One of the biggest mistakes congregations make is failing to distinguish these two. They are especially prone to it when things are tough, either financially or otherwise. Maintaining what we have (having a church) becomes more important than doing what Christ has called us to do (being THE Church). When the “bottom line” is flat or underwater, preservationist-mode sets in. The congregation starts saying No to more things and, subsequently, much of its ministry. Language like “We’ve never done it that way before” or “We can’t do that” or “We can’t afford to” becomes the great stifler of ministry.
Remember one thing: The devil loves nothing more than to stop a congregation’s ministry through fear and doubt. He loves it when a church says, “We can’t.” He knows–better than that congregation’s own members–that the church that thinks it can’t is really no Church at all.
What am I saying? When times are tough, you lean into your congregational ministry, not away from it. You take risks and anticipate rewards. You get some creative thinking going and you go for it. This coming Sunday’s Gospel text gives us all the reason in the world. Jesus says in John 12: “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” Christians walk while there is light. As long as death’s darkness is not upon us, we walk in the light of Christ. Forward. Onward. We don’t stop to gawk at the devil’s gaper’s blocks.
Too many churches have let “darkness overtake them.” There is not enough time left between now and Christ’s return for the Church to allow that. There are too many souls to be saved, too many whom the darkness has claimed. If we Christian’s won’t live in the Light, how will they ever know?
So how does a church move from the bad attitude of “having a church” to the more healthy life of “being THE Church?” Jesus gives another pointer on that in the same text from John 12. Just a little earlier, Jesus says: 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
My old seminary buddy, Rev. J. Bart Day, the LC-MS’ Director Of National Mission, talks about congregational revitalization as being part of the same process of dying and rising that is the life of the Christian. Daily we Christians, by virtue of our Baptisms, put to death the sinful nature, the Old Adam. Daily a New Man (Christ) comes forward to live and move and have His being in us.
The same is true for the local congregation, Pastor Day states. The old fears and doubts that hold back the congregation must die like the seed planted in the ground in order for a new congregation, a more healthy congregation, to spring to life. This, he maintains, is congregational revitalization. I wholeheartedly agree.
Now the interesting thing is this: This is how God made all things to work. Out of death comes life. Out of Jesus’ death comes resurrection and a hope that our bodies too will rise again. The local congregation that wants to travel from “having a church” to “being the Church” has to have a few little deaths (No, not certain people :)). It has to have its bad habits, its culture of safe and unprudent stewardship, its fears of seriously engaging its history and its future; it needs all of these put to death.
It needs to quit protecting the virus that kills by cutting it off from the things that cause it spread. Paul wrote in Eph. 5: Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. Did you read that last word? EXPOSE. The virus must be cut off. Denying its existence won’t get the job done. Expose it. Bring it out in the light. God’s Word will put it to death and bring forth new life.
The congregation that keeps on “having a church” will soon no longer have it. It will die a different way, pecked to death by a thousand ducks all saying “we can’t” (which is often a justification for the more accurate “we won’t”). Putting to death the sinful nature, however, means hope and life for the Christian and the congregation. It means renewed vigor and ministry.
After a long, cold, expensive winter which shredded many a northern congregation’s budget, it’s time with the spring coming to realize that we’re not dead yet. There’s time to do the right thing, lean into ministry and put to death the factors that hold us back. Churches that aim to survive probably won’t. It’s our time to shine, to live, to do the works of the light while there is light.