I grew up in the church, and I’m really comfortable here. The hymnal we use today was released when I was six years old; I’ve pretty much been singing out of it my whole life. Though I do not pastor at the churches I grew up in, the Sunday school rooms still look the same. The stained-glass windows look the same. A fellow pastor even pointed out a couple days ago that church still smells the same.
Yet I have often thrown up my hands in frustration and declared, “This is not the church I grew up in!” I have heard the same from many others, clergy and laity alike. This is not the church as it once was. The glory days have ended. The good times are over for good. Things have changed.
In his book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, Alan J. Roxburgh acknowledges this change. He uses the term unraveling. Things have fallen apart. The status quo has ceased being the status quo. Roxburgh traces the history of this change back just over fifty years, and notes not only the way that the church has changed, but the way the church has responded to that change. Allow me to sum it up:
Church got used to being the center of society. Across North America churches held the prominent position of most communities, and with that came a certain control, a certain authority. That is not the case anymore. Our weekly worship attendance, that statistic by which we have been gauging our success, dwindles more each week. Our financial position, which was once incredibly strong, likewise dwindles every week.
The church’s response to this has been, well, panic. Roxburgh breaks down the church’s response through the decades, describing three phases he calls, “The Relational Revolution,” “The Church Growth Movement,” and “The Corporate Approach.” These three approaches have all failed to “revitalize the church” and place it back in its central position of prominence, authority and, to be honest, ease.
This leads us to today. From what I have seen in churches and heard from other pastors, the Church in North America is largely in what I call survival mode. The same questions are asked over and over: how can we get our numbers up? How can we increase attendance? How can we increase giving? Why don’t more people come to Bible study or prayer meeting? Why aren’t young people coming to church anymore? In line with these questions I have repeatedly heard sermons, lessons, and talks that serve as warnings: if we don’t get more people here, the church is going to die.
This is a problem that weighs heavy on my heart and mind. As I said, I grew up in the church and I’m comfortable here. I love the church. Not only that, my livelihood depends on church survival. As a pastor I am daily staring at this challenge of pushing my church past surviving to thriving. I spend a lot of time thinking and praying about this topic. This morning, I got an answer, and it surprised me:
Let the church die.
I have read the Gospels and I scanned it once more to double check this morning: Jesus never said anything about church attendance numbers. He did not mention budgets. The words, “Sunday school,” never passed his lips. No VBS, no Bible study, no youth groups, no sort of program. None of that. He did say, however, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)
For pretty much my whole life, the church has been in survival mode. I can understand that. I love the church. You probably love the church, too. When we love something, we don’t want it to die. But I think it is time.
My denomination, the United Methodist Church, is facing a big decision in the next year which threatens to split the denomination. Some of us with a dark sense of humor have started using the phrase, “If there is a United Methodist Church next year…” when making our future plans. The truth is, there might not be a United Methodist Church next year. We don’t really know. But I guarantee you that there will be some kind of church. It might not look like anything I’ve ever known as church, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ will never stop being proclaimed, and the Holy Spirit will never stop gathering people around Christ’s table.
For too many Christians, the Church has become a golden calf. Church machinations have taken prominence above the message. We sacrifice all things not to Christ but to this institution, to ideas of success that are quantifiable and measurable. We insist that there is only one way to worship and it is our way. We horde our members from one another. We stab one another in the back in the name of survival. We have become an inward focused institution. I wonder why fewer and fewer people want to be a part of that?
We cannot be the church inside. The church inside is dying, and soon it will be dead. We need to be the church on the street, the church on the corner. We need to be the church in living rooms and at kitchen tables. We need to be the church on the school bus, the church in the warehouse, the church in the break room. We need to be the church in the unemployment office and the immigration office, the church in the nursing home and hospice facility.
I don’t know what any of that looks like. Not a clue. I’ve never seen it before. My whole life, church has been in the sanctuary. It scares me to think of such a drastic change. Will there still be worship services and hymnals and Sunday school? Will there still be pastors who are paid? Will my local congregation still want to pay me if I start talking like this? I don’t know.
I do know that the future church will not be inward focused. It cannot be self-centered. It cannot be self-serving. The church cannot see in itself anything special or important apart from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in this world.
So let’s let the church die already, and see what God resurrects.