34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. --Mark 8:34-35
It is quite hard to believe that this July, I will be celebrating 15 years of ordained ministry. Lots has changed in that 15 years.
One thing that hasn't is a repeated mantra that I have heard over and over and over again at conferences, in sermons, and read in books:
The Church must change, or it will die!!!
Now, for the record, I once believed this. I once believed it down to my very core. I believed that the Church must always be reforming--and to an extent, it must always re-form. But re-forming does not mean changing. It does not mean examining our core beliefs and understanding and changing them to fit a culture or a context which has trouble understanding those beliefs and concepts. There is a reason there is such a thing as apologetics!!!
Reforming, at least in the Church, is a process of going backward to go forward. It is a process of returning to the basics of the Christian faith which propelled it forward in the ancient world. It is a process of returning to the bedrock foundation of the Christian faith: we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus who lived the life we should live and died the death we deserved to reconcile us unto God.
When this core statement, the Gospel, grasps the heart and the heart grasps it changes you to your very core and being. For many years, I had heard the Gospel, but I never understood it. I figured Christianity was best served by focusing on the Law--the doing; particularly loving God and loving one's neighbor. How simple was that? It should be relatively easy for everyone to agree upon that? Right?
But it isn't. Not in the least. For loving God and loving the neighbor, while we can agree on the basics, is not easily fleshed out. It is not easily applied, and it fails to address what is really wrong with the human heart.
For while I might desire to love God and love my neighbor, more oftentimes than not, my heart centers on myself. I only love God and love my neighbor in so far as they help me accomplish my goals and my desires. Unless my heart is deeply affected or moved by the plight of another, I remain content to keep my business as usual approach to life. And, here is the kicker, oftentimes I engage in loving God and loving my neighbor because "it makes me feel good." It becomes all about me.
Most of the time, when we examine ourselves, it indeed becomes all about us. It becomes all about what we want and we desire. It becomes about how something makes me feel or about how something works to my advantage.
Institutions are no different. They may begin with all sorts of lofty goals and ideals. They may begin with an outward focus, but before long institutional preservation becomes the order of the day. This is especially true of the Church. We spend a lot of time, effort and energy trying to get people to fall in love with the Church--of whatever denomination we are a part; of whatever congregation we are a part. And if things start going south, we proclaim: the Church must change or die! What is at the heart of this statement? Self-preservation.
"For those who want to save their life..."
Yes, Jesus' teaching applies to the Church as well. If we are interested in saving ourselves; if we are interested in preserving our institutions; if we are changing so that we don't die, we will do exactly that. We will die. A slow and painful death.
But there is a remedy.
"Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Die now. Die to self. Die to what we want and what we think will save us. Quit trying to focus on making people fall in love with us, and work to get people to fall in love with Jesus and His saving action. Reform. Return to the Gospel and let it change the hearts and minds of those who hear it proclaimed.
The Church doesn't need to change.
It needs to die.