Ministry in a Dying Church

graveAbout a month ago, I was sitting in my Tuesday evening class, and of the ten students in the class, there was one I didn’t recognize. During a break I went over to introduce myself and found out that this guy is a pastor in a small church in northern Switzerland and is here on sabbatical for a few months. I’ve gotten to know him quite well over the past month, and we have had some interesting conversations about ministry. One of our discussions in particular is worth sharing.

This guy is a pastor in the state church, which in Switzerland is historically Reformed, though quite liberal now (as most, if not all, European state churches are). He himself is of a much more orthodox theological persuasion, attending a PCA church here and taking classes at RTS. He spent a short time ministering in one of the free churches in Switzerland, which are much more akin to our evangelical churches here, but did not remain there for long. He felt them to be far too preservationist and inward-focused, concerned only with themselves.

So he decided to go back to the state church. Why? Here he’s the associate pastor of a parish that has about 3200 members, of which only about 200-250 show up on a given Sunday. Like other parts of Europe, it’s a dying church where people retain their membership only because that’s the traditional thing to do. They still want the church to marry them and bury them, but the majority are not Christians, have no interest in the faith, and no use for the church beyond its service to them.

For him, it’s a wide-open mission field.

He tells me, for example, that it’s not unusual to do one funeral a week because the parish is so large and the population is aging. What does this mean? At a time when people are thinking about ultimates like life and death, there’s huge opportunities. He says, “All these people come to the funeral, and I get the chance to preach the gospel to them.”

This really got me thinking. Here in North America, when we have strong theological convictions about certain things we tend to flock to churches that share those beliefs. But here, this pastor is going the opposite way, seeing it as a big ministry opportunity. We’ve got large denominations that resemble the state churches of Europe in terms of vitality, and we often just leave them for dead. Even within mainline evangelicalism there are many members who are only minimally committed to the church.

So what do you think? Is there any plausibility to this pastor’s reasoning? Have you ever considered ministry in a setting like that?

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Written by jake-belder