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The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

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Do churches “need” to die sometimes?

An Indispensable Churches post.

Here’s a blog I ran across the other day.  Please read it before you go on.

Sometimes, churches need to ‘die’ | AlanRudnick.org.

So let’s think about some of the things Rudnick says in this post:

(1)  Rudnick seems to say that two defining characteristics of a “dead” church seem to be that the building’s doors are closed and that the membership has been disbanded.  But just a few years ago the Cleveland (Ohio) Catholic Diocese closed several churches and told the congregation members that they would have to relocate to other churches.  Many of these members protested all the way to the Vatican, and this summer some of those churches are reopening with great joy and celebration by the returning members.  Of course, this may simply illustrate the possibility that a congregation isn’t really dead until its own members say it’s dead – despite the analysis and even decree of something like “the wider church.”

(2)  If a congregation completely disbands so that its members are assimilated into other congregations, and if the building is reopened by a new ministry, how can this be called a “restart” or a “resurrection”?  In a more extreme example, if the building is sold so that a completely different denomination can begin a ministry there, that may clearly not be a “restart.”  But if the original denomination continues to own the building and implants a new ministry there, do we do that ministry a disservice by calling it a “restart” or “resurrection” rather than something entirely new and different?  In calling it a “restart” do we (unintentionally) burden it with ghosts of the past that may end up hampering its efforts to be truly new?

(3)  Rudnick asserts “that living churches have a life-cycle, too.”  I’ve heard this before, frequently accompanied by the “observation” that the life-cycle of a congregation resembles the life-cycle of a person in terms of time as well as in terms of stages.  But I think this may be a particularly American attitude that fails to take at least two matters into account.  The first is that the church in Scripture is compared to the human body only metaphorically, but identified with the body of Christ.  Might we not then infer that since the resurrected body of Christ is characterized as immortal, perfected, glorified, and eternal, so also is the church – even when there aren’t enough “members” to pay the bills to keep the building open?  The second is the observation that some churches have existed and even thrived in Europe, portions of Asia, and even Africa for centuries, well beyond the life-cycle of the normal human life span.  Village churches that have been around for hundreds of years.  Cathedrals in which the faithful have gathered to worship for a thousand years.  Sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and other places where Christian congregations have been in continuous existence since perhaps the time of the disciples.

(4)  Rudnick suggests that some churches may need to “die a death of institutionalism in order that it be resurrected into a Christ-centered faith community with a new calling.”  To this I heartily agree!  Over time it seems that many congregations “lose their first love” and devolve into a bounded-set mentality, drawing boundary lines and defining who’s in and who’s not.  How much better would it be if they could forget about the boundaries, focus on Christ and center all their activity on Him – their worship, their spiritual growth, their ministries to others?

(5)  Rudnick asks “Why must we insist that churches cannot change or be reborn into new life?”  I ask “MUST they change or be reborn into new life?”  Are there sufficient and necessary reasons why churches in Europe have lasted for centuries?  Are there important reasons why a world in swirling confusion needs the consistency the church can provide?  Granted, stubbornness and reluctance are not sufficient reasons to avoid change; but the traditions of liturgy, Sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, art and architecture, community and many other aspects of the church have been anchors to its people and its community through wars, plagues, destructions, turmoils, prosperity, health, and everything life brings.

Let me summarize:  There is more to the life of a church than a building and a membership roster.  There are also memories, traditions, and history.  Most importantly, each church is the body of Christ not only for the local communio sanctorum, but also in  the local community of believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, redeemed and unsaved.  Do churches sometimes need to die?  Not without taking all these into consideration.

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Celebrating the Unborn

From The Formational Pastor

 

One of the things that the church can do to provide a healing, formational atmosphere for the people it serves is to model healthy relationships and behaviors.  We know that the ways in which we celebrate and welcome newcomers into the family of God in our particular place can create positive memories for them.  If we make habits out of these celebrations they may become a part of the culture of the congregation, and people will assume “this is a church that celebrates people.”

Many churches celebrate the addition of infant members into their midst through a rite like a Dedication, or the Sacrament of Baptism.  The words and form of these rites not only welcome these children into the local congregation, but since the rites also have some root in history we are saying that the children are being welcomed into the church through the ages as well.  But there is more that we might do, I think.

At our congregation, when it comes to distributing the Lord’s Supper we have a few people come up to the front of the church at a time, where they kneel at a rail.  One of the elders goes along the rail and gives out the bread, and I follow to give out the wine.  We encourage children to come along with their parents.  Although we don’t give communion to small children, I do pause at each one, place my hand on their head, and bless them because of their Baptism and the death and resurrection of Jesus, praying that “He will fill them with all joy and hope in believing in Him” or something similar.  Most of the children seem genuinely happy to receive this blessing – even the infants are enthralled.

But there is one more step I use to celebrate the presence of these children of God in our midst.  If one of the persons at the communion rail is a pregnant woman, after I give her the Blood of Jesus I pause, place my hand gently on her head, and pray a prayer of blessing for the child that she is carrying.  These unborn ones are part of God’s family in our place, too, and deserve the prayers and anticipation of the entire body just as they do from their immediate family.  And when we begin to celebrate them before they are born, we know that they are already a beloved part of our family when we finally do see them.

1 John 1:1-4

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete. (NIV)

If we try to define the Trinity from a structural point of view, we end up describing a skeleton without any of the vitality, breath, or even life.  That’s why the Athanasian Creed is so hard, sometimes, for us to grasp – it seems to present us with a structural God rather than a living God.  Not that structure is bad – as vertebrates we like that internal skeleton – but the structure does not tell the whole story.  The better term to describe the relationship between Father and Son and Holy Spirit is fellowship.  That’s going beyond structure to relationship, to friendship, to heart and hand and eye and ear and even love; to dancing together and working together and laughing and crying together; to enjoying one another’s company around a table long after the meal has ended.

And that’s what Jesus invites us into when He calls us to faith as people in His church – to fellowship, not just to membership.  “Membership” places us in a ledger; fellowship places us at the Table.  “Membership” proposes obligations; fellowship proposes offerings.  “Membership” defines roles; fellowship describes relationships.  Whether it’s “membership” in a Synod, a congregation, or a Circuit Pastors’ Conference, the purpose is administrative.  But “fellowship” is completely different – whether in a congregation, a Conference, or a Synod.  The fellowship that we have with one another is an icon of the fellowship within the Trinity.  Do you want to know what the interior life of the Trinity looks like?  Look at the fellowship to which Christ calls His believers.

The Church is not the structure, and we are not members of the Church.  The Church, the body of Christ and His Bride, is the icon of the Trinity and both are described best by the word “fellowship.”  And the way we relate to one another is best described by the word “fellowship.”  And even though that fellowship sometimes looks thin and sometimes looks strained and sometimes looks weakened, it is still what holds us together; it is still worth hanging on to; it is still worth fighting for.

I go an extra mile for someone who compels me because that’s what Christ commanded me to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship I don’t bother to measure the mile.  I lend my coat and my cloak to someone in need because that is the compassionate thing to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship there is no IOU, no due date, and no limit to what I will give him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let the fellowship we have with one another (not in general only, but you, the reader, in the fellowship you have with me personally) clearly and brightly reflect for each of us and for those around us the fellowship of the Trinity, so that both of us and everyone else may see the love of Jesus for us and for them.

God bless us everyone!

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