In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’”
I believe this to be the heart of Christian discipleship. Not only for us as individual followers of Jesus Christ, but for Christian congregations and denominations as well. As individuals, perhaps sometimes we do it well, perhaps we don’t. But that’s for another blog post on another day. This post is referring more to a congregational level of losing our life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.
I can’t begin to recall how many times I hear congregational members and their staff/pastors talking about how they need to grow. They adopt programs, set goals, hire staff, build buildings, set up neighborhood outreach campaigns, and rework their thinking in order to get bigger. As if that was the goal. As if that was discipleship. Sometimes this happens as a result of dwindling membership—to the point of fearing for congregational survival. Other times it happens because we don’t know what else to do. And still other times because we believe this is what we need to do to be successful, with all the ego-boosts and accolades that accompany it.
It seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously in Mark 8:34-35, as soon as we try to save our congregational lives, we have lost them. If our primary effort and energy are going into bolstering congregational numbers, we are no longer a congregation picking up a cross and following. Congregations who carry the name of Jesus must be willing to die in order to live. This can’t really be measured by tracking membership numbers. Whether we are a congregation that is statistically going up or going down, those trends probably aren’t revealing our willingness to lose our life for Jesus’ sake.
Our purpose as congregations is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not our own survival. We do this not through increased butts in pews but through the revealing of unconditional forgiveness and love, extravagant generosity and compassion in our neighborhoods and in the world. As congregations, we proclaim Jesus through self-giving relationships with other entities, institutions, and individuals in the broader community. It’s not about us, it’s about them. It’s not whether they join us, but whether we join them. We are to lose our congregational life in order to save it.
This is risky, because in giving up their lives for the sake of the gospel, some congregations actually will die. My contention is that unless they are taking up their cross and following Jesus in a willingness to lose their life for his sake, they aren’t really living anyway.
What our neighborhoods need are not bigger churches but the crucified and risen Christ. If we as communities created and called in his name aren’t willing to risk our existence to reveal him in our neighborhoods, then what are we doing? We are placed by God in specific neighborhoods to join Jesus in revealing the reign of God there, not to get the neighborhood to join us here.
I believe there’s a way for us as congregations to measure our willingness to pick up our crosses and follow. There’s a basic step we can take to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel. For us, it can begin with extravagant generosity. How much of your congregational budget do you give away? If you’re doing well, perhaps you go as high as giving away 10% to your denomination and/or local food banks, etc. Wonderful! Some congregations may even do more than that.
How about a goal of giving away 50% or more? If you were to propose that in your congregational budget meeting, what would be the reaction? Maybe something like, “We’d have to cut too many staff and ministries.” “Much of what we fund internally is for the sake of the broader community anyway.” “We’d never survive that.” “That’s just silly nonsense.” “No one in their right mind would ever do that.” More importantly, why would that be the reaction? Chances are because we are still trying to save our congregational lives.
Until we as congregations take Mark 8:34-35 seriously, we aren’t going to be as effective as we might otherwise be. Until we actually take the risk of losing our congregational lives, we won’t save them. Until we put down our self-centered commitments to get bigger in order to take up our crosses, we aren’t following Jesus. Who knows, perhaps dying to self will result in increased numbers. Or perhaps it will result in fewer congregations (or even denominations). But the point must not be us; it must be Christ crucified and risen. Even if that means we lose our lives for his sake.