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
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  • I think God has him where he is needed. He sees opportunities where most would see failure. Sounds like he has a good odea on how to minister to those around him.

  • I think some caution is in order here. We need to be careful of being the guy who ends up sowing discord and splintering a church.

    However, in the case of a dying church I am reminded of Matt Chandler’s story. Not that everyone can expect to get to 6000 members in a few years, but I think it’s worth a try to go into a dying church ready to speak the truth in love and let the Holy Spirit build it up.

  • i’m a little torn on your question. on the one hand, i think this guy is doing a great thing, renewing the visible church to actually be a church, and using the opportunity to reach the lost with the gospel.

    on the other hand, i’m concerned when thinking about this in general because of the possibility of becoming liberal ourselves (praise God for those that haven’t fallen), and whether this is a weird putting a sheep in wolf’s clothing and seeming to affirm that which may be apostate. seems like a tight-rope-walk. any thoughts?

  • Thanks, guys. Jason, that is an important caution, indeed. Walt, you also make a good point. Ordination in any denomination usually requires a pretty tight conformity to the party line, whatever that may be. That’s part of why I raised the question. It would be extremely difficult for me to do so, especially because it would strongly violate my conscience. Then again, there are so many people in those huge mainline denominations that need to hear the Gospel. And endless tug-of-war, it seems.

  • The current spiritual climate in Switzerland is secular, and this is true of just about anywhere you go there. It is a very stable country economically, but there is not any sort of strong biblical witness. My grandmother-in-law lives in Basel and is a humanist.

    So, if this pastor is willing to stay and actually preach the Word of God, then what better thing could be done? If he is free to preach, and even to be subversive via true preaching, then why be critical of his work? God bless him and the people there. Revival may come.

  • I am from Austria and am preparing to go to seminary this upcoming Fall in the US. I have been living in the US for a few years now and am seriously considering moving back to Austria with a similar mindset as this man. I grew up in evangelical churches there that were quite insular and didn’t work much with the official church (in our case the Catholic church). I agree with the Swiss pastor that sometimes we can become so inwardly focused, making sure “our own flock” knows what is wrong with the “other” church so we can win people who leave their churches to our own. I am even thinking about potentially joining Catholic efforts for revival when I go back. PRAY FOR REVIVAL IN EUROPE!

  • Good article, we are a ministry praying for a revival in Europe, and we want to send missionaries to preach the gospel there, so, se wanted to introduce ourselves to you so you can introduce us to the pastor at Switzerland, we are looking for contacts in Europe, so we can plan a short term missionary trip to Europe next year to visit the churches there and make plans for the future.

    Thanks in advance.

    God bless you.

  • Greetings in the name of our lord Jesus Christ

    Having heard about your capability and your efficiency in caring out the things of almighty god effectively without fear of favor, through your various publications and your programmers in TV station the last time i visited you country late last year, I pastor emmanuel v okafor and the members of Jesus for ever ministry here in Nigeria wishes to merge with your church and to be renamed with the name of your church as one of your branch here in Nigeria.

    We took this measure after going through your profile and our inability to fiancé the ministry. we wish to work with your church in sincerity and honesty.

    Thank you as we await a favorable reply from your ministry.

    yours Brother in the lord
    pastor emmanuel v okafor

Written by Jake Belder