To say we are in an unprecedented time is an understatement. This is a unique time in history in which the entire world faces the same threat. Not everyone is taking that threat seriously yet though. Which will only make this last longer. Often that happens when we think we are the center of the universe and that reality will bend to our will. But it won’t. Reality doesn’t care what you or I think.
This is a time when we do some self-examination – both for ourselves and our lives as well as the life of the church. This is the time when we grasp the idea that the church is not the building. It is the Body of Christ – a living breathing thing.
I’m reminded of John 2:19 in which Jesus is recorded as saying, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” He wasn’t referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather his body – the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Is the church alive or dead? The buildings are dead right now – no life in them. Were the buildings ever alive though? Hasn’t it always been the people in them that made the building come alive. And we are seeing how alive the church can be right now in the midst of crisis.
We would do well to remember that this is not the first crisis the church has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. The church, the Body of Christ, has survived worse – other pandemics, wars lasting many years and causing great destruction, persecutions, and more.
Is the church alive or dead? Life comes with some basic characteristics. Mike Breen, in his book “Building a Discipling Culture,” talks about seven life characteristics that are attached to any living being or organization. And the church certainly fits into this.
The seven characteristics are:
- Movement: living things move under their own will. It is a sign of life. Things that are dead move because some force acts upon them. This is true for the church too. Scripture describes the early followers of Jesus as those who followed “the Way.” It implies movement. Jesus led and leads a movement. To be a follower of Jesus is to move, not sit and watch. But to live out one’s faith. And that requires movement.
- Respiration: we literally have the breath of God within us. It is what gives us life. The church takes in this breath and breathes out the spirit to all. It’s a part of who we are.
- Sensitivity: We are sensitive to our environment – what is around us. For Christians, we observe and then act. We come to the aid of those hurting. We act to right wrongs. We work to change unjust systems. We don’t just shrug our shoulders and give up. Regardless of the cost, we see reality, and respond.
- Growth – Living things grow. And growth happens in a variety of ways. It can be numbers or money. Those are traditional measurements. But they aren’t always the best measurements, or the only ones. Growth happens in our faith too. We shouldn’t have the same understanding of faith that we did as a teenager. It should grow to much deeper levels. Prayer should grow. Our reading of Scripture should grow. Our worship should grow. Our relationship with God and others should grow. Our desire to be in alignment with God’s will should grow. Our desire for Shalom (wholeness) should grow.
- Reproduction – Living things have the ability to reproduce. What does this mean for the church? How are we making new disciples? How are we training up new disciples?
- Excretion – Living things get rid of waste and what doesn’t help them with the other life characteristics. Living churches should be doing this also. Too often though, churches have spiritual constipation – the refusal to excrete anything. It’s not healthy in a living being, or in a church.
- Nutrition – without nutrition, a living being will die. And so will a church. The church is fed through the sacraments, through Scripture, prayer, and being in community.
Living things adapt. Their bodies change over time.
This is the time when we recognize that these facts are vitally important. We have to stop fooling ourselves with the false belief that the life characteristics don’t apply to the church. We have to stop lying to ourselves that the church will be fine if we just remain the same and never change. We have to stop kidding ourselves into believing that the culture will go back to telling the story for the church (not that the culture did a good job anyway). We have to open our eyes to the reality that the culture no longer gives the church a position of privilege. We have to be open to the reality that the model of the church that we have used since church held a position of privilege isn’t working anymore.
None of the beliefs that I describe above are helpful anymore. None of the old assumptions are true anymore. The sooner we embrace this change, the better we will be able to adapt, adjust, be transformed. The sooner we embrace this reality, the better we will be able to create new systems, structures, and methods to carry out the ministry and mission of Jesus.
Part of this is also recognizing that the next generation will have to let go of whatever new methods and models we adopt because that is what living things do – they adapt to new circumstances so that life can go on and thrive.
If we choose to reject these realities, then we are set on a path towards death as a church. I’m not willing to be a part of those systems that are intent on death.
Let me be clear – this path is not easy nor comfortable. There will be resistance. So be it. We will go forward anyway. Jesus is the standard that we follow.
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The church exists to carry out the mission of Jesus. Jesus encounters us. Jesus transforms us. And Jesus sends us out.