Jesus spoke challenging words to those who would follow him. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). The cross had only one purpose in the ancient world—to kill. For only one reason would people carry a cross: they were on their way to death. When Jesus invited people to take up their cross, he was inviting them to die. Yet the path of following Jesus did not end with his taking up the cross, for it is impossible to speak of the cross without speaking of the resurrection. To follow Jesus means following beyond the denial of self, beyond the cross, to the life that waits on the other side of the empty tomb. Holding on to life results in death; surrendering one’s life by following Jesus leads to life.
A number of authors have begun to suggest that the church in North America needs to die so that it can be reborn. This bold suggestion takes seriously the centrality of the resurrection for the Christian faith. The church must understand that its death is possible—is, in fact, inevitable. Only then can the church experience the amazing power of the resurrection.
Wise congregations develop habits that help them to integrate denying self, cross-bearing, and following Jesus into the essence of their identity. These congregations understand that dying to find new life is not a one-time event; rather, it is a way of being the church. Among the habits developed are wonder, remembering, and risk taking.
No matter how deep the faith, no matter how profound the trust in God, taking the step of dying—be that dying to one way of being the church or actually closing the doors—is a moment filled with fear and uncertainty. Resurrection is a surprise—a moment of unexpected joy as mourning is turned to dancing. From now on, the life the congregation lives is no longer its own, for the life it lives is the gracious gift of God. The congregation did nothing to earn this new life; it did nothing to call the new life into being. The raised-to-life congregation exudes a sense of wonder at what has happened to it. Leaders quietly say, “I need to pinch myself to find out if I am just dreaming.” Longtime church members shake their heads in disbelief, saying, “I never thought I would see the church alive again.” This amazement affects every aspect of the church’s life. Despair becomes hope, for within the congregation a spirit of anticipation prevails: “If God could raise the church to life again, what else might God do?” The wonder at what God has done creates gratitude. Recognizing their life together as a gift, the congregation moves away from an attitude of entitlement to one of thankfulness.
Wonder, gratitude, and humility are among the traits that grow in a congregation that has been raised from death to life. These traits renew every aspect of congregational life. Worship is changed as wonder and gratitude fill the church in its singing, praying, and listening for God’s voice. Decision making is changed as humility embeds itself in the heart of the congregation. The congregation that has died and has been raised to life again is changed; it is no longer the same.
Sadly, over time congregations sometimes forget that the life they are living is a gift. They begin to think that somehow they have brought this life into being by their own ability and hard work. Forgetting where the congregation’s life came from is a prescription for going through the process again. Remembering is central to congregations that have died and have been raised to life again. In remembering, these congregations rekindle the fires of wonder and gratitude, stoking the embers, so that the surprising gift of the congregation’s life burns bright in the heart of the congregation.
Congregations that have died and have been raised to new life are also called to remember the way things were before: to remember the despair and hopelessness, to remember the inability of human leaders to bring substantive change, to remember that nothing could stop the slide toward death. Although it may seem unnecessarily painful to remember the way things were before the new life came, it is only in remembering the death of the congregation that the new life finds a context. The move to call the Sunday before Easter “Passion Sunday” makes clear this requirement. The good news of Easter has real power only when it is seen against the background of the events of the Passion. In the same way, the new life the once-dead congregation is living makes sense only against the backdrop of the congregation’s reality prior to resurrection. Understanding the congregation’s earlier life is as important for those that have had to make radical changes in their corporate life without closing the doors as it is for those that have in fact closed their doors. In remembering, congregations affirm that the life they live is not their own, but rather is a surprising gift.
Congregations are often far too afraid to take risks in their corporate lives, fearing that their actions may jeopardize the church’s life. Leaders may be hesitant to change the style of worship for fear of upsetting people. Communities of faith may worry that by developing programs to reach people in need, they will be regarded as being too political. Clergy may choose not to speak clearly on issues, believing that forthright speech will alienate donors. Such fears hold congregations trapped, unable to move outside safe paths. Playing it safe leads, as Jesus noted, to losing one’s life.
The congregation that has died and has been raised to life knows there is something worse than dying, and that is not living. God does not call congregations to play it safe but rather to take risks. There is more at stake than survival. Responding to God’s call to serve a broken world, living out the love of God for “the least of these,” speaking prophetic truth are things that trump the desire to survive. All of them may bring the congregation into places where it may be called to risk its life.
Congregations that understand their life is not their own, that know God can and will bring new life to dead churches, are often prepared to take risks that threaten their life. The argument in favor of taking risks goes something like this: “If we take such-and-such an action, what is the worst thing that could happen to the congregation? It is true that it might die, but God is in the business of raising dead congregations to life again.” Even death, the greatest of all threats, should not be frightening to the church.
Congregations choosing to take risks rather than seeking their own survival are blessed. Such congregations are led by people who recognize that their obligation is not to maintain an institution but rather to follow the risky path of responding to God’s call. Risk taking joins remembering and wonder as the habits of congregations that have died and have been born again. These three habits function to keep alive the truth that congregations are called to die not only once but a number of times as they seek to live out the call of God in their corporate life.