Raising the Church from the Dead, part 1

Over the past week I was sent at least half a dozen articles on why the “mainline” church and organized religion is dying. Each article had a variety of “solutions” that involved everything from a change in worship style to expensive marketing campaigns. I suppose the idea of a marketing campaign shouldn’t strike me as odd—after all, the gospel stories of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were in essence marketing materials written by the early followers of Jesus to entice others into The Way. Paul was certainly a master of marketing. Were he alive today, I imagine he’d be comfortable sitting in a room with Don Draper from “Mad Men.” That should probably worry us a little bit.

Still, those early Jewish authors were writing about their experiences with and understanding of Jesus—both the Rabbi and the risen Christ. They weren’t trying to “save” a church. They weren’t even trying to start a church, since they all considered themselves faithful Jews. They were just filled with excitement over God’s revelation of unity in Jesus, and wanted to share that excitement with the rest of the world. So, what struck me odd about each of the articles I recently read was the idea that the church somehow needs to be “saved.” Of course, Christianity has become largely about salvation, so I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me either. It does worry me, though, more than a little bit.

As someone who is a Christian minister, what I’m about to say may strike some of you as odd: the church doesn’t need to be saved. The church needs to die. Without death there can be no resurrection. Jesus knew this. His first Jewish followers knew this. Jesus’ story is not just a tale about the martyrdom of a single human. It’s not even a story about the salvation of mankind through some sort of sacrificial act on Jesus’ part. It’s a sweeping analogy about individual lives and the systems individuals create, and the necessity for both to willingly give themselves up in order for something new and better to take root and blossom. That something new and better comes from being rooted in the loving justice of God.

I think Christians have by and large forgotten that the story of Jesus is a story about resurrection and ascension. It’s about willingly dying, knowing that in death God resurrects a new, more enlightened being. By continuing to insist the church must survive (or worse, be saved), I think we’re making it very difficult for God to raise it from the dead. Only in death and resurrection can church regain the higher sense of purpose for which it was originally formed.

The early “church” communities that sprang up around the stories about Jesus and his teachings met in people’s homes. They were groups of people who remembered and respected their past. They prayed, they sang, they shared meals, and they talked. They talked about what it means to be a disciple. They discussed the nature of God and Jesus. They disagreed about a lot of things, as we do still today, yet they universally understood that being together as church was more help than hindrance.

In church, they helped each other develop spiritually, knowing that ascension—resurrection after death to the lifestyle of the world, could lead to a better, more peaceful, more gentle, more loving world. They understood Jesus’ vision of God’s world where goods, services and wealth are distributed equally. For the early people of The Way, the way they shared their goods, services and wealth was meant to be an example for the rest of the world (Acts 2). Church was meant to be an example for the rest of the world. How many churches would you want the world to emulate today?

It’s a new world. It requires and deserves a new church.

Meditation: My heart is filled with the glory of God’s love.

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