It’s no secret that the church in Canada no longer enjoys the privileged place it once held. In the last two generations, church attendance has plummeted. Census data has record numbers of people identifying as non-religious. The church seems to be an increasingly irrelevant voice in our marketplace of ideas.
Like a company that has long exercised a monopoly and now must compete in an open market, the church seems to be struggling to find a strategy to meet its new reality. We can no longer take for grated buy-in of our society, and we have few ideas about how to make ourselves relevant again.
We’ve become pragmatic in our response. We focus on measurable things like Sunday morning attendance or church budgets to gauge our success. Yet the church has never been called to be popular or wealthy. The church has been called to tell people about a new kind of kingdom, one inaugurated by a poor man who was so deeply unpopular with the powers-that-be that they murdered him.
The church’s greatest success is found in its authentic witness, in its faithfulness at communicating what the kingdom of God is like to a culture that knows only the upside-down kingdom of people. In other words, the church is successful when the world sees Jesus in us.
The most defining feature of Jesus’ life, I would argue, was his radical self-giving love. Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And he doesn’t just talk the talk. On the cross Jesus endures a tortured death in order to reconcile to God the very people who murder him.
In Romans, the Apostle Paul reflects on the amazing love Jesus demonstrates on the cross: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8 ESV). God’s love is most clearly expressed in an act where Jesus denies what’s comfortable for him (not getting crucified) for what is good for us (to be reconciled to God).
Does this sort of self-abandonment exude from the church as a whole? Does the church’s life centre around self-sacrifice for the good of the other? In our own culture, “church” is offered as a consumer good to the people inside it. We’re very responsive to the needs of church members, tailoring our worship services, our schedules, our buildings around what they like. But are we willing encounter inconvenience for the sake of people who aren’t coming? Jesus goes to where the people are (the world) on a mission to bring them back to God. Do we go where the people are in an effort to bring them back to God.
In his book Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living, Gary Nelson identifies the solution: “a ministry of inconvenience” (Nelson 5-6) . The church, like Jesus, needs to set aside that which is comfortable and convenient for that which is beneficial for the other. Does the love of God so fill us that we are willing to be inconvenienced, to suffer, even to die so that others can know the God of love?
Nelson’s thesis echoes the worlds of Paul, who sees the cost of his sufferings as a benefit to those for whom he suffers. In II Corinthians, he writes: we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (II Cor. 4: 11-12).
The church will never be relevant in society by catering to the needs of people inside its walls. It can only gain a legitimate voice by imitating its founder who set aside his comfort to in order that we could know God’s love. He never intended that act to be his alone: He demands we do the same, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34b). The question, then, is, will we follow?