Worship in the Face of Death

The problem we humans have, as one of my seminary professors put it, is that people forget. Even in a world where death is all over the news, where gravediggers are always employed, where Ebola and war and famine wreak havoc, people forget about death. We don’t passively forget—that is not possible. But we actively turn our minds away from our own deaths, even if we cannot avoid death in the world around us. We lobotomize the part of our brain that considers the fact that except Christ comes again, all of us will die.

Even as Christians who know, with Paul, that dying is gain (Phil. 1:21-23), most of us don’t like to contemplate our own deaths. It is easy to function with the idea that our death is a long way away. But when you are leading a congregation that has a final service date set, after which the doors will close and your congregation will disband, it is unavoidable: death looms before you.

There is an old and good definition of pastoral care that sees it as preparing people to die. No matter our life situations—healthy or sick, young or old, new believer or mature in faith—we all need to be ready to die. Therefore, worship leaders in a dying congregation must seize this opportunity for pastoral care. People are thinking about the death of their congregation, and naturally this leads them to contemplate their own deaths. Corporate worship is a powerful tool to enable reeling believers to stare death in the face with hope and confidence. We need the riches of Scripture to provide the foundation for us to follow our Friend who has already faced, and defeated, death for us.

Think how worship shapes believers and gives them strength. Martyrs sing praise to God as they go to their deaths; prisoners sing hymns in concentration camps; families sing hymns sung around a loved one’s cancer-wracked body in her final days; parents sing psalms of lament clinging to the hope of eternity in the face of an infant’s stillbirth.

Worship, in all its facets, is about our Christian identity, which goes deeper than death. The acts of singing, praying, preaching, and giving—these renew the covenant that binds us to Jesus Christ, our “great high priest who has gone through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14). As strange as it seems to an unbelieving world, worship is one of the most appropriate and empowering responses in the face of impending death or its raw stinging aftermath.

As I planned worship in a dying congregation, I was intentional about choosing songs, prayers, and responsive readings that focused on the centrality of dying and resurrection to the Christian identity. At the same time, in his providential grace God led me to choose appropriate sermon texts months before I knew we were going to close. When I was in the midst of helping a congregation die, unable to think any farther ahead, God had already led me to preach through the end of the gospel of John. God’s timing was also providential: Lent and the Easter season were our last days of worshiping together, with our final service the Sunday after Easter. The church year and sermon texts, songs and Scripture readings, all integrated to help us stare death in the face and not despair.

We need the riches of Scripture to provide the foundation for us to follow our Friend who has already faced, and defeated, death for us.

In our songs we lifted our eyes to God, declaring his goodness and majesty with songs like “How Great Thou Art,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Ten Thousand Reasons.” We reminded each other of our identity through songs like “Amazing Grace,” “In Christ Alone,” and “Faith of Our Fathers.” We clung to the providence of God by singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and “If You but Trust in God to Guide You.” And through it all we clung to our living Hope in Christ and our love for each other as God’s children, singing “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “Go, My Children, with My Blessing,” and “My Friends, May You Grow in Grace.”

We spent much time reading Scripture and soaking it in. We took time in one service to read the entirety of Isaiah 40, meditating on God’s sovereign control of not only our lives, but the whole world. Another time we read all of Isaiah 43, remembering God our Savior and his redeeming love for his people. We read the end of Zephaniah 3, delighting in the image of God quieting us with his love. We lamented our upcoming death with Psalm 80, pleading for restoration. We read the entirety of John 13-21 over the course of four months.

We also faithfully stayed the course of ordinary church events. We celebrated what God had done and was still doing through Cadets and GEMS, our boys’ and girls’ club ministries. We kept gathering as a body every Sunday, loving each other and supporting each other in our grief. We laughed together and sought to encourage each other to remain faithful into the uncertain future.

God has blessed this dying process. I received a call to serve another congregation already in June. We sold the church property to another group that intended to plant a new congregation in Gallatin Gateway in August. The congregation we loved so dearly, with all its warts and flaws and beauty, is dead. But already God is bringing resurrection. As St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “in dying we are born to eternal life.”

George Den Oudsten is pastor of Peoria Christian Reformed Church in Iowa.