We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?
To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.
But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).
Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.
Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.
But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation. We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.
John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.
I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.
Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups. Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.
Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die. Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.
I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!