24 Apr The Church of the Future
Before his death, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the central symbol of God’s presence didn’t seem to unnerve Jesus. Obviously, Jesus did not equate religious structures and symbols with God. The death of religious structures and institutions was not a defeat of the movements of God among us. In fact, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple before he died suggests that Jesus saw religious structures as potentially working to obscure the light of God in our lives.
As someone whose experience of God was nurtured by the church as a young boy, and someone who has given his adult life to leadership in the church, the demise of the church is distressing. I grieve its inability to bring God to life in human hearts and souls. But, if the destruction of the temple was not an impediment to the work of God in human hearts then, perhaps, the decline of the church today is simply a crisis of human structures and not a crisis of the Spirit.
Of course, after predicting the destruction of the temple, Jesus experienced his own destruction and death. Jesus not only did not grasp after the survival of the religious institution, but he also did not grasp after his own survival. He let go of both institution and self in a final and complete giving of himself and his dreams and concerns to God. The ultimate gift that Jesus left the world was this example of self-emptying and giving away. It is the last example we think to emulate, because it runs counter to everything that we think we know about how to live in the world. And yet, if we are concerned to keep a vital witness to the God revealed to us in Christ alive, shouldn’t our response to the decline of the church in our time be more informed by Jesus’ example of letting go than by our impulses to hang on and to preserve? If the Jesus path is our guide, then our pattern in life is to be more one of emptying than of grasping, even when we are pondering how to respond to the decline of the church.
At a recent church board meeting, our leadership was engaged in this reflection about our church. Like many congregations, ours is looking in the rear-view mirror at our best days, as defined by numbers. Conversation arose about another local congregation which is booming. Can we imitate them? It’s a natural question to ask. The assumption revealed in the question is that numerical success is our bottom line. The strategy for success is whatever it takes.
As we engaged in this conversation, however, I was recently returned from a retreat at the Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts, led by Cynthia Bourgeault. The week had been filled with silence and the emptying movements of the patterns of worship at the abbey. It is striking how unselfconscious and non-performance oriented their worship is. It’s not that the monks don’t work at mindful chanting of the Psalms or at thoughtful reading and interpretation of Scripture. They aspire to bring their best effort to these tasks. But the focus is clearly not on themselves or on those who choose to come to their worship. It is on the intention of emptying the self of self, so that there may be room for God to move in profound and life-giving ways. It seemed that all of the attention during worship was given over to a deep letting go. In the collective emptiness in the room, an unmistakable presence seemed to fill us. There was an awe in the emptiness which makes all self-referential and entertainment concerns of so much of our contemporary worship pale by comparison.
Thinking about the church’s precarious future, I find it easy to respond as Peter did when Jesus first predicted his own death. Out of love, Peter said no to Jesus’ death. But Peter’s love was limited in its expanse. It was a love tied to and constrained by self. It was a love unable to grasp the true nature and expanse of God’s love which is always giving itself away. It is a love which defends against death, and thereby, is unable, truly, to taste of and give itself to life.
In our consumer-oriented culture, talk about emptying the self of self and letting go to the point of death, does not get much of a hearing. Of course, such talk did not get much of a hearing in Jesus’ day either. The path is just too much for the human psyche to bear. Yet, I am convinced that the future of the church lies in this direction. I have tasted of the preciousness of the quality of life given to those who travel this course. It bears the presence of Christ. And I suppose that it was this Christ-charged presence which enabled those earliest Christ followers to overcome their natural instincts for self-preservation and to take the plunge of going with Christ into the abyss of his emptying path. Nothing else comes close to bringing the soul to life as this path of deep letting go of self does. The cost of deeper communion with God is little to pay for such riches. If the church of the future knows of these riches and of a way to help others receive them, then it will have a work of great beauty to offer our world.