Death and Life

Here’s a sermon from a few years ago, which has become relevant for worship at church this coming Sunday. This sermon was given to the Presbyterian Mission Agency at a board meeting.

Alex Becker
Preached at PMA Board Meeting

“Death and Life”

Given the short time I’ve spent as a Presbyterian pastor, I feel that I am quickly becoming an expert on death. I performed my first funeral before I officially began working at Henryville Community Presbyterian and Mount Lebanon Presbyterian and I did my second funeral soon after. The two churches I serve have less than 50 members each, and, as you may know, have recently endured significant damage from tornadoes. Many would consider them to be “dying” churches, and I confirmed that diagnosis when, during one of my first conversations about why the church wasn’t growing, I got the response, “Well, the Presbyterians just aren’t showing up anymore.”

So on one hand I am part of a dying community. On the other hand, however, I am part of a community that is being born. I’m a leader of Team Sweaty Sheep, one of the 1001 new worshiping communities. This is a community that began with a single idea, the reckless abandon of one of my fellow seminary students, Ryan Althaus, and a community that wasn’t being reached by the church. More and more people get interested in Sweaty Sheep every week. About two to four times per month, I get a call from Ryan saying, “You wouldn’t believe what just happened!” And he’ll tell me a story of someone who wants to build us a gym or connect us with another nonprofit or involve us in community service. You never know what’s going to happen next with Sweaty Sheep, and we may be flying by the seat of our pants, but it’s because we’re being dragged along by the Holy Spirit who, it seems, has been pent up waiting for someone to connect the adult athletic community with mainline Christianity. Before I was part of Sweaty Sheep I wasn’t sure the Holy Spirit spent much time on mainline Christianity at all.

So these are the two ends of the spectrum which I currently occupy. Death and life, growth and decay. And where else have we heard these two polar opposites juxtaposed? In the life of Christ. The way John tells it, Jesus had just entered Jerusalem, where he would soon die on a cross, when he spoke these words: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus is talking about himself here, talking about the death he is about to die and the victory over death that he is about to win. He is in effect repeating what he said earlier in the gospel of John: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But in order to give that gift of life, Jesus has to go through the experience of death.

And isn’t death the ultimate defeat? Doesn’t death cut us off from life and from God – as the Psalmist says, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you?” Death is the great End, the pit from which there is no return, the thing we must avoid at all costs, and God’s ultimate form of punishment.

And though, in our darkest hours, it might seem this way, these things are not true. Fear of death is a great temptation, one of the greatest that we face. But if death is the end, then Jesus’ life ended in defeat. And we know that Jesus’ life did not end in defeat – his life continues in victory! In Jesus, God overcame the fear of death on our behalf and through it, defeated death itself.

Now think about how this teaching might apply to our poor dying church. If membership statistics are actually an indicator of church health, then we are heading towards the grave, dragging our feet the entire way as we look backwards to when things were different. It is not sustainable to hold on to the life we used to have, nor is it biblical. Remember, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And then Jesus continues, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus tells us not to fear death, but even more than that to hate the kind of life offered by this world and instead to embrace the eternal life offered by God, which can make us and our churches truly alive.

As a multivocational pastor, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand the differences between a living church and a dying church, and before I conclude, I’d like to tell you two of the things I’ve noticed.

The first thing I noticed is that dying churches talk about things, but living churches do things. One of Sweaty Sheep’s problems is we are often perceived as unprofessional. The bad part about that is the word “unprofessional.” The good part about that is the word “often.” Sweaty Sheep is always doing something, never standing still. We talk about things enough to get everyone’s input and then move. We rarely plan into next year because we’re still talking about next month. And because we’re always moving, we’re always getting better – learning what moves the people we’re reaching, learning how to become more professional, more efficient, and better organized. We connect orthodoxy and orthopraxy in a spiral that keeps us moving with the Spirit, never convinced that we’ve arrived. Our small, dying churches on the other hand, thought they arrived in the 50s and 60s and haven’t moved since.

The second thing I noticed is that living churches are willing to risk death, but dying churches struggle to hold on to life. One of the most beautiful quotes from Ryan Althaus, the founder of Sweaty Sheep, is what he has to say about Sweaty Sheep’s success. He says, “Each morning when I wake up and Sweaty Sheep is still going, it’s a blessing.” So, to Ryan, if Sweaty Sheep falls apart tomorrow, that’s ok. It’s done a lot of good, and when it’s done, it’ll make room for something else wonderful. We embrace death on a daily basis. We tried a yoga worship service, and it didn’t work, so we let it die. We tried a weekly worship service in a church building, and it didn’t work, so we let it die. We tried a post-workout Bible study and it didn’t work, so we let it die and now we’re trying a pre-workout Bible study when everyone’s not so sweaty. It might not work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll let it die. We only want to go where the Spirit leads.

A dying church, on the other hand, keeps programs on life support and points at them. Have you ever seen this? Is this your church? Do you take pride in the “community” picnic your church is holding when the only people who attend are the 15 church members that attend everything and support 75% of the church’s budget? It’s not working, so let it die!

Now, after saying all this, you might think that I don’t like small churches very much. To avoid letting that rumor get back to my two wonderful churches in Henryville, let me conclude by pointing out a couple things. Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What’s interesting about this statement is that, from a scientific perspective, the seed never dies. In fact, it is full of potential life, but that life is impossible to see with the naked eye. So you have to bury the “dead” seed and engage in the paradoxical action of watering and feeding it, tearing out the weeds to make room for the new growth that you believe will eventually come. And then, miraculously, life comes from death.

So let’s assume that the Presbyterian Church is full of old people and dying churches. The bloggers and commentators out there see this as a herald for the death of the Presbyterian Church, but I think they’re wrong. For one thing, dying is not a bad thing: if a dying seed bears much fruit, what possibilities does a dying church hold? One of the main reasons Sweaty Sheep got off the ground is because a dying church named Berry Boulevard endowed a grant to Mid-Kentucky Presbytery which later went to Sweaty Sheep. And for another thing, being old is not a bad thing. Those of you who consider yourselves old can back me up on this: being old doesn’t make you dead, being old makes you an expert on living – as long as we can leverage that expertise towards the task of living in the present and future instead of holding on to the past.

The two churches I serve in Henryville may consider themselves to be dying churches. And it may not be within my power to turn them around. But maybe if, together, we can figure out how to embrace death, we can find a fuller life. The same person who asked me “where all the Presbyterians are” is now facing her own death, something that I have a hard time contemplating. And so when I asked her how she was dealing with it, she said, “I’ve lived a long and happy life, and I’m going to enjoy every day I have left.” She can’t pretend that she’ll live forever. The truth is, none of us can. But we can embrace her attitude, giving thanks to God for each new day and living our lives as a testimony to the power of eternal life in a world that wants us to fear death. Don’t be afraid that the church might die, but lead the church as if each day might be its last, taking your comfort from the God to whom you belong in life and death.