A Dying Church?

                                     Part 1 – “Excitement”                                     

 “Do you know what people say about your church?” the woman asked me. She had been a visitor in one of our Sunday services for a couple of weeks, and she called to make an appointment with me to talk about things.  She wanted to know more about who we are and what we believe as a church.  It’s the kind of conversation that I really like to have with people who visit.  I love telling people about why we are here as Disciples of Christ.  I think we have an important story to tell, and I am particularly passionate about telling it since I am not a birthright Disciple.  Like the bumper sticker about Texas that you’ll sometimes see around town – “I may not have been born here.  But I got here just as fast as I could.”  I am a true believer in the kind of church our founders imagined. 

 In the values clarification process they say that something becomes a genuine value only after it has been chosen freely from among alternatives after due reflection and then gets acted upon consistently.  And this is how I became a Disciple.    I chose the Disciples only after a long process of exploring the options that were open to me spiritually.  I visited the churches of dozens of denominations, and read about every one of them that I could find any information about – Methodists and Mormons, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Lutherans and Congregationalists, Baptists and Catholics, Christian Reformed and Covenant, Nazarene and Brethren, the Salvation Army and the Foursquare Gospel.  I studied, prayed and visited my way through many of the churches of Southern California in the early 1970’s, and found something interesting and even compelling about nearly every one of them with whom I spent some time.  But it was only when I finally read Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address that, to borrow the language of John Wesley, I felt my heart “strangely warmed.”  I am a Disciple because of his vision of the church, and what it did to my head and my heart when I caught my first glimpse of it in Thomas Campbell’s 1809 treatise.

 Educated for ministry by the Disciples beginning in 1971, licensed to do ministry in the Disciples in 1975, and ordained to ministry in the Disciples in 1979, this is the church to which I have given 40 of my 58 years.  I am committed.  This is why it hurts to hear someone speak poorly of her, especially someone who has just met her for the first time.  “They say you are a dying church.”  The woman told me.  “What would you say to that?”  And my mind raced.

I remembered that Barton Stone, another one of “our” founders, launched his “Christian” movement in 1804 Kentucky by “willing” the death of his existing church so that it could be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

And then I reflected on the fact that the New Testament talks an awful lot about dying –

We always carry around in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4:10)

If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (I Corinthians 15:3)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (Romans 6:3)

That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; (Philippians 3:10)

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now lives in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

And then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  (Luke 9:23)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s haunting words echoed in my heart: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  By this measure, drawn from Scripture, a “dying” church is exactly the kind of church Jesus Christ needs; in fact, it’s the only kind of church that Jesus Christ can use.  I recalled something Gene Veith, a Lutheran theologian, wrote about in his blog–

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5)… What does this mean?  Do you know what this is saying?  With these words we are really saying: Lord, help us to die. Help us be dying Christians.  Help us be a dying church.  Ah, no.  That doesn’t sound right!  We don’t want to be a dying church!  We don’t want to be dying Christians, do we?  That sounds like failure.  We want to be successful, we want to be admired, we want to be big, we want to be glorious.  A dying church sounds . . . like . . . a story gone horribly wrong.  But this is exactly what it means to have the mind of Christ.  We are to be a dying church, because we have a dying Savior.  For only by dying can we live. . . .  That what looks like defeat is really victory.  And so we are a dying church because we have a dying Savior.  This is not our doing – our Savior pulls us into His dying; for to die with Jesus is to live. (www.geneveith.com)

But when I tried to talk about this with the woman who was sitting in my office, I could tell that she didn’t have a clue what I was trying to say.  And so I quickly pivoted, using a counseling technique I knew, and turned the question around.  “What do the people who told you that Northway is a ‘dying’ church mean when they said that?”  And she talked with me about three things: a sense of “excitement,” the “age” of the congregation, and “numerical growth.”

Long after this conversation ended, the words that had been spoken lingered, and soured.  A “dying church” — setting aside for a moment the Biblical witness that this is what probably what every church and Christian should want to be, let’s turn attention instead to the specific things that she cited as “evidence” that Northway is a “dying” church, and let’s start with “excitement.

Sometimes what lurks beneath this talk about “excitement,” or its absence in the life of a church is the substantial issue of “formalism” and “institutionalism” (read the letter to the Laodicean Church in Revelation 3:14-22 to understand the very real problem this can be — some churches are “dying” from their spiritual lifelessness) and I want to address this before I finish this series of blogs, but not yet.  Instead, where I want to begin is with what A.W. Tozer called “the great god entertainment.” 

More than fifty years ago he wrote –

A German philosopher many years ago said something to the effect that the more a man has in his own heart the less he will require from the outside; excessive need for support from without is proof of the bankruptcy of the inner man. If this is true (and I believe it is) then the present inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment is evidence that the inner life of modern man is in serious decline.

For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was – a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability. For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God. Many churches these days have become little more than poor theatres where fifth-rate “producers” peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

He called it “gospel peddling,” using the sensation of “cowbells and a musical handsaw, banjos and their hillbilly songs, and a lot of other gadgets” to gather a crowd.  And he counseled, “if the gospel proclamation has to bring that in to get a crowd, boycott it; preach instead to empty seats”!  And this is what I suspect flies under the banner of “excitement” in the minds of some who look at Northway and conclude that we are a “dying” church.   We don’t put on much of a show.  Years ago (October 18, 1981)  in an editorial for The Disciple, our denominational periodical at the time, James Merrrell, the editor, observed that Disciple worship has traditionally been “grounded in several assumptions” –

Members of the New Testament church, as they gathered, centered their attention on God and His mighty acts in Jesus Christ.  The Lord’s Supper was the heart of it all, for here was the supreme testimony to God’s saving deeds.  In too many instances, worship today tends to be selfishly focused on the individual and his or her needs and demands.  It is subjective, rather than objective. Disciples have said that worship must begin with a recital of the salvation story, a celebration of those facts of holy history upon which pour hope and joy rest.

Disciples cherish simplicity in worship…our Reformed heritage of worship is “spare” and devoid of gimmickry… it can be guilty of coldness and a lack of emotion, but the excesses of the other extreme are more dangerous.

Our Disciples of Christ style of worship has emphasized biblical and theological integrity.  Hymns are sung because of their meaning, not simply because they have a beat we like…

And worship, as we see it, is not to be “used” to achieve some immediate goal, to promote some program or cause, to motivate for some predetermined response.  An honest presentation of the gospel, followed by an opportunity for reflection and penitence and recommitment, should move us toward the right goals.

This may not make for “exciting” worship, but it is deep, rich and true; more like a full course meal than fast food – and that’s what finally and fully satisfies the hunger of the soul.  And to suspect, or even worse, make the accusation that we are “spiritually dead” as a church because our worship is not “lively” and “extroverted,” is to confuse the bubbles for the vintage.  As someone who responded to Gene Veith’s  blog post on what it means to be a “dying Church” that I quoted above wrote –

Just two Sundays ago we were in Sunday school  and the pastor  invited me and my wife to tell our journey to confessional Lutheranism. Long story short; within that frame work I had mentioned that one of the first things that was absolutely WONDERFUL that I  experienced upon my first visit was the absolution at the beginning. I said, “You could just ‘feel’ the guilt and weight of sin wash off of you, makes you want to kick up your heals like calf!” Well, I’m not one given to outer expression of what I feel, looking at me you’d think, “dead as a door knell”. But inside “tears of joy I can’t control.” I didn’t reveal that part. But, after I mentioned the absolution and the joy it gives, that you don’t ever have that in other confessions, a sad thing, this lady, older, in the church just said almost out of the blue, “Is it not simply wonderful…”  I’ve been at this church for a while and we have older congregation as an average. And external appearances rather subdued, you’d never know, externally, the tremendous effect of the Word and Sacraments. It IS judgmental to say, “they look stoic, dead orthodoxy”. Because here was a dear lady who didn’t externally express any more than I do, yet at a moment she revealed the treasure to her heart this was. You’d never “get that” viewing, but the effect of the Word is there “in, with and under” (as Frank says well).  And everyone in the room concurred.

And so do I, every Sunday morning when I worship with you.



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  1. Pingback: A Dying Church | Northway Christian Church Blog

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