The Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, someone I admire immensely, has suggested that Presbyterians need to cut the “death talk.” By that I think he means the negative predictions of the imminent demise of the PCUSA. When we talk like this, I suspect what we mean by “death” is a comprehensive collapse into permanent non-existence. Death here means extinction or annihilation.
But I wonder if by insisting on understanding death in this way, we haven’t bought into the secular, materialistic, reductionistic way Modern America thinks. After all, having lost a sense that there is anything transcending this measurable, quantifiable world, we are consequently a chronically death-fearing, death-denying, and death-avoiding culture. Has this small-minded paranoia entered the minds of Presbyterians?
Presbyterians — like other orthodox Christians — are not supposed to understand death in this shallow way. Our faith tells us, first of all, that in the economy of God nothing is ever lost. This which means that even if the PCUSA ceases to exist as an institution, the mission of God on Earth continues in other ways. How many of our PCUSA churches have closed… only to reopen to house congregations of other Christian denominations? Our demise will be sad for us; but God’s mission will continue.
Even more importantly, we confess that death is not an absolute termination, but really the pathway to transformation and new life. Jesus says a lot of things like "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Then he goes to the cross and dies… and is resurrected three days later. The apostle Paul talks about resurrection in terms of a transformation that involves some kind of death (1 Corinthians 15:35-57; 2 Corinthians 4:4-14). The ritual of baptism illustrates this movement through death to new life (Romans 6:3-23; Colossians 2:12). Dietrich Bonhoeffer said "When Jesus calls someone he bids them come and die." Above the entrance to one of the monasteries on Mt. Athos, there is inscribed the motto: “If you die before you die then you won't die when you die.” Finally, we have that well beloved prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, in which we hear that: "It is in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.” The heart of Christianity is that there is only one way to resurrection, and it is through some kind of death. We have to die in order to live.
As long as we keep holding on to the Christendom model of the Presbyterian Church, that is, as long as that particular, temporally conditioned manifestation of the church does not die, we are like the caterpillar who refuses to enter the chrysalis and die to its old self, allowing its new self to emerge.
The PCUSA is not going to make it through this extended crisis by mere technical or even adaptive change. In other words, we cannot adjust or reform our way into a restoration of our cultural relevance. What we become cannot be the result of our reacting to the perceived needs and desires of our “context.” We’ve been trying that for half a century. More repackaging isn’t going to cut it.
The caterpillar does not adapt to its environment; its metamorphosis is a response to the call of the identity and destiny the Creator has placed within it. Our future will be the fruit of our renewed engagement with the good news of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, which is always radically transformational. Transformation means becoming who we are.
Therefore, we need more “death talk.” Because only if we take seriously what we have to give up, relinquish, release, let go of, and even kill in ourselves, will we be open to the emergence of what God has placed within us to do. Frankly, we remain a denomination colored and flavored by the divisive values of Modernity. We continue largely unconsciously to privilege particular ethnic, ideological, gender, economic, and class identifications. These biases are deeply embedded in our polity, liturgics, ecclesiology, and theology.
And change is not going to happen from the top down, because the General Assembly, synods, or even presbyteries advocate for it. Change is only possible when local congregations and individual disciples start realizing the awesome implications of their baptism, that now all of us are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28), in whom God is scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
In other words, what we need is not to adapt, but a radical, thorough repentance which dies to the old so the new — and original — may emerge.