I wrote this piece at the request of Jason Locke, who has been hosting a series of posts on the problems/hopes related to decline among Churches of Christ on the west coast. A lot of thoughtful stuff there that you might want to check out. This is my contribution.
The good news is that you haven’t suddenly become incompetent. It would be tempting to think this because you’re doing everything you know to do, better than you’ve ever done it before, with diminishing impact. The way out cannot possibly be to work harder or to do better, because you’re already doing that. The truth is, the world in which you do these things has changed, and for most of us this means the world of “if you build it, they will come” is over. You’re not incompetent. The conditions have changed and the way you engage the new conditions will have to change as well.
The really good news is that this has never depended on your competence. It’s simply not good news if it depends on your performance. It might be a good thing that we’re out of strategic fixes or programs. This might allow us properly to diagnose our problem as spiritual, not strategic, theological, not technical. The frantic effort to preserve your life might just be the thing causing you to lose it. The way forward is through greater measures of trust (which is properly spiritual work), and not control. If you want to find your life, go ahead and lose it for the sake of the Kingdom.
So, the good news is that the way forward is through a deeper engagement with a living God. And if you’ve found yourself in the wilderness or in exile or nailed to a tree outside the city gates, God is not finished with you. In fact, this is where he does his best work. You might be right where you need to be.
The good news is that the gospel is bigger than we’ve imagined and addresses more human issues than just personal guilt and heaven and hell. People have rightly seen through the narrow interests of most churches, the almost self-serving hunger for heaven while the world around us is a living hell. They’re thirsting for something else, some adventure in life that brings meaning and hope and that makes a real difference. What they want sounds an awful lot like the Kingdom of God.
The good news is that God has given his people everything they need for participating in his promised and preferred future. This is not typically how we think about church. Instead of thinking of the church as a collection of the gifts that God has actually given his people, we think of church in the abstract. That you start with an idea of what church is or must be instead of starting with what you’ve actually been given.
The good news, as G. K. Chesterton memorably put it, is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it has seldom been tried. Or as Craig Van Gelder says, in North America we have substituted worship for Christianity. Christianity as a life, as a radical way of being together and for the world, has had little room in our imagination about “church.” New Christian communities are emerging that are realizing that if you practice simplicity and share what you have, that you can serve something other than your career or security or whatever else it is that is keeping you from living a sane life.
The bad news in all of this is that we really don’t believe that the things listed above constitute good news—that we really can’t trust these things to give us a different future. That somehow our future lies in different music or better packaging or a more effective pulpit guy. And these things might give us a reprieve, something better than what we have now, but they also might be settling for less than we could have—an adventure in finding the living God.
I am reminded of Jesus’ opening message in the gospel of Mark. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near: repent and believe the good news.” It’s the last phrase that always strikes me. That somehow repentance and believing the good news go hand in hand. It’s not always easy to believe that the story of a crucified Messiah is the good news of God’s coming kingdom. We often don’t live as it that’s the truth of things. The exhortation to believe the good news requires repentance, the desire to head in a different direction and to learn a new way of relating to the world.
I am not oblivious to our trouble. Nor would I hurl at our trouble empty platitudes. This deserves the best, most practical intervention we have available to us. But, I am convinced that amidst all the trouble, we have plenty of good news. Repent and believe the good news.