Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Church is Dying!

Too many youth ministry books I open lately are written out of anxiety over the apparent decline of the Church. These books (and articles too) are worried about survival. Ministry becomes a sort of means to an end... a solution to a problem. And typically, their solution is keeping at least one of two things in the church -- kids and money.

'The Church is gonna die if we don't find a way to keep kids in it! We're running out of money, how can we get money back in the church!'

But I am just not convinced that anxiety is the best reason to do ministry. In fact, it may be impossible to do ministry out of anxiety. It may be that whatever you're doing out of anxiety, it's just not ministry. Ministry is definitively not a practice done by necessity. It is, since it is fundamentally about participation in God's action, something done in freedom -- freedom from anxiety, freedom for the worship of God. In this way, ministry is no different from any other spiritual practice (yes, I am suggesting that ministry is a spiritual practice). We don't pray because we must, or else. We pray because we are invited. J├╝rgen Moltmann writes, "we do not pray freely if need has taught us to pray... we pray because it is the privilege of the liberated to talk with God" (Theology of Play, 66). Indeed, Moltmann is a helpful resource for the thinking of a church that finds itself in decline and feels the pressure to save itself.

Moltmann refuses to allow us to commodify faith with the questions of its usefulness. He recognizes the complicated relationship that theology has with need, but reminds us that theology (and ministry and spirituality) is not born of need. He writes,
It is one thing to discover the need which makes talking about God necessary; the freedom to talk about God in that situation is quite another matter. This freedom is being offered by God alone. Theology therefore is both necessary and unnecessary. It has relevancy for men in the realms of need and necessity. Yet it springs from man’s wonder at the story of Christ and from his rejoicing in the uncaused grace of God of which it speaks. In that wonder the realm of liberty is already entering the realm of need and necessity and bursting its chains. (Theology of Play, 27). 
In other words, authors who see ministry as necessary for solving a problem, meeting a need in the church, or even saving the church from annihilation may have a point... but (and this is a big but) ministry is not done out of need, rather, "...it springs from [humanity's] wonder." It is a product of God and God alone, and that makes it a product of love and freedom, not expediency and preparation.

Thus, even if ministry does solve a problem, we do not need to value it only for its productivity or efficiency with time. We are free to see it as a waste of time. As Kenda Creasy Dean has said, "those who waste their lives for Jesus, who squander their talent on the church, who throw away their lives in ministry -- in youth ministry, for goodness' sake -- will gain it. Following Jesus is a waste. The Bible tells us so" (Almost Christian, 87).

And actually, as it turns out, these anxious authors and practitioners may not have a point at all. Even if talking about God meets some need in some way, I don't know for sure that it meets the need we want it to meet. The need we're trying to meet when we minister out of anxiety over the decline of the church is the need that comes from death. This is, in fact, a problem that cannot be solved. It is a problem that must be endured. We cannot save the church from death. The church will die. The church is only human.

As Dr. Richard Osmer put it yesterday in a seminar conversation on practical theology, "every church is terminal."

There is no church that will not one day close its doors. When we talk about dying churches, we should remember that we're really talking about every church... even the ones that are currently very much alive. This is only to say that the church is temporary and must be thought as such. If we're interested in self preservation, then we're building our house on the sand. What we should be interested in, and what theology should teach us, is the love and worship of God. This is all a dying church can actually hope to do. It cannot hope to save itself by widening its nets, by getting more butts in the pews, or by filling the offering plate (or starting a lucrative business). But the dying Church, the one we all find ourselves in, can freely worship the crucified God and find its future in Jesus Christ.

That is the motivation for ministry! Not a hope which only breeds anxiety -- an optimistic "hope" to preserve that which is here and nurture the potentiality of the present -- but a hope which springs from God's action and gives us new (and liberated) eyes for the present and eyes for the future. We are liberated to trust God for the outcomes. As Moltmann writes, "The images for the coming new world do not come from the world of struggle and victory, of work and achievement, of law and its enforcement, but from the world of primal childhood trust" (Theology of Play, 35).

So I am not interested in a book or an approach to ministry birthed only from anxiety over the decline of the church. I am not interested in whether or not I can save the church from death by employing the right strategy. What I am interested in is worship as ministry, ministry as worship. I am interested in participating in what God is doing in the world whether or not it will ensure my survival. Indeed, I am interested in a ministry that is willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

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