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Does the church deserve to die

 

For centuries the Church has battled to preserve its existence from threats to its dogma, creeds and influence. Those who dared to challenge its orthodoxy were sometimes treated with “extreme unction”. Ecclesiastical trials were often followed by burnings at the stake.

The Inquisitions of the Middle Ages routinely tortured innocents in hopes of stretching out confessions. Critics of the Church would not be far from wrong in suggesting that for much of its history, its primary purpose has been to defend itself against attacks, real and imaginary.

Today we are thankfully far removed from the racks of the Inquisition and the flames of the pyre. But old habits die hard. The temptation to think that the Church is under attack and to do whatever necessary to survive continues to drive many Church programs and decisions.

If the American Church is under attack, however, it is not from non-believers, “humanists” or heretics. The Church’s ultimate nemesis in the 21st century is cultural indifference. A larger and larger percentage of Americans simply find the Church irrelevant. Membership has been in decline for over 50 years. Most mainline denominations are mere shadows of their former selves.

So much so that many Church leaders fear for the Church’s survival.  Like its paranoid forebears, many modern Churches have adapted self-preservation as their primary goal. Strategies for preventing further decline include programs to reverse loses and ferment church growth. If we can increase membership rolls and budgets, the thinking goes, we can deceive ourselves and the rest of America into thinking that we are still influential and “successful”.

The success or failure of American churches is determined, like most everything else in America, by the metric of size: How many persons sit in its pews on Sunday? How big is its budget? How many of the rich and powerful can its pastor count as friends? The bigger the better.

What the American Church has failed to remember is that the Church was never meant to be big and influential like McDonald’s or Citibank. The metaphors Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God are small and insignificant: mustard seeds, leaven, coins. The American Church forgot that it was originally called into existence by its God to love and minister to the Least, rather than emulate Amazon and Microsoft. “More” is not a spiritual path for Christians.

The late Civil Rights icon John Lewis understood the civil rights movement’s mission as causing “good trouble”. I think that accurately describes the mission of the Church as well. Jesus, like Lewis, was a trouble-maker. He challenged the Jewish orthodoxies of his time. He cured the sick, fed the hungry, and raised the dead. When he saw the crowds attending him, he had compassion on them and healed them. And for his efforts he was seen by both the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor as a threat to their power and influence. They responded by killing him.

Those who show compassion for those inhabiting the bottom rungs of society threaten to upset the status quo upon which the rich and powerful depend.  So they must be resisted to the point of death if necessary.

It astounds me, therefore, when the Church expresses dismay that those in power sometimes object to its efforts to ease the yoke of those suffering under the weight of poverty and injustice. The Church should not be surprised to be treated like its Founder when it stands with and advocates for Afro-American men, women and children treated with injustice and disrespect by their nation. Or sits with Lewis on a bus during the Freedom Rides. Or crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma with Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Siding with the powerless against the powerful is never without risk. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr, or John Lewis. Many paid with their lives.

And so might the Church. If the Church is to be the hands and feet and eyes and voice of its Savior, it must join prophets like John Lewis and challenge the powerful and wealthy to cease from injustice and violence. And if they refuse, the Church should not be surprised to be persecuted by them. If taking an unpopular stand with the poor and needy means losing more members, then so be it.

The 21st century American Church has a choice: to be seen as a failure in the eyes of its culture or in the eyes of its God. If the former, it deserves to die. For the most important issue facing the American Church is not whether it will survive, but whether it DESERVES to survive.

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