Parkinson’s disease and the gifts of dying churches

Living on God’s gifted time, a pastor releases old dreams and embraces what God is shaping him to be now — as the church also must do

Conrad Kanagy Conrad Kanagy

In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, the Apostle Paul sets his eyes beyond what can be seen. He declares that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Paul says we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. . . . So death is at work in us, but life in you. . . . Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:10-18).

What then are we to make of the death that is at work in us — and the life of Jesus that is visible in us?

As a sociologist of religion, I had long assumed that the European churches, Anabaptist and otherwise, were at the end of a death-procession of the saints, disappearing into the secular society and culture. I thought the churches in the United States and the Global South possessed greater vitality.

However, I now recognize that I failed to appreciate what the Spirit is up to among the European churches and what this can teach the rest of us. I came to understand this after reading “Walking on Water,” a state-of-the church document by Henk Stenvers, a leader of the Mennonite Church in the Netherlands.

Living in denial

It would be arrogant to assume that, by the time Anabaptists reach our 500th birthday in 2025, we North Americans will be in any better position than our European brothers and sisters. In fact, I’m confident North American churches are now much closer to the experience of our European cousins than I once thought. The difference may be that we are still in denial that Christian congregations are dying.

Sociologists speak of North American Christianity as a marketplace. Church-switching makes it easier for people eventually to bail out of churches altogether. Like the shopping malls and big-box stores that caused the demise of mom-and-pop shops on America’s Main Streets, we have built megachurches with smorgasbords of programs that have led to the death of small congregations. And now, as ­Amazon, eBay and other internet ­giants swamp the planet — forcing even the large malls and department stores into bankruptcy — so too we must consider the ramifications of commodifying our churches.

It’s the “McDonald’s-ization” of American religion: serving up faith on my terms, at my convenience, customized to my preferences.

There is no evidence that megachurches increase church attendance. To the contrary, they draw people from smaller churches and, I believe, have lowered the standard of what it means to be communities of Christ’s disciples.

Like most pastors, I am bombarded with emails from ministries that promise to cure whatever ails my congregation. They can resuscitate us, even if we’re down to our last dying breath!

I’m not buying it. I think the desire to profit by marketing ecclesiastical contraptions produces little more than gimmickry for those who fear they are trapped in a death spiral.

Letting go of what was

This is why I found Stenvers’ words comforting. He believes it is time to let go of what was, to release our dying churches to God and to trust that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than our own ingenuity, remains the singular truth upon which we must rely.

In other words, let the Spirit be the guiding Spirit of the churches.

Churches have been birthing, living and dying throughout history. All seven of the churches in the Book of Revelation died, disappearing within the secularity and population trends of Asia Minor and the rising tide of Islam. This does not diminish their enduring influence — nor does it negate the reality that true followers of Jesus once constituted those churches. I believe the prayers offered by those saints continue to make an impact throughout God’s eternity.

We are no more immune to the ebb and flow of our age than they were to theirs. Nor should we think our prayers will be of no avail for generations of saints to come. For it is the Spirit who prays within us and the Spirit who transmits our prayers wherever the Spirit wills.

I am diminishing

Perhaps my perspective is impacted by recognizing that, due to my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease four years ago, I, too, am diminishing as I prematurely age. No amount of bargaining for the latest gimmick is going to change that fact. I find myself viewing the horizon as would someone who is 15 to 20 years my senior.

Rather than spending my energy in a flight of denial, I have embraced a foreshortened view of my life and recognized there are things I must release. One of them is my role as a lead pastor. Parkinson’s has foreclosed the fulfillment of my dream to carry on another 10 years.

Facing my limitation head-on has enabled me to find a new purpose consistent with the life I must now live. I am far more content and peaceful than if I were to remain in denial. It is a peacefulness gleaned from the words of Henk Stenvers, who writes:

“Let us relinquish what is keeping us from heading out. It is better to be a community of people who choose for God and people en route than a community of people who try to cling to what they have but consequently lose Jesus, God, the other and ultimately themselves. . . . When Jesus is in our boat . . . the storm in us dies down, too. . . . Going new ways is only possible if we relinquish the fear of an unknown future and focus on what we are good at in the congregation. In this way, congregations can be attractive. . . . We need to return to the content of our faith and place priority on the imitation of Jesus.”

My second conversion

A couple of years after my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I told our congregation that I had experienced a new conversion to Jesus and a new awareness of God’s love for me. I do not believe this would have occurred without acknowledging that I am living on God’s gifted time. It is much better to choose for God than to forgo the gain we have in Jesus’ resurrection by clinging to what inevitably we must lose.

In the past, when I thought the Western churches were devoid of spiritual vitality, I believed our financial resources were the greatest gift we had to offer the global church. I see this differently now.

The churches of Europe show us how to let go of everything that detracts from being faithful emissaries of Jesus Christ. They show us that losing our grip on current systems, structures and programs can free us to become the church God is shaping us to be — however indiscernible the church of tomorrow may be today.

And there will be a church of tomorrow. As the Apostle Paul said about his own confidence for the future: “What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

What will it take for us to release the church to the loving embrace of Jesus? To be converted anew to the power of Jesus’ resurrection at work here and now among us? To relinquish what is peripheral to our purpose for the sake of what is central to God’s purpose?

This article is adapted from a chapter in A Church Dismantled, a Kingdom Restored: Why Is God Taking Apart the Church? (Masthof) by Conrad L. Kanagy. The book is the first in a series of four. The second book, Ministry in a Church Dismantled: To Tear Down or Build Up?, is also available, with two more to come. The books are based on a podcast Kanagy began in the spring of 2020, drawing on insights from a career in university teaching and pastoral ministry and observations about life during the pandemic, living with Parkinson’s disease and trends in North American Christianity. For book updates and blog posts, subscribe at

Conrad L. Kanagy is professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA (2007) and co-author of Winds of the Spirit: A Profile of Anabaptist Churches in the Global South (2012). He is married to Heidi, and together they lead Elizabethtown Mennonite Church. They have a son, Jacob, who is married to Sarah, and a grandson, Ezra.

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