible that grandma and/or grandpa died a slow, painful death. Because really, if you are afraid to speak of death with your loved ones, you have given no advance directives about how and where you’d like to spend your last days. Everyone is left feeling guilty when the ‘allow natural death’ option comes up. And so the family determines to draw every possible breath out of the suffering frame, so they can sleep at night. Feeding tubes, endless medications, and oxygen tanks ensue. So there’s that…

Meanwhile, where is the Church in this family’s life? Well, for years, the church has been taking communion to G-ma and G-pa, faithfully holding their hands, praying, loving them; preaching great sermons to the grown children, inviting them to Sunday School, potluck suppers and committee meetings; happy when they show up once a month…and then twice a year… and then…well, come to mention it, when was the last time we saw them? And never, ever, teaching that second generation the importance of planned giving and faithful stewardship. Because, well…weren’t their parents modelling that very thing for them? Surely once the student loans were paid off…once the mortgage gotten in hand…once the kids get through college…then THIS generation will step up, and start to foot the bill again.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about the grandkids. Of course, they went off to college. Church figured on not seeing them for a few years. They would trickle back in once they graduated. Once they got their careers off the ground. Once they had kids of their own…

And then, lo and behold…they DID come back! (Some of them do). Maybe it was grandma’s long painful death that did the trick, or the kids asking about what happens when the dog dies, or just some miracle of the seeking heart…They came back to church!

And the Church was overjoyed. It knew the children would come back, some day. So the Church preached its best sermon, and invited to committee meetings, and tried to bring Sunday school back from the dead.

Hardly realizing, all the while, that the middle generation never picked up the gap in the budget, left with the old folks’ passing. And without ever even ASKING the youngest folks to give. Or to lead. Or to help reinvent this thing that is old and dying. Because, well…Church is just so dang glad they’re BACK! We don’t want to scare them off by expecting them to lead, or asking them for money…

And also because…well, in order to extend all these invitations, the Church has to first admit– that it is dying.

It is dying, as a whole era of generous servants begins to die off, never having expected to live this long, having not planned for their death or for the remainder of their resources.

The Church is dying, as another era of potential servants reaches the peak earning years of their lives, without ever having learned the language of stewardship.

The Church is dying, as hoards of young adults leave it seeking their own answers…and then come back again, only to be told “You don’t have to do anything! You don’t have to give! We are just glad you’re here!”

Why do you reckon G-ma and G-pa were so afraid to talk about death, after all? My bet is, it had something to do with the Church. The Church–the one that loved them so well, the one they supported so faithfully–was far too focused on afterlife plans, to focus on end-of-life matters, and middle-of-life stewardship. Afraid of its own dying trend, the Church turned its eyes toward heaven, pretending not to notice that its own end was near.

I scarcely know where to start to curb this trend, but I do know this: even if we start to turn it around now, the Church (big C) will be dealing with serious gaps in endowments, investments, and planned giving, for years to come. I also know that, if we were not all so afraid of our own mortality, we’d be much more inclined to make plans while we are able; to share what we have while we’re alive; and to challenge even our youngest participants to truly invest their lives in the future of our mission.

A couple of retired, yet active church leaders, heads out to an exotic location for a dive trip. “It’s shark season,” they mention. The pastor responds: “Um…the church is in your will, right?” They laugh. I laugh. It is a fun moment. Thing is–i know for fact that the church is in their will, because we make it a point to talk about these things. While we are able. And to laugh about it when we can.

There are great resources out there for talking about stewardship, and teaching the langauge of generosity to people of every age. But giving starts with abundant living, unafraid of death or decline, and fully embracing the life that is gifted to us, every single day. The church too afraid to ask is really just prolonging its own death…and might find itself dealing in monopoly money, after all.



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