The church is in a great recession in America.
That isn’t shocking for many of you, Christians and non-Christians alike. Worship attendance is going doooowwwwn. The number of folks around my age (27) who call themselves “unaffiliated” is going up. There’s a general murmur on the streets, a question deep in the bones of some of the people we bump into daily–Is the church dying?
Yes and no. And no.
In truth, some members of the body will die, and they won’t come back. Some of our grandparents’ churches will stay empty. The cute chapels in the country with peeling white paint will be bulldozed. Some of us will mourn the loss. Some won’t notice. Some will be happy about it. In any event, people won’t know churches ever existed in those places in a generation or two from this one. But it’s not our grandparents’ fault. I’m not sure it’s anybody’s fault so much as it is an invitation to you and me.
The church is dying. And it should, at least the church as currently know it, so a new one can be resurrected in its place. I don’t mean that all the buildings should be bulldozed (well…maybe). No, it’s our church identity that needs the wrecking ball. After all, Jesus said, “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.” To breathe life again, the church needs to lose the breath its had. We need to confess that what we’ve become known for may actually be true: judgment, hypocrisy, anti-awholelotofthings (thanks to David Kinnaman in UnChristian). As Kinnaman has said, “We have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.”
The church is dying, but it isn’t dead. If (if, if, if!!!!) we’re going to live again, we have to give God space to change what we’re known for. When he addressed church communities that were dying in the first century (the Corinthians), the Apostle Paul hinted at what that emerging identity might be. He called it the way that goes beyond. Paul challenged those early followers to measure themselves by this way. Here’s what he said*:If I speak with words of humans and angels but don’t have love, I sound like a noisy gong or a crashing cymbal. And if I see bright visions and glimpse all the mysteries and all the knowledge, and if I have faith that moves mountain ranges, but I don’t have love, I am nothing. If I give away my things and even give up my body to be consumed in flames, but I don’t have love, nothing has been added to anything on account of me. Love is steady. Love is good. Love doesn’t burn hot, then die out. It doesn’t puff you up so you can strut about. It makes for graceful dance moves, but not for the dancer who has something to prove. And love isn’t a gas-soaked short fuse; It doesn’t keep record of wrongs and miscues. Yet, love is not cheering for injustice; It’s always celebrating with God’s Justice. Love has seen it all, and yet it’s sure of what we can’t see; it’s hopeful for all that is to come; and it endures everything in between. Love never fails. Those bright visions will fade; the angelic words will cease; the brainpower will lose; because we “know” with limits, and so we “see” with blinders. But when Perfect Love appears, the limits and blinders will disappear. It’s like this: When I was an infant, I would coo and cry instead of speak; I would worry when my mother left the room; I wondered if she was gone for good. But when I became a man, I couldn’t remember my infant ways though I know that’s how it was. Now we look into mysteries through a mirror; then, we’ll see Perfect Love face-to-face. Now, I see a bad reflection; then, I’ll see what Perfect Love has always seen. In the end, there are three things, but one stays the course. Faith, hope, and love. Love is the Way.
Love is the way that goes beyond. It’s the way that carries us from what we’re failing to see now to better vision and then ultimately to what we’ll see clearly one day. It’s the way that simmers and grows steadily with meditation and cultivation. It’s the way that moves us from injustice to Justice. It’s the way of gracefulness. It’s the way that stays the course. It is the way of Christ. It’s what the Holy Spirit of God wants us to receive and give.
But it’s not just an abstract ideal. It’s a force on the ground, at least it should be. In all of our jobs (in healthcare, construction, maintenance, education, administration, agriculture, food service, public service, sales, artistry, parenting), are our efforts filled with love that is steady and good? Does our service burn hot and die out, or is it a growing flame–the stuff of relational, sacrificial interaction? In our relationships, are we harboring the past, or are we courageously confronting it? In our disagreements, are we showing off our individual moves, or are we trying to learn the art of graceful dancing? With culture and society, are we happy with our limits and blinders, or are we challenged by what Perfect Love already sees?
The church has lived, lives and will continue to live according to this way that goes beyond. Love is.
*This is my translation of 1 Corinthians 13. I tried to get close to the original language and bring the ideas to life. This was a personal experience in living word that I’m sharing. I’m not suggesting it as an authoritative translation, per se.
Image from Nheyob at Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).