Spiritual Euthanasia

Recent debates about the Affordable Care Act and Physician-assisted suicide have prompted important ethical discussion about rationed care, death panels and euthanasia. These are unavoidable issues as long as we treat health care as a commodity to be traded in the market place instead of as a basic human service deserved by all regardless of economic status. A related but different concept is that of triage, a necessary strategy for dealing with emergency or critical situations where difficult decisions must be made quickly about which victims of a disaster or epidemic should be treated immediately with the limited available resources, who can wait for care, and who unfortunately is beyond saving.

Making such choices is necessary because of the limits of what modern medicine, as amazing as it is, can do and because of the unavoidable truth of human mortality. I have become painfully aware recently of a similar phenomenon in the church that is as unnecessary as it is misguided, an oxymoronic philosophy of church growth I have labeled “spiritual euthanasia.” I imagine this deadly virus is contagious across denominational boundaries but I can only address my own United Methodist Church from personal experience.

In our United Methodist conference the latest church growth cure all for what ails the church is called the Missional Church Consultation Initiative, and I was serving on a church staff where this program was adopted 2 years ago. The foundation document for this initiative is a book by John Edmund Kaiser, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission. Kaiser is an Evangelical Baptist, a telling and strange choice for the far more open and theologically diverse non-doctrinal United Methodist Church.

Kaiser’s basic model for church structure and governance is one of a lead pastor who has total control over the membership and operation of the church board and staff. As one reviewer of the book says, “no one leads that way anymore.” Apparently that is not true for desperate church leaders more concerned with saving their institution than with sound theology.

If it were not so fundamentally wrong I would admire the clever strategy this initiative uses to stage a coup that overthrows the long-established democratic system of church governance in the Methodist Church. Instead of respecting the basic Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers, Kaiser’s structure of the church is intentionally designed to eliminate all dialogue, disagreement, criticism and collaboration. Staff members are told their function is to carry out the mission of the Sr. Pastor and are required to sign a covenant pledging obedience and loyalty to the directives of the Sr. Minister. Such a hierarchical structure may work well in the military or with a staff of unquestioning people; but it will never produce the kind of creative and dynamic thinking that a diversity of opinions and open communication requires for dealing with the ambiguities and mysteries of theological inquiry and spiritual growth. Having spent 18 years teaching and promoting collaboration at Ohio State University, it is very clear to me that Kaiser’s leadership model violates every basic tenet of collaborative organization and leadership.

And that brings me to Spiritual Euthanasia as one very important result of uncritical thinking. Spiritual euthanasia occurs as a form of collateral damage when pastors and congregational leaders accept what the church growth experts and consultants say as gospel just because they say so, namely that all resources must be focused on reaching new young families at the expense of providing ministries and care for existing members of the church. One consultant told our staff that we shouldn’t worry about devoting resources to the older people in the congregation because “they won’t be around in 20 years.”

I understand the emphasis on reaching and discipling new people, but making disciples is not a one-and-done strategy and must include continual spiritual growth and nurturing, prophetic and pastoral preaching and teaching and opportunities for mission work for those already in the church family. Any strategy that emphasizes one aspect of a holistic and healthy Christian life is out of balance and a formula for losing existing members out the back door as fast as we bring new ones in the front.

Our consultants told us that the 55 and over segment of the population is one of the two largest and growing groups in the demographic data they shared about area, but that same older population is being taken for granted or overlooked by the same consultants’ recommendations for the congregation’s ministries. I understand the obvious importance and emphasis on reaching younger people for building for the future, but to fail to also appreciate and utilize the wisdom and life experience of the elders in the congregation and minister to the needs of seniors in the church and community is not only theologically unacceptable but foolish. From a purely pragmatic perspective, to alienate a large segment of any organization that has the most resources and time to support the work of the organization and the most institutional memory and loyalty is simply not a sound strategy for survival. Nor does a narrow focus on young families address the critical need in our society to help all ages learn about intergenerational relationships, caregiving, and end of life issues. Given the realities of increased longevity and the weakening of extended family support systems, the church can ill afford to ignore this opportunity for important ministry.

One church board member, when asked about the strategy to put all of our eggs in the outreach-to-young-families basket responded by repeating the spiritual euthanasia company line, “it has to be one or the other – we can’t do both.” Why is ministry to the young and old an either/or question? Even the state of Ohio has more faith than that according to our state motto which quotes Matthew 19:26, “With God all things are possible.”

Two years into this initiative the results of Spiritual Euthanasia in the situation I know best are predictably painful. Yes, the church has attracted some new members and is providing more ministry and programs for young families, but at what cost? Long-established mission programs are suffering, the church has lost many faithful long-time members, a very successful youth ministry has lost two dedicated leaders with decades of loyal service to the church, half of the former staff has resigned, and reduction in financial support has forced drastic cuts to the church budget and depletion of financial reserves.

The Spiritual Euthanasia strategy reminds me of the quote from an unnamed American Major in the Viet Nam war who explained a particular military operation by saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” That is not to judge those Viet Nam vets who were doing what they believed was the right thing in a bad situation. Nor is it to judge pastors and denominational leaders and congregational leaders who are under tremendous pressure to stem the tide of frightening declines in church membership and giving in mainline denominations. These are desperate times when our world and nation need the Christian Gospel of peace and justice more than ever. But desperate times must not lead us into desperate actions that do more harm than good.

My dear departed mother used to quote a familiar adage that “the church is only one generation from extinction.” The urgency of that warning is well-intended and always worth noting, but it is not totally true. The church may be one generation from extinction, but the truth of the Gospel is eternal. As we look forward to another Holy Week, let’s remember how Jesus was ordered by authority figures on his way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to silence his crowd of cheering fans. But Jesus took his marching orders from a higher authority, and he replied, “If they keep quiet the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40). The Romans and Jewish authorities didn’t believe him of course. They tried their evil best to silence him, and guess what? It didn’t work then, and it won’t ever work. As our friends in the United Church of Christ like to remind us, “God is still Speaking,” and no matter what we do, God will keep speaking. The question is who’s listening?

As we enter the Lenten season of repentance again this year, I am grateful I am no longer on the front lines of this struggle, and I have great respect and offer prayerful support for those who are. My prayer is that all of us, especially pastors, congregational and denominational leaders will use this Lenten season to prayerfully consider the dangers of Spiritual Euthanasia. May these 40 days of Lent be a time of healing and discernment of a balanced, compassionate Gospel that values and serves the needs of all of God’s children in a church that is called not to be successful by worldly standards, but faithful to the one who is the “way and truth and life.”

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