kingdom of God
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I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?
From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.
I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?
I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “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” (Mark 8.35).
Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).
Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.
My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world? Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?
What do you think?
I regret to inform the reader that I am a violent person. Let me be clear on this; I don’t hit anyone. I don’t own (and have rarely used) a gun or any other physical weapon. I haven’t been in a fist fight since 7th grade (which I lost most grievously). I am pretty much a pacifist in theory, though I’m the first to admit I’ve never been strongly tested on that. If it were up to me, I’d repeal the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms. And I am sickened by the ongoing shootings, stabbings, bombings and more that are so prevalent in our local and national news.
And yet I am violent. Even deadly.
As a participant in U.S. culture and society, I am also a participant in a culture of violence. My own non-violent actions and intentions cannot overcome the reality of my passive support of rampant violence in this country. Because I am part of a culture of violence, I am guilty of it by default.
My cousin Mary, who is a vehement defender of gun ownership, reminds me that guns aren’t the problem, people who misuse them are. And she is right. Therefore the problem goes well beyond gun rights or gun legislation. It is deeper, and more deadly than that. You see, the problem is that we have normalized violence to the point that we simply accept it as part of our culture, even as part of our humanity.
When two twelve-year-olds can stab a classmate 19 times and leave her for dead, when yet another college campus can be devastated by a troubled person with an assault rifle, when the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan can continue to claim victims, and we are no longer made physically ill, something very deep is broken. When the highest grossing video games include very realistic gunplay and slaughter, when among the highest acclaimed movies celebrate the violent vengeance of the righteous, and we shrug our shoulders and watch ourselves become more deeply immersed in them, our very souls are endangered. Our most popular professional sport, football, is based to some degree on violence–to the point that professional players often suffer long-term physical and mental health issues. And still many of us rearrange our Sunday lives to watch our glamorized, violent heroes on TV. Something is very, very wrong among us.
Turning the TV to the Hallmark channel on Sunday mornings isn’t a solution. Nor is boycotting video games and violent movies. Putting metal detectors on college and high school campuses will not change our violent hearts. And gun control measures cannot curb our cultural acceptance of violence. Teen suicide rates continue to climb, weapons present in schools continue to be an issue, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bullying continue to keep too many perpetually unsafe. We reap what we sow. In a violent culture, violence is considered to be a normal response to anxiety, anger, depression, and frustration.
The few who are outraged are quickly painted as being outside the mainstream–radicals, socialists, or extremists to be discounted and ignored. Yet we are all guilty. Just as surely as our tax money provides for capital punishment, we are all perpetrators of violence.
I feel helpless even to expose the evil, much less combat it (see? Even talking about an alternative to violence takes on violent terminology). I cannot change this, partly because I cannot live apart from it. Though reigning in expressions of violence (by various means–including legislation), won’t change our hearts and souls, they are necessary. Just as reigning in expressions of racism call to the fore our deep-seated cultural racism, so calling out violence reveals our normalization of violence. These alone don’t solve the problem, merely expose it. Scratching surface, the tip of the iceberg.
So, powerless as we are, do we simply sit back and watch our children descend further into this brokenness and evil? Hell no. We face it. We acknowledge it. We admit our guilt. And we live differently.
My own model for this, my inspiration, starts with Jesus. I’m not talking about a belief system or a set of doctrines, but a life. This is one who caught a vision of a new way of being human, a different view of how we live and relate together. Many others have been inspired over the centuries to see the same vision and live differently in the face of broken cultures. Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai to name a very few.
I cannot change a culture that normalizes, even glamorizes violence. But I can live differently in the face of that culture. Some will be angry when I show up at a Gay Pride Festival, some will shout loudly when I advocate for the helpless poor among us, and others will roll their eyes and dismiss me when I stand with adherents of other religions and philosophies. I cannot alter my culture. I cannot control those around me who may respond to me violently. But I can strive to live differently. I can attempt to reveal something other than a normative attitude toward violence. Moving toward a non-violent culture won’t happen by making changes around me; only through changes within me.
I’m writing this blog post on Memorial Day, and will confess that I have some mixed feelings about it. Not about a national day of grieving those whose lives have been lost as a result of war, but about how we in the church deal with days like today, including our views on war, armed service, patriotism, and faith.
Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran clergyperson (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a registered Democrat (though I am considering changing that), have never served in the military, lean toward pacifism, and genuinely wonder why there isn’t even a discussion about repealing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though my father served in the army during the Korean conflict and I have a nephew currently serving as an Army Ranger, I have no bias toward the military. I am a patriotic American, love the freedoms that we consider our rights as human beings, recognize the role our military has played in procuring them, and am greatly appreciative. Talking about constitutional rights, I am a committed advocate for the rights of all persons, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as all immigrants, regardless of status, and I consider racism to be one of the most horrifying evils in our world. Theologically, I don’t believe in eternal “hellfire,” trust that there is a God of mercy somehow, and that for those in the church, revealing and living this mercy and compassion trumps everything else–American citizenship included. Some would call me a liberal or progressive; I can live with that, though I don’t find pidgeon-holing to be very helpful.
My profession causes me to think deeply about how the issues of our culture intersect with my theology and faith (or perhaps the other way around). The current general American acceptance of war, violence, gun-rights, and the connection of these things to “real” patriotism wrankles me. Even more so, I find it despicable that these things are viewed as somehow “faithful” or “Christian.” Many of our Christian churches recognized Memorial Day yesterday during their corporate worship. Excellent! We have a need to mourn all who have died in war, for each death is truly tragic. But how many of these same churches mourned only U.S. American losses rather than all people God loves, non-Americans included, who have died by our hands in war? How many used this day of collective grief to equate military service with American patriotism? How many connected a constitutional freedom to worship with Christianity? How many compared American service people who have died in war to Jesus’ death on the cross?
Those who serve or have served in the military are to be respected, no question. All of them that I know are courageous, honorable people who go about their work with pride and who perform their duties well. I’m just not sure how military service gets mixed so deeply into Christian piety or worship. There are many people who do their jobs well; lots of people who risk their lives in their work. Many vocations require courage and principle. Millions of people are committed to their work because of their integrity and dedication to something beyond themselves. I can’t begin to count how many people take tremendous personal risks for the sake of others. The things we honor most about military service are not exclusive to the military.
This doesn’t mean we as a culture shouldn’t honor veterans on Veterans’ Day or ignore our collective grief on Memorial Day. It does mean that we in the church do need to make clear the difference between God’s vision for peace and reconciliation and a U.S. American cultural agenda. They aren’t always the same thing. In fact, I believe they are becoming more disparate than ever.
It’s fine to have an American day of remembering and grieving death in war. Because grief and war are real, it’s also good to do so in the church. But the very identity of the church is grounded in God’s vision of redemption, mercy, and grace. In the church we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, who brought among us God’s vision for loving enemies, forgiving all who are offensive, reaching across boundaries to those who are different, recognizing that all people from all cultures, nationalities, and races are loved and valued by God, and that those who have the most resources and power have a responsibility to love and walk with those with the least. These are the principles and values that Jesus considered to be worth dying for. And on this Memorial Day I’m not sure the church that bears his name can always say the same thing.
Perhaps we should have a day in the church year where we lift up peacemakers, honor those who have made it their life’s work to be among the poor, applaud those who are ridiculed for standing up for LGBTQ folk. What would it look like to have a day in corporate worship to recognize those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, to be inspired by testimonies of those who have struggled with forgiving enemies but have been moved by God to do so?
We are, without a doubt, Americans who happen to in the church. But I think it is infinitely more important to remember that we are church who happen to be in America.
One of my favorite things about being a Lutheran is that we openly talk about being “at the same time, saint and sinner.” This doesn’t mean that sometimes we are good and sometimes bad. It has nothing to do with whether choices we make are holy or evil. It doesn’t even divide us into part saint and part sinner. No, we Lutherans talk about everything we are–and therefore everything we do–is at the same time absolutely broken and yet completely redeemable. The God who can raise Jesus from the pit of death is the same God who brings life and hope and newness out of my most deeply dark places.
I like that. It makes so much sense and explains so much about our life experience. I ponder this aspect of Lutheran theology and find it truly grounding and helpful. No matter how much of a scoundrel I am, God’s goodness and love can bring something new and beautiful out of me. And no matter how wonderful and delightful I am, my brokenness gets in the way.
Consider that next time your best efforts fail miserably. Watch for God to bring something life-giving out of it. And when you are being praised for a job well done, don’t you always know deep down that you’ve somehow kept your inadequacies covered up–at least this time?
For those of you who are involved in a congregation, doesn’t this “saint/sinner” theology make sense for your faith community too? Sometimes I think we are harder on our congregations than we are on other organizations. Maybe because we somehow expect more saint and less sinner in the church. Maybe because congregations are often places where we pretend saint-ness and hide our sin-ness. Perhaps other reasons as well.
But the reality is that the church is made up of people. Not better than anyone; not worse than anyone. Just people. People who are, at the same time, saints and sinners. How, then, can the church–including your own congregation–be any different? The church is completely messed up, broken, and selfish. And the church feeds the hungry, shows mercy to the helpless, and walks with other saint/sinner people at major turning points in their lives. Jesus is Lord of all creation, not just the church, and yet we understand the brokenness and hypocrisy of the rest of the world. We somehow expect something different from our congregations.
It seems that your congregation (and mine) deserves a break. We will never, ever be whole and magnificent and holy. We will never reflect God’s love the way we should. We will always fight and be divisive and mean. Everything we do will have selfish motives. Just like each one of the congregational members. Just like each one of us.
And at the same time we are forgiving, merciful, and go out of our way to love. Somehow, God’s grace and compassion and life-giving ways still find a way to be lived out in and through our congregations. Sometimes in surprising and unlikely ways, but it happens!
It’s easy to bemoan our congregational deficiencies. It’s easy to blame someone else for our congregational problems. But it takes God’s gift of faith and hope to trust in God’s redeeming activity–in your congregation and in mine.
Easter is fast approaching, and we Christians celebrate victory of life over death, of newness springing forth in the midst of hopelessness. This Easter, I plan to re-emphasize my confidence in the God of life, of hope, of mercy. In my life, and in the life of my congregation. My church is, after all, a broken and divided community that reveals God’s love and grace in the world in ways that are beautiful beyond description. And you know what? So is yours.
“Because it’s always been the bedrock of worship.” “Because it’s scriptural.” “Because it’s trustworthy.” “Because we’ve been using it for centuries.” “Because if we don’t use it, we’ll descend into chaos.”
These are some of the answers I found when asking the question, “Why do we use a liturgy for our Sunday corporate worship?” Some answers were really helpful, such as, “Liturgy passes on the faith,” and, “Liturgy connects us to something larger than ourselves.” Others were less so, like, “We’ve always done it that way,” or, “It’s what makes us Lutheran.” But underneath all the answers–helpful or not–it seems to me that liturgy, as rich and full as it is, doesn’t do anything that can’t be done by other means equally well. Many things pass on the faith–some much better than liturgy. Actually mentoring a young person in the faith comes to mind. And there are lots of things that tie us to the church catholic–scripture kind of being an obvious one.
So, “Why liturgy?”
I have a nasty habit of questioning things that sometimes seem to be taken for granted. “In the Lutheran tradition, we talk a lot about trusting the priesthood of all believers. So why should I wear a clerical collar when it’s origins are all about separating clergy from laity?” (Scotland, 17th century). “Why is some level of understanding a pre-requisite to receiving Holy Communion? I don’t understand gravity, but it still works.” “Since the efficacy of the Eucharist rests in God alone (again, Lutheran tradition), why does an ordained clergy-person need to preside?” It gets me into trouble sometimes, but launches some great conversations. I keep asking and studying and listening until I am satisfied with an answer that seems to work scripturally, missionally and contextually–at least for now. If I can’t discern a legitimate answer, I tend to do what makes sense scripturally, missionally, and contextually. Just so, “Why liturgy?”
Here’s where I am today: the great ordo around which liturgy is framed (gathering, word, meal, sending) makes sense because it is real life. We gather at the breakfast table, talk about our plans for the day, eat our pancakes, and send each other off to work/school. Then we do it again at work/school, then we do it again when we get home at night. There are innumerable “mini-ordos” that happen throughout the day as well, e.g., water-cooler conversations, meetings, homework study groups, and so on.
If liturgy is to be part of our daily discipleship, it should reflect daily life. The ordo does that. But it needs to go both ways. Our daily life needs to inform our liturgy as well. Together, our Sunday gathering and our daily living need to form a continuum that relates one to the other at a deep and significant level. When there is a disconnect between liturgy and life, Sunday corporate worship becomes irrelevant (anyone every hear that criticism before?). When the order or form of liturgy takes on a life of its own apart from Monday-Saturday, that liturgy has failed. It serves only to separate God from our lives instead of reveal God in the real rhythm of daily living. Unfortunately, too many of us have come to revere (or even idolize) the comfort of classic liturgy for its own sake.
So what would liturgy look like if informed by daily life? How about using the language of daily life as our liturgy. Try this on for size.
In my tradition, the “Gathering” of the ordo includes an invocation, kyrie, gloria patri, and prayer. What if the invocation served to simply ask God to be with us? Like a prayer we could say when we first get out of bed Monday morning, “Bless our day, Holy God. Help us serve you and follow you today.”
“Kyrie,” Greek for “Lord” (and short for Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord, have mercy”), could allow for individuals to bring into the assembly those things causing them anxiety, stress, or concern. Those who wish could say out loud, “Today I’m really worried about [the health of my Aunt Sylvia]. Lord, have mercy.” And the assembly responds, “Christ, have mercy.” A real-life Kyrie.
In the same way, a “Gloria” could follow a similar pattern, “Today, I’m grateful for [my homeless friend Henry moving into his first apartment]. Glory to God!” And the assembly responds, “Glory to God in the highest!” Get the picture?
In the “Word” portion of the ordo, centered around scripture, there is a gospel acclamation, a fanfare revealing the importance of the gospel being read among us. How about everyone shouting (or singing), “Get ready, everyone! Jesus is entering our conversation! Let’s listen!” Be sure to invite households to do something similar at home when they are planning their day ahead.
During the “Meal” part of worship, we often utilize a Great Thanksgiving, including the words of institution over the bread and wine. What if, as the Great Thanksgiving, we together prayed, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen!” What would happen at home the next time children prayed that table prayer?
The “Sending” at the end of liturgy includes a benediction and a dismissal. Can we consider as our sending making a bunch of peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the homeless?
If we step back a bit, acknowledge the false idol many of us have regarding a particular form of liturgy, we can use this ancient corporate worship framework to actually help us live as disciples, joining God in the world during the week. Liturgy informed by daily life according to the rhythm of the ordo: gathering, word, meal, sending.
But, again, this has to go both ways. If life informs liturgy, liturgy must also inform life. What would daily life look like when informed by, rather than separated from, liturgy?
We could wake up and ask for God to be with us today (invocation). We could automatically plead for Jesus to have mercy when we are anxious (kyrie). We could thank God for working in the world without even thinking about it (gloria patri). We could recognize the presence of Jesus in our everyday conversations (gospel acclamation). We could be aware of God’s grace and presence in the school cafeteria (great thanksgiving). We could plan, as a household, a day to volunteer at a local homeless shelter (sending), or together collect a portion of our allowance/salary to help eradicate malaria (offering).
When our Sunday corporate worship gatherings become part of the purpose of the church rather than a separate, sacred silo that cannot be touched, liturgy is doing what it was intended to do. When the lines between our secular, daily lives and our sacred, Sunday morning time become blurred, liturgy is serving the church well. Alleluia, Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia!
More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.
They may be right.
But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!
And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.
For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.
Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.
And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.
And I’ve seen it.
Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.
You have too.
Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.
And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.
What do God’s values look like in your context?
No, really, what are the results of forgiveness, love, grace, and generosity being lived in your neighborhood?
Here’s the deal: God is bringing a new future that lines up with God’s own priorities. God is actively doing this. It will happen. It is happening. Right now. Jesus is the visible, tangible, focal point of that reality. God’s mission is all about redeeming a broken creation. Period. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God shows creation just how committed God is to that future. It’s here. We get to see samples of it now and again.
So God has gathered a community of people and elected them to be a “test plot” for this new future. According to an article published by Purdue University (full article), the goal of an agricultural test plot “is to identify differences among ‘treatments’ under ‘real world’ conditions.” In other words, this new community is “treated” by God with forgiveness, unconditional love, unlimited mercy, and extravagant generosity, then lives these values in the midst of the world as a sample of God’s new future.
The purpose of this new community, the church, is to allow the world to sample God’s future now, in the context of their everyday lives. The church is comprised of us who are baptized into this community in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We exist as church for the sake of being a sample of God’s future in the world. For the sake of the world.
This means the church stands for some things. And it means the church stands against other things. For example, the church does not exist to get people into heaven when they die. It does not exist to get people to believe a certain way. It does not exist for its own sake. It does not exist to gain members or improve programs or enlarge its own budget. Rather, the church is placed in neighborhoods so that those neighborhoods have the opportunity to sample the love, forgiveness, authentic relationships, and generosity of God’s present/coming reign. And having experienced its effects, are then changed by them.
The ways that the church can participate as test plots of grace and unconditional love are innumerable. Though the values of God’s present/coming reign are the same in all places and in all times, the world culture in which those kingdom values are lived varies incredibly. The context of each congregational community is unique. Therefore, when the values of God’s reign are introduced into each context, it will look different according to each context. More on that next time. But for now, consider how you are living the forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity of God in your own context. What are the results?
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.