As is common, certain articles go viral – especially related to the church. The question is why? Right now, there is an article circulating through social media written by a pastor who not only left his call, but also the pastorate. You can read the article here.
Many pastors have read this article and there are two common themes that I have seen in the responses. 1. The biggest response has been for pastors to say – “yup, that’s so true.” 2. The second response is typically smaller in volume and centers around what might be called social justice considerations, for lack of a better way of describing it.
I found the article to be interesting, and part of a larger theme that I think we often miss, unless we see integrative so much of life really is.
So, let me present a third-way response. It can summed up with the question – What if God is doing something new?
You see, throughout Scripture, the theme of God doing something new is pretty common. One example if Isaiah 43. It’s a passage of scripture that has the prophet Isaiah speaking words of hope to people who are in exile – people who are lost, hopeless, and see no future. A common English translation says it this way:
“I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19, NRSV)
This isn’t just an Old Testament thing either. Revelation 21:5 is translated as: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (NRSV)
This doesn’t just apply to large abstract things, but to people too. Paul wrote the following to the church in Corinth: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV)
Making things new is an important theme of Scripture. I think it can be argued that the very idea of resurrection is equivalent to making things new.
And one of the major themes that the church is called to proclaim is life, death, and resurrection. And you can’t get to resurrection until you go through death. And death sucks and is painful. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about physical death or using death in a metaphorical way in which ideas, beliefs, or other things “die.” But what makes this good news is that death is not the end of the story. Because death doesn’t get the final say. God does. That’s what resurrection is about. Death is ultimately about us not being in control. Resurrection proclaims to us loudly that it is God who is, and that God does what God wants in a way that God wants to do, and it doesn’t matter if we understand it, know it, or like it. We, like Mary in John’s recounting of the resurrection, may not even recognize resurrection. That doesn’t matter, because we aren’t in charge or control of it.
And this gets at the heart of the article, the pastors who are recognizing what is being talked about, and even the critique about what is brought up in the article.
And so, my third way is really about the question – what if God is up to something new with the church? This wouldn’t be the first time. God was up to something new with the children of Israel when they were in bondage in Egypt. God was up to something new when they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. God was up to something new when Assyria destroyed the northing kingdom. God was up to something new when Israel was exiled to Babylon. God was up to something new when that exile ended. God was up to something new when Jesus walked the earth among us. God was up to something new when the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost. God was up to something new when Jesus knocked Saul to the ground and changed the direction of his life. God was up to something new when the disciples were sent out to the ends of the earth to proclaim good news. God was up to something new many more times since Scripture was written. What if God is up to something new now with God’s church?
And that’s the key to this. It’s not our church. We don’t own it. We don’t control it. We don’t get to make it into our image and likeness. It is Christ’s church with a mission from Christ. What if Jesus is up to something new with his church? Would it matter if Jesus didn’t tell us specifically what that is? Why do we think we have a right to know?
This leads to a whole host of questions for us to reflect on.
What if instead of being fearful and upset about the consistent, decades-long decline and demise of the institutional church as we have known in through most of the last century, God is up to something new?
What if it doesn’t matter how hard we try to stop this decline because we are making some bad assumptions about what the church is supposed to look at, how it operates, and how it functions?
What if we admitted that we really have no clue as to what to do, and we just stopped trying to reverse course, or stop the decline, or tried this or that approach?
What if we are asking the wrong questions, have the wrong focus, and have made assumptions about what the church is supposed to be about that no longer work?
What if church not about what we are doing, or trying, or what we supposedly know?
What if we are approaching it all wrong? And what if right and wrong isn’t even what church is supposed to be about because that misses the mark?
What if this is supposed to be a time of exile for the church? Or a time of wandering in the wilderness? Why are we assuming otherwise? Do we think we deserve to be somewhere? Do we assume that we are? What does that say about us?
What if this is a time of God’s pruning of the church? Pruning is the idea of cutting away, sometimes in ways that seem to kill the plant, but really it is about cutting away the dead and the branches that are a drain on life-giving resources for the plant.
What if God doesn’t want us to recreate the church of the past because God has never been about the best days are in the past, which becomes an idol that we humans have a tendency to worship? God never called the church to go back at any other time in history – to recreate something that used to exist. There has always been a push forward.
What if God is shedding what we know because we attempted to make the church in our own image and worshipped that thing we created, rather than God?
What if God is up to something new? Something unknown? Something out of our control? And a way for it to happen is for the institutional church to go through a sort of death, so that resurrection of the church can happen. Resurrection that will make something new.
What if something, or many things, in our churches need to die – ideas about the church, our assumptions, our expectations, our wants and desires, our systems, our beliefs, our structures, our desire for the predictable and comfortable and known, and more.
What if God is doing a new thing? Do we not perceive it? Or are we afraid that God is reclaiming God’s church and we don’t like it?
What if God is doing something new? Do we doubt that what God is up to will be so much better than what we currently have?
God is up to something new…