Churches must learn to die
This post is from the defunct blog “Dying Church”
My latest column at Christian Week:
Three years ago, I heard a pastor talk about how to make Church attractive. His church provided different musical styles in different rooms concurrently to appeal to different tastes.
I could relate to his desire to make Church attractive. Churches face pressure to meet people’s needs and keep them in the pews. After 30 years of the church growth movement, churches are more contemporary and relevant than before.
But as he spoke, my mind filled with questions. Despite more relevant churches, overall attendance is plummeting. Statistics Canada reported this month that Canadians are practising their faith at home, but increasingly staying away from religious services. The study says Canadian-born residents are losing their faith. Perhaps these trends would be accelerated without the help of the church growth movement, but why are we losing people just as we’re making Church more attractive to them?
And even if this approach works, are there dangers in conforming Church to what people want?
I remember sitting in that conference when a familiar passage entered my mind. I began to wonder what it might mean for churches, not just individuals, to take this passage seriously.
The Church must die
Jesus said in Luke 9:23-24, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
We often apply this passage to individuals, but we don’t always apply it to churches. The focus of church ministry is often growth and health, not death.
If we apply it to churches, new questions emerge. What does it mean for a church to die to itself? How can churches deny themselves, abandoning self-interest and self-preservation? Can church ministry become congruent with the call to sacrifice and even die? Do we believe if churches do this, they will really begin to live?
It’s not easy to ask these questions as church leaders. A cartoon shows a long line of antelope, with the pair at the front about to step over the edge of a cliff. “I don’t want to be the leader anymore,” one says to the other.
Nobody likes leading others to die to themselves. For one thing, we have to go first. Yet the call to die to ourselves, both as individuals and churches, is not optional. It is central to what it means to follow Jesus.
How to die
The call to die reshapes how we live as churches.
It’s not about me. It’s tempting to come to church as a consumer hoping that my needs and desires will get met. Former pastor Eugene Peterson writes, “The great weakness of North American spirituality is that it is all about us…And the more there is of us, the less there is of God.” We face the challenging task of orienting ourselves around God and His mission instead of us and our needs.
It’s not about the institution. Neil Cole, author of Organic Church, writes, “You will be amazed what people do for Jesus that they will not do for your vision statement.” It is important, but not easy, for a church’s vision to be more about the Kingdom than the individual church. Following Jesus may involve actions that cost or threaten individual ministries.
It’s not about methods. Methods are important, but they are not the primary issue. We are facing a challenge that cannot be answered by methodological or stylistic changes, but in a fundamental reorientation of our ministries away from ourselves.
It’s not about success. North American culture is obsessed with size, glamour and celebrity, and that spills into the Church. I’m beginning to learn that some of the most effective ministries in Canada are being led by unlikely people in hidden places, although they will never meet our culture’s definition of success.
Dying to ourselves will not solve every problem, but applying this passage to our churches is much better than the alternative. Our greatest challenge may not be making our churches more attractive. It may be leading churches to die to themselves, so they can really start to live.