Every congregation is a dying congregation. This is not up for debate.
The sun is hot.
Water is wet.
Congregations are dying.
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
What is not so obvious is this: whether your congregation is dying in a good way or a bad way. Let’s start with the bad and get that nasty business out of the way.
They preach a god without divinity bringing people without blame into a kingdom without a cross.
When congregations die in bad ways, it’s sometimes quite beautiful. They sexy up the gospel to render it more marketable to today’s spiritual consumer. They preach a god without divinity bringing people without blame into a kingdom without a cross. They’ve learned Victoria’s secret: woo the eyes, tickle the ears, and titillate the soul so as to turn the heads of the right kind of customers. Jesus is welcome in this church, so long as he leaves his body and blood, cross and suffering, sacrifice and death, his uncivil talk of hell and demons, in the parking lot. Such churches are religious beauty queens on the outside, mass worm-crawling graves within. They are dying in the ugliest of ways.
But there are other bad ways for congregations to die. Some simply wrinkle and wither away, the average age of the worshipers advancing from 37 to 51 to 74 to Obits. Some are fissured through by schisms since the Hatfields and McCoys are at each other throats over who holds the reins of power in the oh-so-important church council. Incompetent or non-existent lay leadership or pastoral care can cut off the oxygen supply. Funds dry up. There are 1,001 ways that thousands of churches die each year.
If any church would come after Christ, let it deny itself, take up its cross, and follow him.
These are the ugly ways. Bad ways.
But there is a good way—the best way—for a congregation to die.
If any church would come after Christ, let it deny itself, take up its cross, and follow him. Follow Jesus to the one and only place a cross leads: to death. Every. Single. Time. The great news is that’s exactly where God wants you. As Robert Capon writes, “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You don’t have to be anything…you just have to be dead. That’s it.”
The only churches that live are churches that have died. That still die. And that rise to newness of life in Christ’s life alone.
These congregations may be mega, mini, or floating somewhere in between. They may meet in living rooms, community centers, or gothic cathedrals. Their building may look like it was designed by a Bohemian architect stoned on acid in the 1970’s or it might sparkle with splendor. None of that ultimately matters. Plenty of dog ugly churches are home to the beautiful Lamb of God.
What matters is whether the Lamb is there. Leading us to death. Co-death, co-burial, and co-resurrection with him. Every congregation is dying. But is it dying with Christ? Are the sinful passions of the people gathered there being crucified? Are babies and toddlers and teens and adults being drowned in the flood of baptism and ripped from those same waters really alive for the first time? Are those starving for God, thirsting for a drink of his love, opening their mouths at the altar to have them filled with the flesh and blood of the Lamb? Because that’s what ultimately matters.
For a congregation to die in a good way is always to die in a God way. Not to power along on its broad and easy interstate but to trudge the straight and narrow path of Jesus. Not to gladhand the world and lick the boots of our culture, but stand firm and call sin sin, evil evil, grace grace, and Christ the only way and only truth and only life of the Father. To die well is to die by being crucified to the world, buried with the Savior, and alive again in him. And to experience this every day as the sole mission of the church.
We die and rise.
We sin, repent, are absolved, and believe.
We become less and Jesus becomes more.
Every congregation is a dying congregation. Let’s make sure we are dying in the living way.