Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Death of the Church; Moving out of the Comfortable Cathedral


Whether you realize it or not the Church, and by that I mean the traditional, established, religious institution of the Church is dying a slow and unusual death. By almost every statistical analysis of the European, and by some measures the American Church context, the Church is in a state of slow painful deteriorating death. We (The LEAP Network) have received new statistics recently from the Church of England that by the year 2067[1] there will essentially be no Anglican Church anymore, meaning zero, nill, nada. In other words, let the last one out the door turns off the lights, kind of situation. Now it is hard to imagine the Anglican Church in a state of atrophy, disintegration, and degeneration. It is maybe even harder for the Church in England and greater Europe to think of itself as completely nonexistent. The Church in Germany the Lutheran Evangelical Church stands in the same situation. By the year 2025 the Landeskirche will not be able to pay the pensions of their current pastors[2]. I paint a grim and somber picture because most of you need to wake up or be shaken out of your indifference to the reality that we are in trouble! The first step is to admit that we have a problem.  But from that first step, I want to take a little different approach, and ask a different more long lasting question of the future.
Is it a bad thing that the (traditional) Church as it exists today dies? Let me be clear before you start throwing stones, or light the fire of heresy underneath me. I BELIEVE IN THE CHURCH!!! I have a high and conservative Ecclesiology, probably more conservative than most. Even among my colleagues, and many of the cohort my age think I am too conservative theologically. But let me suggest something that actually comes from a strong and high view of Christ and the Church. I want to suggest to you that it is not a bad thing that the Church as it exists today, by that I mean the hierarchical, institutional, structural church that we currently have would die. If we understand Ecclesiology correctly, we understand that the Church is a living organism. We get that from all the references to the Church as a body and living organism in the NT, and as a living organism goes through life cycles, so also the Church. As we look at Historical Ecclesiology we can gather that this has happened to The Church through the ages. A Church dies in one place to be birthed in another place, and so on and so forth until our current time.
Let’s take the very first Church for instance in Jerusalem.  They were in danger of not obeying the last command that the Lord had given them. He told them “And you will be my witnesses starting in Jerusalem, in Judea, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” And what did they do? They stayed in Jerusalem, and so Acts 8:1 happened I believe from God to gently pushed them out of the nest. If we look at current church planting and church growth models, we could surmise that the Church in Jerusalem was a complete failure[3].  In Acts 8:1 we read that a great persecution arose after Paul started persecuting the Church in Jerusalem. The people were scattered into Judea, and Samaria, and further as we read in the rest of the book of Acts. Was this God’s will? Absolutely. As they went into these regions, and the rest of the known world at the time, they took the seeds of the gospel, and the Church was planted “as they went”. As the Great Commission commands, they went. The Church was spread, died, spread, died, and spread, and still spreads unto the uttermost to this day in that same vein.


What we have done is broken down the Church to the institution, the place, the building, the Pastors, the historic building in one place or in this or that city.  The New Testament believers had no such concepts. The Church was to them the people of the master, underway with Him in His great commission to make disciples of all nations.  They were tempted early on to stay in their
“Comfortable Cathedrals” in Jerusalem, but God allowed a persecution to disperse them so that the gospel could cross over the first cultural threshold (Acts 8:1). I was involved in a church somehow a little like the model I am describing. We were a young and impetuous church. We were so impetuous that we believed that God wanted to work in the then very young postmodern person. We even called ourselves Tommy’s Interactive Church after the great Apostle Thomas who was so well known for His doubts. It is funny how Thomas so negatively known for His doubts, Foxes Book of Martyrs attributes Him with making His way all the way to India as its first Missionary,
Thomas called Didymus, preached the Gospel in Parthia and India, where exciting the rage of the pagan priests, he was martyred by being thrust through with a spear.”[4]
We believed at Tommy’s that doubts were good if expressed to Christ, because as Jesus did with Thomas, He will reveal himself to, us in our doubts, and dispel them quickly with His resurrection power. Tommy’s was a great success in my eyes, and for the time that I was there and involved, very exciting. However, it lasted only a short time. I would say that all in all, it lasted from first meeting to last meeting, only 20 years. I am however ok with that, because Tommy’s didn’t die. It served its purpose, the purpose that Jesus had for that time and place, and Jesus spread the people out into other movements, and Church plants. As the people went underway with God, they spawned new work on their way. For example, I went away from Tommy’s to California for 8 years to be a youth pastor. When I came back for one year to Columbia, and got involved in a church plant, there where many people from Tommy’s who had been involved in this new Church from day one.  This is how God continues to move, and will continue to move in History in an organic, biological, living way. The New Testament describes the Ekklesia of God as a living, familial, corporeal, body. We have however described it as,

"The business corporation. (Where) The pastor is the CEO, the clergy and/or staff is upper management. Evangelism is sales and marketing. The congregation is the clientele. And there is competition with other corporations ("churches") in the same town."[5]

Mars Hill In Seattle is also a prominent example of how the Lord uses difficult circumstances to advance and multiply through scattering the church through seemingly negative circumstances. Mars Hill was a church of multiple campuses, through hierarchical leadership structures, they almost overnight through the resignation of Mark Driscol, became eleven autonomous Churches with a local leadership structure, not a centralized business model.  God allowed things by his gracious hand to end in one way, so that the prevailing model of “Lording it over them”, which the Lord strictly forbade, was changed. This I do not see as a tragedy, or failure in Church growth, but rather a success story of the church. As the church grows larger it must also get smaller, and multiply. I imagine Jesus in his goodness allowed Mars Hill to play out like it did, so that their own credo “It’s all about Jesus” could shine through. I will say something prophetic that might upset some, but I do believe that these new church growth strategies that we are seeing especially those built around multiple campuses will crumble in the coming years, just as we are seeing the Anglican Church crumble. With that I do not see a negative outcome, but that of a church rising up that will be what Christ had in his heart from the beginning. It will be a decentralized, bottom up leadership, and pastors that do not need to be seen or heard, but rather those men Jesus has empowered to take up once again “The Basin and the Towel” as our Lord did so many years ago to love and serve His disciples from His knees.
So lets be ahead of the curve of the dying Church, and seek to plant the Church where we are. Jesus said it, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I am in their midst”. Let us get out ahead of things, open our eyes, and see what Jesus sees. He sees churches everywhere, in Bars, in the workplace, in abandoned warehouses, in coffee shops, in old church buildings that are reshaped for the new liturgy, in our homes, and in the places where we most frequently are. In seeing Jesus true Ekklesia He will also show us where he is “calling” people out unto Himself.
So let us ask a new set of questions, not “How can we employ the newest Church growth strategies?” Or, “How can we protect what we have?” Or, “How do we stop the hemorrhaging of the current state of the Church?” Let us instead ask, “How can we obey the Misseo Dei for the next 50, 100, or 200 hundred years?” Because Jesus will not abandon His Church, We have to ask a new set of questions. “What will His church look like in the years to come when the traditional model of Church crumbles?” “What are the new wineskins that will hold that new wine that He will surely pour out onto His Church?” And, “How can we be obedient to His call to extend and multiply the work that He is going to do in our midst, in the heart of the New Ekklesia?” “How can the Missional Movement address these new realities of the dying Church?” “What will the Church look like in 2060?” “How can we seek growth of His true Ekklesia?”  That Ekklesia that Christ died for? For this New Ecclesiology we need it to intersect early and often with Missiology. Actually if every form of Systematic Theology (Eschatology, Ecclesiology, Christology, Soteriology, etc.) does not intersect early and often with Missiology, then that Systematic has failed. In other words every solid systematic theology should be Missiological in its nature.  And so when we re-study these systematics, we must seek the missiology in and out of them, so that the Missio Dei can come forth we should be seeking this Missiology so that Church will advance undergirded by a renewed focus on Christ Great Commission (Matthew 18:28-30, Mark 13:10, Acts 1:8, Malachi 1:11, Psalms 46:10)
Jesus will not abandon his Church. He will not let His global Church die before he returns; He does however push us out of our “Comfortable Cathedrals” to arrive at the people whom he has called us to. I would encourage you to let this news of the Church’s death empower, encourage, and embolden you to move with, and how God is moving in this world to reach the people who have not yet heard of Christ. Or to arrive at people who have, “Forgotten that they have forgotten God”. Let us with fresh boldness seek the Lord of the Church for His new move, and new wineskins, that He is preparing. These new wineskins will certainly hold the fresh wine that he his is pouring out into His Church of the future (Acts 2:16-21)!
[4] Foxe, John, and William Byron Forbush. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978. Print.
[5] Viola, Frank. Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008. Print. Chapter on CORPORATE CHRISTIANITY VS. FAMILIAL ECCLESIOLOGY
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