the Death of the Church for the Sake of the World
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of
the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of
bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many
lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to
me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord
GOD, you know." 4Then he said to me, "Prophesy to
these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus
says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you,
and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will
cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath
in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the
LORD." 7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and
as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones
came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were
sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered
them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me,
"Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:
Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and
breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10I
prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they
lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11Then he
said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut
off completely.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them,
Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you
up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the
land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my
people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall
live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that
I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD.
little over 2,500 years ago, a nation died.
An entire nation was wiped from the face of the earth. I speak of
course of the destruction of Israel by the forces of Babylon.
This destruction, which Ezekiel and the other prophets interpret
as the judgment of God upon the sins of the nation, was so complete that
the nation had become, in Ezekiel's words, a valley of dry bones,
bleached white by the scorching sun.
is not that there were not any survivors, as a matter of fact, there
were more survivors than victims, as far as individuals lives are
concerned. What made the
defeat of Israel such a devastating deed was not the loss of blood, but
the loss of the temple, the official dwelling place of God and symbol of
their national identity. Looted
of all its precious metals and razed like a condemned, deserted shack,
it became a "heap of ruins" and Jerusalem little more than a
"ploughed field", as the prophet Micah proclaims.
The entire population of the Holy City, save peasants and
caretakers, were then marched off like common prisoners to a foreign
land. For a people whose
whole being was tied to the land, the promised land, it was a fate worse
than death for it could only mean the abandonment by God.
And without God, the nation of Israel ceased to exist.
It became extinct.
are many voices who say the church, as we know it, faces a similar fate.
That we are in danger of becoming extinct, or at least irrelevant
to the culture around us. Several years ago Herb Miller, director of our National
Evangelism Association, was sharply criticized for projecting that the
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would cease to exist in the year
2052 based on the rate of membership losses in our church.
Ron Allen, New Testament professor at Christian Theological Seminary in
Indianapolis added fuel to the fire with an article in The Disciple
magazine proclaiming that we are in the early stages of “code blue,”
the medical designation for a patient in a life-threatening trauma.
Noting that we had lost 200,000 members over the previous two
decades, Allen said that without "radical treatment", the
patient would be lost.[i]
since it has been ten years since he made that provocative claim, I
thought I’d check the stats to see how we are doing.
In 1994 we had 657,000 participating members.
Last year we had, do you really want to hear this?
Last year we had 493,000, a decline of 164,000 in ten years.
Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and similar
denominations are all experiencing similar fates. The decline among
Disciples is a little faster than other denominations, because the
average age of our members is older than most other denominations.
church typically responds to this news much as a patient to the news
that they have a terminal illness.[ii]
First there is denial. “We
don't need to change. If we
just keep doing what we have always done, everything will be OK.
Better yet, if we just did things the way we used to do things,
the people will come back!” Right. And how many vinyl records and typewriter ribbons did you buy
denial comes depression. No
wonder! When you look at the statistics, it IS depressing. Lyle Schaller reports that somewhere between 65 & 85
percent of all protestant congregations are either stuck on a plateau or
declining in size. Not just
those affiliated with the "mainline" denominations, but a
majority of ALL protestant congregations. Growing
churches in all denominations are in the definite minority.
Isn’t it nice to be in the majority?
comes the bargaining. If we
can just create the right program, find the right leader, raise enough
money, all will be well. If
everyone would just be more supportive, more faithful, more positive,
the problems will take care of themselves.
If you put more into it, you will get more out of it.
If the preacher would just stick to the Bible, if the music
director would pick the right hymns, if the organist would pick up the
tempo, if, if, if...
comes anger. It's the
denomination's fault, all those pronouncements on political issues.
We should have fired that lousy minister years ago. I didn't leave the church, the church left me.
If the church weren't full of so many no-good hypocrites, they
would be less judgmental, like me.
we respond to our condition with denial, depression, bargaining and
anger, because, frankly, the future prospects scare us and we are afraid
to face the possibility of our own demise.
The paradox of a dying patient is that it is not until he or she
comes to terms with his or her condition by accepting it, that she or he
begins to live again, even to discover new life.
of all people, should not fear the prospect of death. We need to remind ourselves that the central proclamation of
the gospel is the hope of resurrection for the dead. In many ways we owe our beginnings to death.
One of the founding documents of the Christian Church was “The
Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”, in which our
19th century ancestors willed “that this body die, be dissolved, and
sink into union with the Body of Christ at large...”
More importantly, in baptism we are buried with Christ, “so
that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of [God], so
we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
the promise of new life we have in Christ, death of an institution
should be the last of our worries.
Michael Kinnamon, one of the leading theologians of our
denomination, wrote in response to Allen's “Code Blue” article, that
there is plenty of good news even in our present state:
of Isaiah: it is in exile
that the community learns its true calling as a light to the nations.
Think of Pentecost: it
is in a moment of utter confusion that the Holy Spirit is experienced.
Think of Paul for whom human weakness makes room for the power of
Christ... Our faith... is not about resuscitation but resurrection…I hope
we are witnessing the death of a church dominated by white males. I hope we are
witnessing the death of a denomination that drew sharp boundaries
between itself and others who bear the name of Jesus Christ. I hope we are
witnessing the death of the time when giving to [the church]--to
paraphrase Ronald Osborn--felt more like paying taxes than investing in
our own missionary work.[iii]
goes on to suggest that what others have interpreted to be signs of
impending death could in fact be signs of impending birth, that the time
has come for us to serve as midwives to a new creation, to reinvent the
church. That notion, that the
changing times we are in will lead to a re-birth of the church to which we
are called to be a part, is an exciting possibility.
Like the pioneers of old and the astronauts of the Apollo mission
to the moon, we have an opportunity to journey into a new frontier, to
boldly go as James T. Kirk says, where no one has gone before.
what is our destination? Must
we wander like the Israelites of old for 40 years in the wilderness
because we cannot see our way to the promised land, we have no vision
for the future? Actually,
we do. At least we do in this congregation. We began to identify such a vision in our planning retreat
last year and then we kind of put it on the back burner to attend to
more pressing needs. To use the analogy of this morning’s text, it’s
time to put some sinews, muscle and skin on these dry bones.
vision identified in our planning retreat to bring resurrected life to
these old bones was described as a “new paradigm church” that is
non-literalistic, open and affirming.
Do you know what the fastest growing religious category in the
United States is? The
unaffiliated. These are
people who believe in God but who have no religious affiliation.
Either they have dropped out of church or have never been a part
of a church.
reasons for this phenomena are varied and greatly debated but this much
is abundantly clear, for millions of North Americans, the church has
ceased to be relevant. Here
is just one statistic to give us a clue as to this increasingly
irrelevance. In 1963, 65%
of the people living in the United States indicated a strong agreement
with this statement in a Gallup poll: “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken
literally, word for word.” In
2001, only 27% agreed with that statement.[iv]
That is a phenomenal shift in perception.
that those statistics include the Bible belt and we live in the Bible
kilt, a mixture of woven colors with nothing underneath, you’d have to
surmise that less than 15% of our community are Biblical literalists.
However, there is a perception among the unaffiliated, created by
the predominant religious voices in the media, that to be a Christian
requires that you believe that the Bible is literally true, word for
Borg, who teaches at OSU where more than half of his students have no
church background, says that his non-Christian students consistently use
five adjectives to describe Christianity in papers they write for his
courses: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental
Thus our planning retreat participants said that we need to get the word
out to our community that we are thinking, caring people of faith,
non-literalistic, open and affirming in all of its dimensions.
using “new paradigm” to describe this vision for our future, we
borrowed from Borg’s latest book, The Heart of Christianity.
About 20 from this church went to hear Borg speak on this topic a
couple of weeks ago and I know many more have read the book.
I read a lot of religious books and this is among the two or
three I would name as important for all Christians to read, right
alongside Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People and
the complete anthology of “Calvin and Hobbes”.
(We all need some light reading now and then!)
am going to give you a quick and easy snapshot of this new paradigm by
comparing it to the old paradigm in four essential areas.
You may want to read the book, if you haven’t already, for more
the new paradigm sounds familiar to you, it may be because I have been
preaching out of this paradigm for over 20 years.
Other preachers for much longer, so it is not entirely new. Thus Borg calls it the emerging paradigm rather than new and
has a way of summarizing it that makes it clear and easy to understand.
of the Bible. The earlier paradigm views the Bible as a divine product,
that is, as written essentially by God.
Human authors were simply dictation machines, human conduits for
the emerging paradigm sees the Bible as the product of the ancient faith
communities. It is the
faithful witness to the way in which they interacted with God and how
they understood God to be working in their midst.
the Bible. The earlier paradigm interprets the Bible literally.
The world was created in six days, a flood killed all humans and
animals save for those on the ark, God gave Moses two tablets of stone
and they looked just like those on the courthouse lawn in Austin, Texas.
contrast to this literal view, the emerging paradigm uses an
historical-metaphorical view. In
this view the meaning of a story is much more important than the facts
of the story. Whether the
world was created in six days or 6 billion years is insignificant in
comparison to what the story means, that God is the Creator and
creation, as the act of God, is good.
of the Bible. The primary function of the Bible in the earlier paradigm is
to tell us what and how to believe, act and live.
Everything we need to know for a good life is right here, in the
purpose of the Bible in the emerging paradigm is not primarily to pass
on knowledge to us, but to mediate the sacred, to make the presence of
God known and real in our lives. This
means scripture is sacred not because of its origin, but because of its
effect, as a means through which God continues to speak to us today.
Christian Life. The goal of the Christian life in the earlier paradigm is to
join God and our loved ones in heaven.
We accomplish this by believing the right things about Jesus,
following his teachings and seeking God’s forgiveness for our sin. In sum, we are saved through belief for the next life from
this life by Christ’s life.
emerging paradigm sees the Christian life as “a relationship with God
that transforms life in the present.”[vi]
Being a Christian is not about correct beliefs about God, but a
correct relationship with God. The
evidence of such a relationship is in a transformed life which, in turn,
leads a Christian to work for a transformed world, what Jesus called the
“Kingdom of God.”
obviously a very incomplete caricature of two different ways of being a
Christian that is much more complex and varied.
Each of these areas have variations of the forms I have described
so you may find yourself agreeing with only a part of each at best.
is not the case that one of these paradigms is right and the other is
wrong. Both affirm the existence of God, the centrality of scripture
and Jesus, emphasize a right relationship with God and the importance of
transformation. It is the
case, however, that the earlier paradigm no longer works for a growing
number of people in our modern world and hence, the church, if not
Christianity, has become irrelevant to them.
I am convinced Borg is absolutely right, that the numbers who are
convinced by the earlier paradigm are shrinking and that the wave of the
future is in this emerging way of seeing our faith and how we apply that
faith to our world.
The challenge then before us is this, are we willing to let the
church as we know it die so that the Gospel can be born again?
Can we prophesy to these old bones like Ezekiel, causing sinews,
muscle and skin to come upon them again so that God can breathe new life
into the church? Can the bones of this old dinosaur come back to life in
new and exciting ways that speak to our modern culture?
just may be that the time has come when God is saying to us, “I am
going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my
people; and I will bring you back to life!”
of God, be filled with the Spirit of God and dance with these old bones!
Envision the possibilities and opportunities for new life before us!
God is not finished with us yet!
If you believe the best years are ahead of us, say Amen!
If you believe the Spirit is with us, say Amen!
If you believe God calls us into the future, say Amen!
If you believe in resurrection of the dead, say Amen!
If you believe these bones can live, say Amen! shout Amen!
[i] Ronald Allen, “The
Disciples: A Denomination in Code Blue.” The Disciple, January 1994.
[ii] See Loren Mead, The
Once and Future Church.
[iii] Michael Kinnamon, “Code
Blue: A Second Opinion.” The
Disciple, March 1994.
[iv] Marcus Borg, The Heart
of Christianity, p. 4.
[v] Borg, p. 21.
[vi] Borg, p. 14.
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