Our congregation’s last worship service in our beloved 1940’s-era downtown sanctuary was on New Year’s Eve in 2017. We gathered in the sanctuary, now stripped of everything except folding chairs, a makeshift communion table, a portable keyboard, and our hopes. After three years of fervent prayer, too many church meetings to count, and some miracles we couldn’t have imagined, it was time to say goodbye.
Once a large and vibrant congregation, our church had a few dozen active people left, and the moment was now for a major change. By God’s grace and with an enormous amount of courage, the congregation had decided to relocate, rename, and relaunch together for a new era of Christian ministry in our community.
The former dialysis building we’d purchased to relocate our congregation wasn’t quite ready to be consecrated into its new purpose yet. So, we were becoming a nomadic people for a while, planning to worship in a local elementary school’s cafetorium until our new place was renovated. The previous week a moving truck took the stuff of 111 years of being church in this location away, and now we were left with each other, in this beloved space, one last time.
It was the Sunday after Christmas, and the music was still all carols, “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World” and such. I thought the service was going well enough, and even had some joy to it. I admired how these folks were being so brave as we jumped into the unknown together. This was almost fun!
Then the offering came. Our pianist played “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and we started passing around the old brass offering plates we kept out of the moving boxes for just this occasion. I was singing along to the carol, “Down in a lowly manger, the humble Christ was born…” but I was interrupted by a strange sound. Clink, clunk. Clunk, clink. Not the normal sound of change hitting the metal plate; it had a heavier timbre than that.
It continued intermittently until a deacon brought the plates to the front. It was then I saw what had created the noise: it was keys! Keys in the offering plate! Our faithful church leaders were releasing their keys to the building where they served Christ for so many years. They were doing this one last, hard thing. They were truly letting go.
Now their hands were empty and ready to embrace whatever God had for us next. Unbidden tears came as I fished my own keys out of my purse and added them to the offering of our bittersweet release.
Sunday morning on All Saints’ Sunday 2022, I looked across a congregation of about 125 familiar and new faces. After 15 months of worshipping in an elementary school cafetorium and 59 Sundays of worshipping in the parking lot of our new-to-us building during the pandemic, we are finally fully in our new sanctuary for the last year.
All along the tumultuous way, I have witnessed God draw people to the love of Christ through us. Now as this 116-year-old congregation gathered for worship in our new space on this beautiful fall morning of remembrance, I read the names of our saints.
We rang a bell for each person who had invested their life of faith with us for the sake of future generations. Two of the names read were people who had been members of our church for over seventy years, pouring their lives into ours all of that time, and even making the difficult transition to our new location, new name, and new beginning. We remembered each of our saints, some wiping at their eyes with a tissue and others smiling in recollection of an unspoken memory. When the last reverberation of the bells diminished, we said the Lord’s prayer in unison, as is our weekly custom.
This time, instead of leading the prayer loudly from the pulpit, I said it quietly and listened for the congregation’s voices repeating the ancient words together. It was then I heard a sound I was unprepared for: it was the sound of children saying the prayer. Loudly, confidently, reverently, joyfully, in their unmistakable tenor tones and young pronunciations, they were leading the congregation in this prayer.
When the prayer finished, we blessed the children to go to their “Worship & Wonder” experience during the sermon. They filled the aisles, nearly two dozen of them, their bouncy exuberance flooding our worship, their vulnerable lives telling our souls the reasons for the church of Jesus Christ to keep going for the next generations.
And I praised God for a congregation of saints who knew how to let go of their keys.
Rev. Dr. Dawn Darwin Weaks is co-pastor of Connection Christian Church, a vibrant and trusted community leader in Texas’ Permian Basin. She is the author of BREAKTHROUGH: Trusting God for Big Change in Your Church and a contributor to the Unbinding the Gospel series, a popular church transformation resource. Connection is the third century-old congregation she has led to discover bold, new purpose in ministry. More info at dawn.weaks.org.