Part 1: In a chaotic time, Paul clung to his personal identity
Have you ever lived in a time when church felt more uncertain? I have not. Over the past 2 years I have been blessed to have front row seats on nearly a dozen new church projects, and have had the opportunity to visit several established churches, and visit with dozens of church leaders, from coast to coast. What word would I pick to describe the collective mood? … crisis. “What is happening to our church? Why is attendance so low? Why aren’t people here? How do we get our young people more interested? When can we get back to normal? Will we turn this around or is this a new normal? If we don’t do something soon, this church could die in a generation,” are very typical summary statements. Even in places that are growing, the growth seems tenuous. It feels the very structure of things we have taken for granted (e.g. paid full-time ministers, owning church buildings, Sunday and mid-week worship formats) are all of a sudden “on the table.”
To be honest I find “crisis” to be a fitting and appropriate description for our dilemma. Yes, I know God’s church will never fail in any eternal sense. It will not. But we have to be honest with ourselves. We have never seen the church in North America in a poorer state of health. Should we not have deep concern for her decline? And, a sense of crisis is not all bad. It is a blessing to recognize when something is in trouble. This awareness can get us emotional. It can spur us to immediate and necessary action to promote our long-term health.
What should we do when the church is in crisis?
A reading of Paul in the New Testament reveals a time of radical crisis and questioning of self-identity for the people of God. The covenant between God and his people, which was centrally unchanged for 1500 years, was going through unimagineable change. The changes were not tweaks or fresh coats of paint. Fundamental plates were shifting. Definitions of righteousness, worship, fellowship, and salvation were all on the table. Paul the missionary par excellence reflects on the crisis for the disciples in Galatia. They were in crisis because of what the church was becoming, because of what the people of God were losing, and because they feared the future. Feeling lost and anxious, Paul gives the church this compass point.
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. Galatians 2:20-21.
For Paul, the solution to the crisis – for a confused collective identity is to remind himself who he is first. So who is he? He is not what he used to be. He is what Jesus is doing inside of himself. He is someone who will live on this earth, trusting in Jesus, knowing Jesus loves him, because Jesus exchanged his own life for Paul’s. And Paul vows to never become blasé about the miracle that has happened. Grace can’t be swallowed up by crisis. This is personal. This is the paradigm. This is not just a theological point.
As we look to addressing our church crisis, it begins and ends with the Gospel, with the work of our Christ. It begins with a firm immovable foundation. A rock of love, grace, and trust. It begins by knowing who we are so we act positively in peace and not out of panic. In our time of church crisis, we must cling to the cross first. In our time of doubt we cling to the Gospel. And we clutch the cross with total confidence! We know it is the solution not just for our personal destiny but also for the collective destiny of God’s work here on earth is his church. If we cling to the Gospel, we can step forward with confidence, without fear, and without worry. This is how the first believers were launched and the world was transformed. This is how we should be launched too. Once the foundation is established we can then address the rest of God’s building – his church.
For next time: Part 2: Paul the Architect.