Mary and Joseph both laid down their old lives in order to embrace new life in Jesus. The themes of Christmas and Easter hold together. Here is a review I wrote of a book entitled In Dying We Are Born, which calls the church to lay down its life in order to receive the gift of the resurrection. Yes, all Christians and all churches are called to die, and then we will be born anew by the power of God.
In Dying We Are Born The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations By Peter Bush The Alban Institute, 2008. Pb. 138 pp. $17.00.
“No, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter cried when Jesus declared that the way to life led through death. Not said aloud but surely echoing in every disciple’s heart was this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!” Congregations and denominations in North America certainly don’t want it to happen to us. As we struggle with decline we want someone to tell us what to do so that we won’t die.
That person is not Peter Bush. He calls the church to stop focusing on explanations, stop looking for people to blame, stop putting our faith in technical solutions, and above all, stop trying to save the church from dying.
Instead, we need to start depending on the God of the resurrection to raise the church to new life in God’s own way and in God’s own time. The future of the church lies in dying and rising with Christ. Every church is called to die. There are no exceptions. Death means dying to self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus. We must be ready to lay everything down, even models of church and ways of doing ministry that we have cherished. For example, Bush believes that the assumption that there always should be paid full-time clergy in every local church is one that must die.
Bush presents a succinct review of various models for congregational renewal. Generally they take one of two approaches: build on what you’ve got (e.g. Kennon Callahan and Christian Schwarz), or tear down and start again (e.g. Alice Mann and Easum & Bandy). Bush finds much that is helpful in these models, particularly where they recognize that God is the one who transforms lives and renews the church. He critiques them where they focus too much on human effort and human planning processes.
Drawing on the whole range of scripture, Bush reintroduces us to the God of the resurrection, who alone breathes life into the church. He points to this God in action in the Book of Judges, as well as in Ezekiel 37 and in the Easter texts we expect to wrestle with in any discussion of resurrection. Bush also shows this God in action in stories of contemporary congregations that have been raised to new life. He offers much inspiring material for preaching and teaching.
Leaders journeying with the church through death to resurrection must ourselves be willing to die and rise with Christ. We must die to our own plans and to our desire to be right. With a prayerful, humble spirit, we are called to refocus the church on God’s story, help the church to grieve what is lost, articulate the promise of the resurrection, and invite the church to trust God. Leaders guide the church to put God’s will for the church first, trust God’s ways, and stand in awe of the One who brings life out of death.
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This means that every disciple, every congregation, every judicatory, every affinity group and every denomination must die. And then God will raise us to new life.
(This review is published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook. You can view an article adapted from this book at the Alban Institute’s website, and read the book’s prologue there as well.)