Enough moaning, already.

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of doing my fare share. In various places, I have lamented the paradigm shifts that the North American church is facing. For example, in a paper I wrote when I was interviewing for my previous job, I wrote:

We no longer hold the privileged position we once held as America’s moral and spiritual voice. For many people, religion is simply a private matter that encompasses little more than self-esteem or the maintenance of personal values and mores. People inside the church are left wondering, What happened to the church that we once knew and loved? People outside the church have little reason to re-evaluate their judgment that the Christian faith has little or no place in the contemporary world, outside of the individual believer’s life.

And I’m not the only one. Maybe it’s just the friends I keep and the news feeds I read, but I constantly see posts and articles about the decline of the church, the irrelevance of the church, the stubbornness of the church, and what looks like the end of the church as we have known it. The sky is falling, and we’ve been saying that to one another for more years than I care to remember. Enough already.

Interestingly, in Transforming Mission, David Bosch’s 1991 book (yes, 23 years ago), on the second page of the introduction he looks at the situation we’re all in a tizzy about and he says:

It is…normal for Christians to live in a situation of crisis. It should never have been different.[1]

He then cites Hendrik Kraemer, an early 20th century lay missiologist and prominent figure in the ecumenical movement from the Netherlands, who said (long before the crisis that we are experiencing developed), “Strictly speaking, one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.”

Bosch says that Kraemer’s claim was based on “the abiding tension between (the church’s) essential nature and its empirical condition.” Then Bosch continues with a one-two punch:

Why is it, then, that we are so seldom aware of this element of crisis and tension in the church? Because, Kraemer added, the church “has always needed apparent failure and suffering in order to become fully alive to its real nature and mission.” And for many centuries the church has suffered very little and has been led to believe that it is a success…

That there were so many centuries of crisis-free existence for the church was therefore an abnormality. Now, at long last, we are “back to normal” . . . and we know it!

Many of us (and I include myself in this group) have been lamenting the changes and the pressures—the crisis—of the past few decades from what we thought was faithfulness. We hurt for the church. We long to see the church return to vitality. We have a Word of hope and life that we want to speak to and embody for a hurting world. We say this while thinking that forces beyond our control are stopping us, sidelining us, or derailing our best intentions.

Is it possible that we’ve been wringing our hands out of faithlessness? Bosch seems to imply that. Rather than being removed from a privileged position, we’ve been restored to our position of powerlessness. Rather than operating from a success mentality we’re merely back to where we’re supposed to be — “to encounter crisis,” Bosch adds, “is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” Have we become so accommodated to success that we think our calling is, indeed, to build bigger barns?

It’s possible.

But what does it mean to be in the “normal” state of crisis? What does a church in crisis look like—if it doesn’t look like the handwringing we’ve seen in recent decades? If a church in crisis is normal, if being in crisis is how we discover what it means to be church, what does that do to us, in us, through us? What are the implications of this for congregational leaders?

Some might argue that such thinking leads to defeatism. We begrudgingly accept the fate of being a funeral society, hoping to keep the doors open long enough that the last one standing can still have his or her funeral here. Others might say that it looks a lot like the theology of the cross (as opposed to the theology of glory). In a book on the theology of the cross Douglas John Hall says:

How in this world of the here and now are we to perceive the presence of the crucified one, and how shall we translate that presence into words, and deeds—or sighs too deep for either? That is the question to which adherence to [the theology of the cross] drives.[2]

Later in the book he adds,

[T]he message of the cross is that this world is the beloved of God and must not be abandoned, and that the church is that community of faith freed sufficiently from preoccupation with self and institutional survival to seek the welfare of the [world].[3]

It seems to me that Hall has hit the proverbial nail on the head. God’s love for the world didn’t stop with Jesus’ ascension. The church is indeed God’s beloved: called, claimed, empowered and sent—blessed to be a blessing, to put it in Abrahamic terms (Gen. 22:15–18)

The question, though, is whether (as Hall says) we are sufficiently freed from preoccupation with self and institutional survival to be that blessing in and for the world. Based on recent work, I have seen much evidence to the contrary. The external pressures we are feeling have driven us deeper and deeper into our institutional shells; everything we do and value and count is framed in institutional terms. We talk about making disciples, but what we really mean is making good churchgoers so that the institution can survive.

Hall presents a definition of discipleship that is a helpful corrective to our institutionalized preoccupation:

Discipleship of the crucified Christ is characterized by a faith that drives its adherents into the world with a relentlessness and daring they could not manage on the basis of human volition alone.[4]

In short, then, it seems that a church in the “normal” state of crisis will do that which is entirely counterintuitive: we will deny ourselves, ignore questions of institutional viability or institutional payback, and focus on that which all of us do in the world, in the roles, relationships and responsibilities of our everyday lives.

I concur with John M. Buchanan who wrote in The Christian Century:

I have a proposal: let’s call a moratorium on counting members. Let’s consider that we are called to witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ and to do everything we can to be Christ’s body in the world, to do what we believe he would be doing and is doing through us.

This is no simple feat. Denying ourselves is hard. Denying our institutional selves might be even harder. But it is the way to life. (Matthew 16:24–26)

If you’re so inclined, I’d love to have you chime in with a comment. I’m particularly interested in your answers to the question I asked about what a church in crisis looks like.

∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞

PS: The March 5 issue of The Christian Century is focused on the future of the church. For an interesting take on what the church of the future, a church of the cross at that, might look like, read Heidi Neumark’s article, “Companion to Strangers.”

[First published in March 2014 on a previous blog.]

[1] This and the following quotes are from David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 2-3.

[2] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 42.

[3] Hall, 220.

[4] Hall, 183.