an example of this is the story of Sakussaare church. The congregation which began its spiritual ministry in August 1997 and was officially established on 26th of October 2001, was now at the proposal of the congregation itself decided to close by the decision of the annual conference. Marjana Luist asked pastor Hans Lahi and his wife Sirly how the decision to close the congregation was reached and what is the impact Sakussaare congregation has had during the years of its activity.
Hans: Former leader of the German bus mission, Wilfried Bolay, was once giving a lecture in Pärnu on the topic of church growth. He talked about how the life of a church is a dynamic process, just like a life of a human being: a church is born, it has its highlights, and at some point, it will simply fade away or cease to exist. At that time, there was no talking about closing churches, because it was seen as something like a funeral of a human being, but he talked about it as something normal and natural. He introduced a new paradigm of how to view a congregation as such. I was pondering what I had just heard on this lecture, although we had no thoughts whatsoever about closing the church then. Just as the congregations of the early church have all ceased their activities at one point, so it is today too – some congregations are born, some are closing, some join the other congregations.
Hans: Various factors were decisive in reaching the decision to close the congregation. One factor was the time of covid-19 pandemic, when people got used to being away from church and those who had visited the church from time to time either did not dare or did not want to or did not find enough time to come. Our son-in-law grew up in Rakvere Karmel Baptist Church, where there is active youth and children’s ministry and strong family ministry. Our daughter’s family with many small children decided to move to this church. This was also one of the factors. Another thing that prompted this decision was deterioration of health due to covid-19 of a co-worker who served as the right hand of the pastor. He has not been able to come to the church anymore because of his health problem. Some of the elderly people live in nursing home or have passed away into eternity. There are no young people, they have gone to the cities. This kind of flowing away from here has been taking place for a while already. In addition, the reason was also that Sirly, who was involved in administrative duties related to the congregation, now works in Tallinn, and if she had to engage in church activities on the weekends after the working week, she would not have any free days. Well, this church work started to become burdensome for us, because there were few people and co-workers, and a large amount of the work in the congregation had fallen on our shoulders.
Sirly: The church is God’s business. You have to find out where and how He moves and whether He wants to direct you somewhere further. Regarding the closing of the church, God does not give this idea to just one person, but He speaks to the congregation as a whole. He had spoken to the congregation on that matter for some time already. During the last three or four years, whenever we had come together there was someone coming up with the idea that may-be our future should be that we could come together without being a legal entity, because being a legal entity involves a lot of responsibilities and uses up the few resources we have. What if we put our energy into something else instead: we communicate and are involved into community activities, and we just invite the village people here to visit us. It does not necessarily need any legal body to do those things. We all had to ponder and ruminate about this situation for a while. But now it was quite ripe: we realized that the right time has come. We would like to thank our church and Superintendent Robert Tšerenkov for their understanding. At first there was a bit of a hollow feeling that I don’t know, may-be they will not understand, maybe we still have to continue with the church work. But no, Robert was very understanding, he understood that in such a situation it would be a logical and normal decision to close the church. Everyone has been very understanding. Therefore, this decision to close the church has not brought about any pain – God has done it in a way only He can do it.
Hans: There is no need to pity or worry. God knows how He will move and do His work. You have to be attentive and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Sirly: When we first started the church, we received confirmation from the first letter of John: God will send His children and His servants and co-workers here, and it is our job to receive them and send them on their way in a dignified manner. This has been the mission of the congregation for this small place, where there is not much public assistance, where people live on their own: to help and support people at some stages in their lives – to go and visit somebody, to support an old man or an old woman, or a big family with many children and who have difficulties in coping with their lives – and this is what our small congregation has done quite actively. We have been by people’s side, we have really tried to help them walk this path. Our aim has not been to force anything on them or to change them, but to be by their side and try to be attentive to their needs. There have been such bright moments, for example, when you know that someone who once had suicidal thoughts and if God had not sent you there at this very moment, this person may not be living today. But this person is living today, has found God, has faith and hopefully has eternal life as well.
Hans: This sowing, which has been going on during 25 years, it will still germinate somewhere, and at some time, someone somewhere will be able to reap as well. This is our desire and hope. Many people have passed through this congregation, some have stayed here until the end of their lives in this congregation and passed away into eternity with grateful hearts. There have been many who have lived here and stayed in the faith and helped here and made their contribution. It has been a great joy. If God permits to meet them in eternity, I believe, we will be overjoyed. We have been noticed here in this village: even if one does not usually come to the church, in times of trouble or in case of sorrow, they do come. The church has made impact here. Sakussaare village is quite small, so that it is not much known elsewhere. Sakussaare village is mostly known because of the congregation. Information about what God has done here in this little village through Sakussaare church has reached many other countries. Even though the congregation has been officially closed, its house is still there. Actually we all will be still there and people can come here. We can continue functioning here as a home-group.
Sirly: It has been a physical meeting place, but then also the people of the congregation, who have come here during these 25 years, who have come into contact with local people and have had impact on the area. Being on our way, we have done what we could and served these people. If you serve, you will get tired and wear down – this is very normal thing. You don’t have to feel guilty about it. Then at one moment, God simply says that now let’s move on in a different way. This is what we have come to realize that the resources are running out and we will have to find new ways. Members of the congregation are each one on their own finding out what will be God’s way for them. We have had very good ecumenical relationships with other churches. Their pastors and board members are our good friends: with peaceful hearts, we can entrust our members to them. We are not competing with anyone. Number one and the most important thing is that God’s work would continue.
Hans: God has helped us since then and I am sure the same God will carry us on. On 28th of August, we are going to hold a thanksgiving service to celebrate the 25 years since the beginning of spiritual ministry in Sakussaare and with this service the work of the congregation will be finished.
Sirly: This is not going to be a funeral service. Above all is that we are very grateful.
Hans: There is nothing to be sad about here. We should be grateful and happy for what we have been able to do and the opportunities we have been given. There have been many nice moments, there has been a lot of work and effort, there have been tears and moments of joy. It is nice to remember the people who have passed through here, the history that has been made here, and what we have been able to do with the help of God. God is the greatest judge of this work and these 25 years.
Text translated by Carmen Karabelnik