We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sorting Things Out ("Decline & Renewal" III)

In recent postings, I have been exploring a series of editorials on the theme of church decline and renewal that were posted earlier this year in Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition.  The series raises important questions from perspectives outside of the mainline, ones that can help mainline churches better wrestle with the shared issues of decline and renewal.

The third posting in this series is by the Rev. Ben Ries, a pastor in the state of Washington. His posting is entitled, "The View from Ben Ries."  In it he recounts how he and the church's leadership have initiated significant change, which they felt was necessary for the health and well-being of the church.  Women have been given leadership roles they did not have before.  The church has sought to be more involved in its community.  Worship has been changed so that it is less old-fashioned and traditional.  The result has been, however, that some two-thirds of the church's membership has left over the last thirteen years.  Ries concludes,
So…here we are…a church that has grown from 325 to 125 in the span of 13 years. The question for us is no longer, 'Are we a dying church?' because we know the answer. The cold, hard facts speak for themselves as every day we seem to be moving closer to our own death. And so the new question we keep asking ourselves—the question that many suggest is ridiculous and na├»ve—is this: “Is there a chance that God will bring new life out of our death?” We're crazy enough to believe that he just might and, right or wrong, we are willing to die to see the answer.
Ries' counter-intuitive statement that the church "has grown from 325 to 125" is catchy and provocative, and it also stirs up a variety of thoughts.  In one sense, one cannot say that a loss of two-thirds of the membership in such a short period of time is growth.  Change has driven people away.  In a sense, the changes, however justified they were, were an exercise in power over the church, forcing on it things that the majority evidently did not want.  Forcing good on people is still a use of force.  If, at the end of the day, this use of force renders the church so weak that it becomes less able to minister to others and to each other then we have to question the whole point of going through all of the pain and the loss that has resulted.  What has been gained?  Have we moved a little closer to or a little further away from the Kingdom?  If, as Ries seems to imply, the demise of the church is the likely outcome of forced change then it would seem we have taken a step backward from the Kingdom.

In another sense, however, we might detect the presence of the Spirit working through our broken human ways toward a church that exercises greater love for Christ's followers who are women, reaches out to a world in need with greater love and effectiveness, and seeks new ways to praise God that have greater integrity and are more worshipful.  In the Presbyterian Church we are learning that the death of a church can in fact lead to new life where the church again becomes a matter of the Spirit rather than the institutional concerns,  irrelevant traditions, and financial straights of a dying ecclesiastical organization.  In this sense, perhaps Ries and his church are taking us a step closer to the Kingdom.

Is this church headed toward or away from the Kingdom, then?  Our answer to this question might well be, "yes."  That is the problem with the world we live in today.  There are no clear answers.  Sometimes "renewal" can be the death of a church, but sometimes it can be the rebirth of the church; and sometimes the death and rebirth are all mixed up together.  So, we're left with the condition we are generally stuck with anyway.  We do the best we can and trust the Spirit to sort it out.  Amen.