Recently I was able to take my first trip to Palestine and Israel. Touring the holy places, now commemorated by monuments and big, old churches, it is easy to forget that in the time of Jesus this land was the nasty backwater of the Roman Empire, and that Jesus associates with the dregs of this society. He is present among the most broken people in the most broken place.
When he enters Jerusalem, the first thing he does is go to the one place that worked, the only international tourist attraction in Judea: the spectacular, gleaming Temple. Rather than praise its success and glory, he predicts its destruction, and puts a down-payment on that wreckage by disrupting its business and nearly causing a riot. The Temple wasn’t broken, far from it; but Jesus’ approach is to break it.
The book, Rebel Music, begins with the author meeting some of the young people who now come from all over the world to absorb the vibe of the place where hip-hop was born: the South Bronx. I remember when the South Bronx was dismissed as the prime example of burned-out, crime-ridden, cataclysmic, unmitigated urban failure. It was in those years, the late-1970’s, that young, poor people began fooling around with turntables and rhyming, rhythmic, spoken poetry. Hip-hop is now the lingua franca of young people all over the planet.
Real growth, and an authentic future, comes in and through the broken places of this world. Often, it is only after some kind of shock or disruption, even total collapse, that new things can emerge into a system. Sometimes I am more worried when things are going well. Not because I am expecting catastrophe to strike, but because I am not. And nothing good is going to happen until some kind of disaster clears the landscape of our grandiose, successful projects.
Maybe it is the church that is in decline, losing members, poor, struggling, and by all accounts broken, that actually has the most promise and potential as far as real discipleship is concerned. The church that has nothing-to-lose and nowhere-to- go-but-up may be perfectly positioned to take the necessary risks, and step up and show some real trust in God. That’s the church more likely to be open to the new things the Spirit is doing, and to create innovative, edgy, and out-of-the-box ministries.
But they have to take the risks. As the vast majority have found and are finding, such broken churches are not in a position to resuscitate the old, familiar, comfortable, and “successful” ecclesiastical model. If they keep trying to do that, that is, to “fix” the church, and restore it to some fantasy or rosy memory, it will fail.
Indeed, the choice for many churches is either fail and then die, or die now… and start living! A declining church has to die in the sense of let go of its old identity and narrative, its former dreams and hopes based on popular models of success. There is no going backward; there is only going through… and emerging on the other side. It has to give up any notion of being restored to the glory and status of a conventional, traditional church. In many cases this means divesting itself of the One Big Thing that keeps the church nailed down to that view of itself: the building.
A baby bird is not going to get out of her shell without breaking it. If she is under the impression that she can have new life while remaining in the old shell, she is mistaken. We have a lot of “shells” constricting us these days. Not just our expensive buildings, but our doctrines, practices, habits, traditions, and worldviews are walling us in and apart from a broken world. New wine bursts tired, old wineskins, says Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t quite write off successful people and institutions, but he knows it is unwise to invest too much of his time on them. He is far more interested in the unsuccessful people, the broken, the losers and failures, the rejects, and those branded as sinners.
Jesus knows what it takes to “get ahead.” He knows what it means to be “successful.” And he knows that those who have taken this path have necessarily had to compromise, if not completely reject, their trust in God. They have had to adopt beliefs and practices of their economic and social overlords which are frequently completely at a variance with God’s will.
I wonder about the degree of compromise and accommodation that is normally necessary for a church to thrive in this society. I fear that many churches that are successful according to the standards and values of our culture have achieved that success by, well, selling out. They present a rendition of the good news that is domesticated and watered-down, drained of all offense and discomfort, serving only to bless, affirm, and even sanctify a fundamentally corrupt order.
A church like this, that looks like 1956 – that idealized (and idolized) era when churches were full of well-dressed, prosperous, suburban, white people in tidy and intact nuclear families – may very well carry with it all the other qualities of that age too. In other words, it may tolerate segregation, ignore lynchings, and excuse the violence of the establishment, like the police. It may be soaked in blind, self-righteous patriotism and a corrosive glorification of war. It may rationalize and deny economic injustices and inequalities, while enthusiastically advocating the interests of business and the wealthy. It may care nothing about creation, and actively participate in its destruction and degradation. It may conveniently reduce discipleship to mere verbal assent to some arbitrary cognitive propositions. It may imagine that the Kingdom of God is where you go when you die if you have led a “moral” life, usually reduced to barely more than a few sexual categories. It may think “mission” is defined as bringing the “American Way of Life” to people in Africa. It may assume that colonialism is part of this and therefore a good thing. And so on. That’s all the dark side of the church of 1956. Is that really what we want to aspire to?
This kind of church, one that by our human judgment is not broken but rich, influential, exemplary, and successful, may need to be broken. Maybe God is working on that right now. How many formerly big and glorious churches are now scrounging around the bottom of their endowments to pay the heating-oil bill?
How many churches are looking at their broken situation and concluding that because they can’t live up to that 1956 vision and memory, they have no future, and have no choice but to close? The tragedy is that if they could get that fantasy of what-a-church-is-supposed-to-be out of their heads, they may find themselves perfectly positioned to move into God’s future. The tragedy is that nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus talk about establishing churches that are successful according to the usual, quantitative measurements: bricks, butts, and bucks (buildings, attendance, and money). The tragedy is that they never looked around to see the brokenness in their own communities, to which Jesus sends them with a mission of service and redemption.
How does a church that “ain’t broke” get broken? It starts following Jesus. The more a gathering of disciples seriously follows Jesus, the more it will lose all the trappings of success. And – listen – the more a congregation follows Jesus, the more members it will lose, at least for a while. The more we imitate and live like Jesus – in terms of simplicity, gentleness, healing, and blessing… and explicitly in terms of identification with and empowerment of the poor, outcast, disenfranchised, losers, needy, unpopular, sick, imprisoned, and bereft – the more it will be judged and dismissed as he was: a failure.
But as he says, it is the broken and the failures who are the blessed by God. It is these “stones rejected by the builders” who become the foundation of his church and bear it into the future. Jesus’ message and ministry, the mission we are given to carry forward, is profoundly revolutionary and disruptive… and also hopeful. For it is about the Holy Spirit knitting together a community of love that expresses and embodies the new life of resurrection. The point is not breaking the pavement, but the sprouts of new life that are allowed to emerge in the cracks.