In the late 80’s, the alternative rock band, R.E.M., released their song It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). The song was a huge success, initiating a revolution of people who “don’t even care” and paving the way for the next generation of people who “literally can’t even.” Ok, maybe it wasn’t responsible for those sad evolutionary steps of societal change. But it did start a revolution of people pretending to know all the lyrics to a really lyric-heavy song.
The one part of the lyrics that everyone seemed to know and sing confidently along to was the chorus: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Despite the fact that their world seemed to be falling apart, the band was feeling pretty good about it.
Almost 30 years later, I’m beginning to understand a little better about how they felt. No, the world isn’t ending (at least not that I’m aware of), but I am about to go through a pretty major upheaval in my life. My world is about to change.
The Vineyard, the church that I helped to start from scratch and have helped to pastor for almost six years, is about to close its doors. On November 29th of this year, we will host our final worship gathering as The Vineyard. And surprisingly, I feel pretty good about it.
My good feelings aren’t based in some weird, sadistic bent that makes me get excited in response to failure. That would require that I look at the closing of our church doors as a failure. And I most certainly do not.
We are closing our doors because we are spent. I don’t mean by “spent” that we are just really tired. I mean that we spent ourselves. We have poured ourselves out to the point where we are no longer self-sustainable. We are spent.
When we started The Vineyard almost six years ago, we decided to build it on a principle that we believed to be biblical and, therefore, very important.
We decided that we were going to be more interested in building the kingdom of God than we were in building our own kingdom as a local church.
I know it sounds cliché, but we really stuck to that foundational principle, allowing it to shape our decisions along our church-planting path.
Because of this foundational principle, we never held too tightly to our resources. We saw those resources not as our own, but as resources that belonged to the Lord and were to be used for His purposes. These resources included our money, our meager material possessions, and our people. Even our best people.
We released our people to God to be used as He saw fit. And as God worked as the great chess master that He is, He chose to move some of our people around. Actually, He chose to move a lot of our people around.
We could chalk it up to our church reaching mostly young couples who are in the formative years of their schooling and careers. Lots of people in that age-range end up moving out of town to pursue a career or to further their education, right?
In our case, we noticed it was an inordinately large percentage of our people. But each time (because we were sticking to that foundational principle), we chose to see each move as an opportunity for our small church to send out a missionary or two to a new area of our country (or in a few cases, to other areas of the world).
Over the past three years, we’ve had more than 50 of our faithful, regular attendees move from our church for one reason or another. During the three years prior to that, we had almost 30 regular attendees move away. These were not victims of the church-hopping pandemic, but were legitimate moves brought about by major life changes.
Let me put these numbers in perspective. Our church has never really had more than about 50 regular attendees at any given time. Yet we’ve seen that many move away in just a few years. Translation: over the six years that we’ve been around, we’ve seen a pretty regular revolving door of our most faithful people.
It hasn’t been easy. But we were committed to being more concerned with growing the kingdom of God than we were with growing our own kingdom, so we went with it. As a result, our small church has been able to affect the kingdom of God in a way that is far beyond what would be proportionate to our relatively small size.
During those six years of ministry, we were able to baptize more than 20 people. This may not seem like a lot, but consider that we’ve probably only had around 100 unique regular attendees through the past six years. That was a huge number of people for our small church.
And now we are seeing these people impact the kingdom elsewhere in the world. Because of the people that have moved away from our church, we now have individuals and families working to see lives transformed by the power of the gospel all over our country and in several other countries in the world. We have sent people to 11 different states, each carrying with them the desire to impact God’s kngdom. We have sent former Vineyard people to live in three different foreign countries. And through our missionary efforts, we have had a gospel influence in five other foreign countries. That is a global reach far beyond our small proportionate size!
We also have sent several families out for the purpose of ministry. We presently have six men serving in ministry positions in churches other than The Vineyard spanning four different states. We also sent a young woman across the world to India to minister through the International Justice Mission for an extended time. Again, our impact on the kingdom of God was far beyond our size would normally dictate.
The one great problem we have experienced from sticking to this principle of focusing on kingdom growth more than our own growth was that it eventually left our home base running dangerously thin. In fact, it left us so thin that the loss of a few more couples would have severely crippled us.
But we stuck to our guns. And as we did, God continued to do His thing. This summer, God moved several more of our key couples around. Over the summer, we had three of our most faithful couples move for very good reasons. One was a Coast Guard family being reassigned. Another was a young couple moving to pursue a doctorate that was unavailable in Mobile. And another was a couple whose husband was taking his first ministry position at another church in our area. All very good reasons! But the loss of such faithful couples left us with a major decision to make.
After much prayer and deliberation, the leadership of our church decided that we had run our course, and it was time to make the difficult decision to close our doors. But while we did so with heavy hearts, we didn’t see our decision as admitting failure or conceding defeat. We looked at the Bible and realized that all churches have a course to run and a part to play in the story of God establishing and growing His kingdom. And all churches have an finish line on their course.
Some churches were more like the Apostle John, faithfully serving for a lifetime, continuing to impact the kingdom into the late stages of his life. But other churches were more like John the Baptist, who served faithfully for a short period of time, burning brightly for the Lord in the limited time he had to him. One was like the North Star, faithfully flickering in the night sky, giving trustworthy direction for years upon years. The other was like a shooting star, temporarily alighting the sky and burning out just as quickly as he appeared.
Which man made more of an impact on the kingdom of God? It is impossible to say. But what can be said is that each played his part in the hands of the Master Storyteller as He wove the threads of the grand story of redemption into His great masterpiece of grace. Both men were important in this masterpiece because both were faithful to play the part God had for them.
Our church has accepted the truth that our part was more like a shooting star than an ever-present beacon. So we will soon be closing our doors, not because we faded quietly into the night. But because we burned brightly in the darkness. We spent ourselves. And for the same reasons I would not grieve at the end of my life if I had no money in my bank account because I used it all for the spread of the gospel, I do not grieve over our church spending itself to its death for the very same reason.
In his book, Death by Living, N.D. Wilson wrote, “Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.” I hope that our church has left far more of a wake in the river of God’s story than we would have done if we had focused on our own comfort and safety.
Yes, we are dying. But we are dying from having lived.
I have come to grips with the harsh reality that it is the end of our church as we know it.
And I feel fine.