I’ll never forget when I was in high school and my youth minister came to me and said, “Brad, I have a topic for our Youth Retreat and wanted to run it by you. I thought it might be interesting to talk about Death. Do you think that’s too morbid?”
I quipped right back at him, “Well, I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of morbid.” At the time I was really proud of my wit, but now… well actually, I still think it was pretty clever.
My pastorally-minded youth minister knew two things: Death makes all of us uncomfortable, but it is worth talking about.
I’m at the 2015 General Assembly of my church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and I’ve been thinking about that quick conversation I had 17 years ago. It reminds me of the two things I love most about gatherings like this, as awkward and frustrating as they can be:
- I get to see so many of the people that have shaped my spiritual life (like my old youth minister!)
- We as a people are forced to have conversations that are difficult but ultimately so worthwhile.
Tonight we received a deep Word in worship. We received it as the youth of Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis performed a liturgical dance over the words from Isaiah 40 and a spoken word performance about facing our darkness so that we can truly soar on wings like eagles.
We also received this Word in the words of Rev. Amy Butler, Senior Minister of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan. Of all the words she spoke, these startled me the most, as she shared how the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston affected the words she wanted to share:
“Almost exactly a month ago the big fear was the dying church. Then we saw nine people die in church.”
Death. It is everywhere. We don’t want to but we need to talk about it.
As I’ve sat through workshops and worship and business meetings and a hundred reunions in the halls of the Columbus Convention Center, death has been all over everything for me.
You have to understand, to be a minister under 40 means that we have been groomed and trained and ordained and sent off into a world where the church has been dying for over 30 years. And I don’t think I’m alone in just being so weary of that conversation. I get it. I’ve seen the stats. And yes, I’ve got plenty of old high school friends whose lack of interest in the institutional church backs all that data up. But when I roam the halls of General Assembly and see so much life, I just want to say, “Yes, the church we’ve known is dying, but who cares?”
And that is the Word I’m receiving this week. I’m starting to hear the conversation beyond “the church is dying.” And, more importantly, I’m starting to see a church beyond the one that is dying.
The question has never been “will the church die?” The church — the healthy church, the 2,000+ year old movement that started with an execution — has been dying all along.
The question we need to be asking is “which church is dying? and what church is being born?”
Amy Butler’s words arrested me because I realized that if we can witness to a world stuck on Good Friday and say, “Yes, this death and pain are real, and no, I don’t have all the answers, but if we can just hold on for a few more days and stand face to face with the darkest hour of death, I know God is working on something great. God is cooking up new life.” …
If the church that is dying is the one where we leave certain people behind because they don’t look like us or think like us….
If the church that is dying is the one where we spend more energy on maintaining our place in the community instead of actually getting to understand the needs of our community…
If the church that is dying is the one that is afraid of who will leave if we speak out for those who don’t have a voice…
Well, I don’t really care if that church is dying. Because the church that is being born will be the church of hope against all odds, the church of resurrection, the church of Jesus Christ.