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Our churches should focus on a living legacy

Two Views • Survival isn't only issue for Portland's religious community


“Will churches survive in land of vegans, nature lovers?” the Aug. 1 Tribune article queried.

I believe there is an honest and unsettling answer to this question: “No. Churches, as we know them, will not survive the tsunami of change taking place in our communities.”

I am a Presbyterian minister ordained in 1989. In our denomination, 25 percent of our churches nationwide have fewer than 50 members, and 53 percent of our churches have fewer than 100 members.

Last year, we had a net loss of more than 60,000 members — a number that has been duplicated repeatedly for the past 45 years.

Mainline Protestant denominations are declining at an increasingly rapid rate. Staff positions are being cut, and pastors are finding that there is not enough work to keep them employed full-time.

If the church were a person, we would be admitting that it was now time to write our wills, get our affairs in order and decide how best to pass on our estate to our children and grandchildren.

The handwriting has been on the wall for some time, but we are only now coming to accept that our traditional churches, as we have known them, will not survive.

Monica Miller, the Lewis & Clark sociology professor, advised in the article regarding the younger generation and church attendance, stating simply, “They’re not coming.”

To churches that continue to ask the question, “How do we survive these radical shifts in belief and practice?” statements like Monica Miller’s could be cause for despair and resignation.

To churches that desperately want to restore the glory days of full Sunday School classrooms and ambitious youth programs, today’s largely white-haired worship services may give little reason for a hopeful future.

But I believe that we continue to ask the wrong question. All of life goes through cycles of growth and decline, gain and loss. Why do we assume that our churches should survive in their current incarnation?

As a former hospice counselor, I can tell you that an amazing transformation takes place when a patient quits fighting the eventuality of his death and begins putting his energy into leaving a legacy of life and love for his family.

Many of our traditional churches (especially in the Northwest) are clearly encountering what only can be understood as “end of life” issues. The question no longer is, “Will we survive?” but, “What is the legacy that we will leave behind for future generations?”

I have been privileged in the past six years to have served a church that acknowledged that its aging and dwindling membership meant that it had limited time. This church gave up praying for a miracle and spent its final years putting in place a legacy of its Christian ministry.

Eastminster Presbyterian Church did finally close on June 30. But, before it was

done, the church partnered with the East Portland community and opened an 80-bed winter shelter for homeless families, built a 102-plot community garden and passed the baton of its ministry to another congregation to carry on the Eastminster legacy.

It used to be that our churches talked about how to revitalize themselves like jump-starting a car that had a dead battery. Many of us believe that the narrative of our time is not revitalization, but the time-honored story of death and resurrection.

Our churches will have to let go and allow that which is dying to die before there is enough room for new life to emerge.

The good news is that Portland’s “spiritual but not religious, vegan nature lovers” are asking the same questions our historic mainline churches have been asking for centuries. They are asking such questions as, “What is our connection to the Sacred or God?”

“What is our responsibility for the care and stewardship of the Earth?”

“How ought we to be treating each other and God’s creatures?”

“What is the ultimate purpose of our lives?”

I think we have been obsessively focused on the wrong question. The question is not whether churches will survive in a land of vegans and nature lovers. The real question is whether our churches are willing to pass on their legacy to the “spiritual but not religious, vegans, nature lovers” of Portland.

If my hospice work taught me anything it is that when we honor the cycle of life, God does amazing things.

The handwriting is on the wall. Survival is no longer an option. It is time to write our wills, put our affairs in order, and decide how best to pass on our Christian tradition of compassion, service to others and an experience of the Sacred to the community — yes, even to the vegans and nature lovers of Portland.

As the old platitude reminds us, “It’s OK to let go and let God,” and see what new and exciting things God has up Her sleeve for us.

The Rev. Brian Heron is the former pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Portland. Reach him at revbrian@pedalpilgrimage.org