The Church is burning down. It is a slow, smoldering burn to be sure, but it is burning down nonetheless. As it burns, those who belong have busied themselves painting over the soot stained walls, putting a new finish over the already depleted structure, in hopes that they will somehow protect the outdated construction that has strayed so far from the Architect’s plan.
As the average attendance and membership of mainline protestant churches continue to slowly spiral down, we try to repaint the walls with new contemporary murals, dress up the sanctuary with artistic liturgical dressings and blast out slightly more modern music during the anthem and offertory. The hierarchical structure of the Church (both formal and informal) that sets up power dynamics which are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus? We leave them alone. The programs, groups and events of the church (from Sunday School to various long established women’s or men’s groups) that have been struggling, in some cases, for decades? We don’t dare change them. The hypocritical judgment of anyone who isn’t either one of us or like us? We simply ignore the log in our own eye.
We, those who have been part of the leadership of the Church, have been redecorating rather than putting out the fire. As we have done so, we have been fanning the flame. We should have been putting an end to the smoldering mess it has become and began renovating, restructuring and repurposing. We should be revisioning our future but instead we are busy decoupaging our church photo albums, not only remembering the “good old days” but insisting that we recreate the still lives we have created in our heads as way to fix the here and now.
The worst part is, we are so frightened of a new future (and the change needed to achieve it) that we continue to repeat this behavior over and over again receiving the same results every time (which is to say, receiving little to no results) and somehow, each time, we think that this time it will be different. We completely fail to realize that our system is perfectly designed to achieve the results we have – a slowly dying church. Burn baby, burn.
The good news is that no matter what happens, the Church will live. We can let it burn all the way down to the ground as we stand by watching while we embrace the memories in our photo album and the Church will go on – just without us.
It turns out that the God of the Hebrews is prone to doing “a new thing.” God doesn’t even flinch at the mention of death. As we learn in the New Testament, God is all about life in spite of death.
We can all choose to play it safe, hold on to what we know, repeat our behavior and our results while we dress them up in a fresh coat of paint, but what the church needs now is a renovating, restructuring and repurposing. We need to get back to the earliest blueprints and be willing to tear out anything that isn’t expressly designed by the original Architect. We have to stop measuring the new design with yardsticks of our comfort and start measuring them with tape measures delineated with markings of love, grace, forgiveness and acceptance.
It will take real faith, so I doubt many church will, as Dr. King put it, take the first step without seeing the whole staircase.
But the Church is burning down, smoldering in its own self-focused care, fearfully protecting the very internal structures that it is allowing to burn down by protecting them. Ironic, isn’t it? Worse yet, somewhere deep inside, we think we are protecting ourselves and those who’ve gathered around us in the Church, but we are actually hurting ourselves and them. We are not only denying our need for real faith, but we are denying our opportunity to live into the Great Commission as we continually support and defend systems and practices that have proven what results we should expect of them and have caused those on the outside to look at us and rightful call us hypocritical.
The Church is burning down. It is time for real faith. It is time for real change. It is time to trust the Architect. If we don’t the Church will die. It will rise again, but without us. I, for one, want to be a part of the body of Christ rather than apart from it. I am willing to put my trust in God and to step out on faith, no matter what that means Church looks like, no matter what systems, hierarchies, programs, groups and events must be sacrificed at the alter. Are you?