April 22, 2011

The Death and Resurrection of Corinth (2 of 3)

Why don't we expect churches to die? It must be the furthest thing from our minds. We spend all that money on architectural drawings, construction, furnishings, a marquee, carpets & air-conditioning. We sign a mortgage for 20 to 30 years. We collect pledge cards from members who promise to pay and keep paying indefinitely. We do this because it's become custom, because our forebearers did this. We expect churches to last. Like Solomon did with his Temple. As if God deigns to stay put for our vanity.

It's the single worst facet of having an institutional mindset. Your goal is that nothing should change.  Nothing should move from its place. Nothing should stop. And, also, nothing should die.

But death, as I've opined here at least once before, might be something a church needs to embrace. Death, in more ways than one, can be part of the cycle of life. Nature composts itself into fertile new ground. Why don't we? Most human enterprises fail at some point. Why don't we expect churches to?

Culturally, here in the west, the increasingly common move to embrace one's own failures is a recent phenomenon. Historically, administrative heads made themselves nothing but vulnerable if they admitted a fault, let alone huge mistakes. It used to be that the best way to succeed was to take over someone else's failure. Today, at the upper end of the world's economic scale, there's more success to be had elsewhere. Therefore, failure is safer. Thus, our new philosophical trend was protected, and now it's starting to spread.

But God was way ahead of us, natch.  So was Paul, even while trying to stave off Corinth's threatening demise:
We have this treasure in earthen vessels... struck down but not destroyed.. carrying around the dying of Jesus.. constantly delivered over to death.. death works in us.. but we do not lose heart. Though our [plural] outer man [singular, corporate?] is decaying, yet the inward is renewed day by day...         (emphasis mine)
If only Corinth could have fixated on the inward, and thus also embraced a bit more that constant deliverance to death. Clearly, Paul was hopeful, and aggressively encouraging. But Paul was also completely sober about the late hour of the Corinthians' situation, as well.
If the earthly tent [singular] which is our house [plural, corporate?] is torn down, we have a building from God.. in the heavens.
Yes. If the church here does die, we will still in some sense cling to the fact that God is still working to make us a part of his permanent House. Yes. If God's tabernacle in one place is torn down - if its many-pieced structure, built together from that which every tribe joint carries with them supplieth, is tragically disassembled - if our local Tent ceases to stand, we may take comfort that there yet does remain - both for God and for us - one eternal Temple which always stands in God's realm.

Churches die. We all know that they do. We just don't like to think about it.

This is one reason, I believe, why the historical interpretation I shared in part one of this series hasn't been offered before, as far as I've yet been able to detect.  The institutional mindset prefers to avoid this consideration. Frankly, even the so-called radical ones who think they're starting churches based on the New Testament, they don't want to consider this either. There's a lot more institutionalizing going on in the human heart of a founder of something, than there is in the walls of a long dead organization.

If your church doesn't think it can die, I'd question whether it's truly alive.  But the church which embraces its death may yet attain resurrection from the dead!

In fact, that may also be part of what Corinth experienced.

There's a big difference between temporarily dead and permanently dead.

To be continued...


Anonymous said...

We here in Lithia spent some time together this winter exploring and sharing about what it means to die corporately, together, rather than just individually "dying". It culminated in a bonfire meeting where we purposed together to go to the cross that the Lord would bring forth his oneness and purpose, out of death. Not an easy thing to do.

Josh L said...

Interesting, Bill. I agree and disagree.

First, a question: Is it possible that your own non-institutional church experience is likewise coloring your reading of the Corinthian crisis as you suggest our institutional brethren have done?

I appreciate whole-heartedly your philosophy on composting, death & resurrection, ect. And I'm well aware that experience itself teaches us that things-even living assemblies of the Lord's people-don't always (or should I say often, or ever) last. But I still can't bring myself to believe that this is God's design. Not so much the fact of death and resurrection, mind you, or the embracing of failure/loss with its subsequent increase on the "spiritual" side of things as you have pointed out, but that the testimony of the Lord couldn't, or shouldn't, be maintained perpetually if at all possible. Obviously I don't think the institutional mindset should prevail here, where we keep things going simply for the sake of keeping things going (through merely human energy and propogation), but what if the pattern can be held in life and the testimony kept visible through a constant turning back to Christ in those times of inevitable decline?

I don't know. It's just that I've met a number of believers recently who are not entirely "organic" in all their ways (in the true and not the trendy sense of that word), who have nonetheless been active in a local church life for thirty, forty years where the testimony is still alive and visible. The main tack I take with the so-called "organic church movement" at this point is the short shelf life of the churches raised up. Seems like not many of them are able to outlive more than a few seasons before folding up shop. Why is this? I'm not trying to be critical, just honest. Perhaps somehow, someway, we can strike a healthy balance between the two in this matter. What do you say?

Bill Heroman said...

@ Josh: I'm not in favor of seeing churches end. Preferably, the death we embrace corporately should enable us to become more vibrant in Christ, together. For the record, I never meant to suggest for one second that Corinth's "death" was a good thing, or something God wanted.

My point in this post is (A) that we shouldn't let an IC mindset blind us to good historical interpretation, and (B) that if Corinth had embraced death while alive they might not have died. In other words, I think we have to know churches *can* die, before we can do a more sober job of preparing to keep them alive.

On your inorganic friends, I wholeheartedly say PTL. The constant renewal viewpoint also tends to deny death being an option, but its goal is laudable.

On the frequency with which "organic" churches end prematurely, I can't say much, except "pioneering is hard" and "we don't know that much about what we're doing yet".

Honestly, I'd compare this to the rise of divorce in America, which wasn't caused because married people stopped being good at marriage - the rate rose because economics made it *possible* to divorce someone without being totally ostracized socially. In other words, marriages were bad for centuries, but a man couldn't just put his wife out on the street. Nowadays either partner can initiate divorce, because both spouses can easily find other living opportunities.

Point: house churches "die" more often because they don't have super-structures in place to be their life-support. When a house church is struggling, everyone knows it, as opposed (mostly) to the Big Show on Sunday morning. So the reasons to flee are more obvious, and the reasons to stay are less permanent.

Again, though, I'm not in favor of seeing churches end more frequently. Far from it, and quite to the contrary. My passion for "organic churches" is to see wisdom and practical skill at corporate life increase drastically, and the sooner the better. Why aren't we improving more in those categories? That's a whole other conversation!

Last point: I realize your response was in part due to many other things I've said in recent years. And although it wasn't in mind as I was writing this post, I could possibly begin to consider that *God* might have reached a point at which *He* might have preferred to see Corinth "die" than continue on life support. OTOH, I don't think that even makes sense, because the "life support" wasn't really an option for Corinth. It was real life, sink or swim.

Hope that all helps.

More and more, what I care about is simply the Story for its own sake.

What we do or don't learn from it should be far less than secondary... that is, WHILE I'm doing the research.

Hopefully. :-)

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