The Church Is Dead. Long Live the Church!
When an invitation arrived to deliver the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale, it might just as well have come with this odd, apparently contradictory, slogan tucked inside the envelope. We are accustomed to hearing it about a king, of course, but the tension it embodies is the perfect description of the church in our time. Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi! was first declared upon the coronation of Charles VII following the death of his father, the mad and tragic Charles VI, in 1422.
The surface meaning is simple enough: the old king has died (and hopefully the misery of his reign as well), even as his heir has immediately ascended to the throne. “The king is dead. Long live the king!” Any questions?
Truth be known, this is more than just a clever castle custom. It was the town crier’s assurance that not one hour has passed without a king. The transfer of sovereignty is instantaneous, just as God’s protection is unbroken. The king may be dead, but the throne never dies.
We should admit that the time has come to announce the ecclesiastical version: L’église est morte. Longue vie à l’église!
“The church is dead. Long live the church!”
It may sound sad, especially coming from a clergyman, but in fact the church many of us grew up with is dying right before our eyes. If not dead, it barely lives. On countless street corners squats the shabby specter of these once vibrant places. Church buildings are on lockdown most of the time, haunted hulks of vaulted ceilings, empty pews, and bygone glory. Inside are dusty storage closets full of idle angel wings, boxes of unused hymnals, and once bright nurseries now draped in cobwebs. All that’s left is the ghost of Christmas past. The young say “Bah humbug.”
Meanwhile, the clergy are a weary and lonesome lot. He works part-time. She puts in overtime. Everyone is trying to make it to retirement time. Meanwhile, there are devout souls who won’t give up. Somewhere, at this very moment, someone has called another board meeting to “turn things around.” At this gathering perhaps the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and “your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” Trouble is, there are no young men (or women) to see anything, and the old men dream only in black and white—nostalgic dreams about how things “used to be.” Countless churches now resemble museums, whose curators are aging and cranky souls clutching cold cups of coffee and blaming the death of Old First Church on anything and everything except the walking dead themselves. Like Elvis, the Holy Spirit has left the building.
There are many churches out there that are not comatose, though, and some that are truly thriving. But the particular manifestation of organized Christianity with which I am most familiar (white mainline Protestant churches) is like Lazarus. They have the stench of death in their garments. Budgets shrink, programs go unfunded, and anxious clergy see corpses everywhere they turn. Perhaps we fear the first half of the slogan (The church is dead), yet fail to consider the more intriguing second half: “Long live the church!” It begs the question: Is there still a case to be made that not one hour has passed without the church? That even though old ways of being church are indeed dead or dying, the spirit of the Beloved Community never dies? Perhaps we are the ones who are dead, and the cause of death is amnesia. Perhaps we are the ones who have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong.
So what does one say to the church at a time like this? Organized religion in the West seems at once both lifeless and pregnant with possibility. Ours is the age of the ecclesiastical “in between”—as if one long breath has gone out like a sigh, but the next has yet to be drawn. To some it feels like Good Friday, but to me it feels like Advent.
We go through the motions now as if in a minor key, longing for what has already happened but is not yet fulfilled. It is indeed a strange and stressful time to be a member of the clergy, a religious professional, what Kierkegaard called “town criers of inwardness.” We stand around like hesitant physicians afraid to tell the truth to a dying patient who needs to hear it. And yet the longing for a return of the spirit remains, as stubborn as any human longing. We are hardwired to seek the wisdom of transcendence.
Suffice it to say, the Yale Divinity School faculty have not reached out often to Oklahoma in search of a prophetic word, and who can blame them? I live in the epicenter of the Christian Right, a place with more pickup trucks than people, some with bumper stickers that read Powered by Iraqi blood. During President Obama’s reelection campaign, one fine fellow proudly displayed this advice on the back of his truck: Do not re-nig in 2012. This is postracial America?
My first thought upon receiving the invitation to speak at Yale was about the topic, of course. What should it be? What does one say to a church on life support, frozen by fear and desperate for a word of hope? How does one pronounce last rites in the middle of the night while keeping one eye on the window facing east, searching for the joy that comes with the morning?
Should the subject be preaching, I wondered, as it had been for the vast majority of Beecher Lectures? The original gift from Henry Sage, who established the lectures in memory of Lyman Beecher, father of Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was to establish “The Lyman Beecher Lectureship on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.” There, that settled it.
Yet by definition both the subject matter, and the qualifications of the invitee, are broadly defined. The lectures are to be given by “a minister of the Gospel, of any evangelical denomination, who has been markedly successful in the special work of the Christian ministry.” As to the topic, the charter was amended in 1882 by the Yale Corporation to specify “that henceforth the Lyman Beecher lecturer shall be invited to lecture on a branch of pastoral theology or in any other topic appropriate to the work of the Christian ministry.”
Any other topic? If this was the original intent, then why have so few working pastors given the Beecher Lectures? Why has the subject matter almost always been preaching? Granted, the family of preachers and prophets after whom the lectures are named suggests communication of the gospel as the obvious choice. But if the original charge was to hear a report from the world of ministry by a practitioner of ministry, then why have most of the presenters been renowned academics instead of parish ministers?
Don’t get me wrong. Preaching has been a central preoccupation of my life, shaped by my remarkable teacher and mentor Fred B. Craddock (who gave the Beecher Lectures in 1978). What’s more, I am also an academic—a tenured professor teaching rhetoric and ethics in the philosophy department of a private liberal arts university in the United Methodist tradition. But I wanted to come to Yale as a pastor, not as an academic.
What’s more, I wanted to come to New Haven with a particular passion for naming the cause of death in the church. This insight comes not from research so much as from a lifetime spent leading a single congregation in perhaps the most conservative state in the nation. It was here, on the red dirt where I was born, that I watched the last ounce of prophetic courage and relevance disappear from Christian communities of all kinds, obsessed as they are with décor and marketing, but unable to take any risks for the sake of the kingdom.
We mean well, of course. We sing our hearts out. We pray long prayers. But none of it can finally compensate for the fact that as a change agent, we have all but disappeared. Instead of leaven, we are like chameleons for Christ, absorbed into the very dominant culture we are called to critique and resist. In fact, this is precisely the word I cannot get out of my head: resistance. Who thinks of the church any more as a defiant community? Or faith itself as embodied resistance to the principalities and the powers?
Whatever else may be said of the Jesus Movement, it was born in opposition to the status quo. Now it largely sanctifies the status quo. Its founder constituted an unacceptable risk to the Roman Empire, and that resistance seemed so counterintuitive and subversive that even his mental health was questioned. Perhaps G. K. Chesterton was right when he said that “Christianity is not a faith that has been tried and found wanting, but a faith that has been wanted and never tried.”
When it comes to analyzing the decline of organized religion in the West, there is plenty of blame to go around. Ours is a culture of hyper-individualism and mindless spectacle. The spiritual life requires a moral imagination, and there is very little left to imagine. The “imaging” is all done for us now in a world saturated with screens large and small. The mind’s eye and its partner, the tender heart, are now blurred by neglect. The moral imagination, the most deeply human of all muscles, must work well if we are to love well.
Yet, it has atrophied, or been largely retired by the electron. Who needs to conjure an image when the sponsored poets of commerce never give us a quiet moment, a blank screen? If Times Square, for example, represents the cultural epicenter of the manufactured image, then the sickness of our time is that the imagination has nothing to do. We are assaulted by what others have produced and want us to buy. We have little time for what we produce out of silence, out of quiet contemplation, out of a good long walk to Emmaus.
We are “connected” to our “friends” through the “social network.” Our handheld devices have bowed our heads, but not in prayer. Rather, we walk through the world in a bubble of disembodied messages from our approved list of contacts. Emoticons replace emotions; the new meaning of “text” has nothing to do with canon and everything to do with solitude, drawing our eyes away from other eyes. A world of funny cat videos provides a stream of anonymous entertainment and manufactured sentiment.
We consume but we do not imagine, which is why we are becoming less and less empathic. Behold the pornography of the marketplace: Thou shalt covet these things on flat screens everywhere. Thou shalt live in perpetual angst. Behold the way you wish you looked, the place where you wish you lived, and all the gadgets you wish you owned. This is Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” in high definition.
Other people blame science for the death of church. They point to a new priesthood in lab coats, calm and detached researchers who can prove that pure truth is like a frigid woman or a man with a mechanical heart. Everything will be understood only when the emotions are banished as the inferior little sisters of the intellect. Feeling and intuition, those handmaidens of wisdom, are grounded now, sent to their rooms as punishment for being “hysterical,” just like those women who ran frightened from the empty tomb.
Yet science is not a traitor. It is a methodology. Granted, I would prefer that a poet gave my eulogy instead of a statistician. But I also wish that more preachers watched the world as closely as scientists do, and took better notes. Science helps us to understand how things work, but we still decide whether or not to call it marvelous. Faith and science alike have their roots in wonder. Science magnifies the details of creation, but not its moral or ethical significance. Ironically, the deeper we go in both directions (down to the Higgs boson or up and out into intergalactic infinity), the deeper the mystery becomes. Science is not the enemy of faith—only of ignorance. She is like a blind date that we fretted over spending time with until she turned out to be beautiful and then offered to drive.
Still others argue that the church is dying because it is deluded about its enduring relevance. She is like an aging actor, or a washed-up leading man, unable to look in the mirror without seeing what is no longer there. In the social upheavals of the twentieth century, loud voices called for the abandonment of all ancient institutions, including the church, as oppressive relics of what’s-not-happening-now. Real wisdom would come from the young, we were told, from those who presumed to have invented the concept of enlightenment while acting as if nothing of any significance occurred prior to their birth. These hip intellectual orphans looked at the church as a cartoon of repressed sexuality, the moral straitjacket of “the man,” leftover fairy tales to cushion the fear of death, or the fear of flying.
While there may be some truth to all these claims, none of them can compete, in my opinion, with what should be writ large at the top of the church’s death certificate: The Beloved Community was born in resistance to the established order of death and indignity. It was concealed like leaven in the imperial loaf, germinating as a secret and subversive “colony of heaven,” a body of noncompliance with the principalities and the powers. Now we are as compliant as the subjects of any empire, embracing what we are taught to value, and resisting nothing that threatens our comfort, our success, our reputation, or our safety.
The sad truth is that much of the church today is a harmless handmaiden of the corporate machine, clinging nostalgically to a gospel that is as unacceptable in practice now as it was in the beginning. We confuse performance with ministry, beliefs with faith, and charity with justice. Our demise is the result of the abandonment of our peculiar witness to the upside-down instructions left to us by a God-intoxicated misfit. Christians can survive almost anything, save the loss of distinctiveness. We can make our share of mistakes, but we cannot be a mistake.
The very definition of what it means to be a Christian must be salvaged now, taken back, by force if necessary, from those who domesticated a way of life and turned it into a quarreling quagmire of noisy “believers.” While we fiddle with the meaning of the Trinity, present-day Rome is burning. While we mumble our prayers for the poor, their poverty and pain increase by the hour. While we coddle the industries that ravage the earth for energy and then market death to us disguised as comfort, the conscience of the faithful has been euthanized by public relations campaigns that make us swoon with gratitude for the humanitarian altruism of Big Oil.
Where are the holy fools for God today? Who stands out in the crowd as a troublemaker for justice? Where can we find the spiritual contrarian, unplugged and unmoved by the choreographed hysteria of celebrity culture? Where do we find real wisdom in the age of the blog, where everyone with an opinion can self-publish, where authors presume not to need editors in a worldwide web of intellectual autoeroticism?
The sad truth is that to help the American church “grow” we have dressed it in the uniform of Western culture. We have taught its leaders to be entrepreneurs, and to fret more about parking spaces than about peace and justice. We sing familiar hymns, but the lyrics fall on deaf ears. We recite creeds in worship that move no one, while others have decided they cannot speak them aloud in good conscience. In short, countless communities of faith are engaged in a charade on Sunday morning. The pews are full of pretenders.
The easiest thing would be to give up, of course, to disappear, to slide happily into retirement while telling the same tired old stories in the pulpit about walking with Jesus on the beach but seeing only one set of footprints in the sand. The real enemies of the church are found inside its walls. Sadly, the clergy shop as frantically as anyone at Christmastime, instead of warning people that the nativity is really a spiritual apocalypse. We commend praying for our enemies without confessing that the idea is more absurd and un-American than soccer. We cheer Jesus the Gentile lover while funding allies who are Gentile haters. We read the Sermon on the Mount as if it came from the back of a cereal box.
So let this be the subject of my Beecher Lectures and book: faith as resistance: to ego, to orthodoxy, and last, but not least, to empire. Let it be known that this cry, “The church is dead, love live the church!” comes from a pastor, not from an evangelical atheist. It comes from a minister who is just as susceptible to the comforts of capitulation as the next man. Just as eager to make it to retirement with more than enough to live on. Just as tempted by the illusions of the prophetic so long as it costs me nothing. Just as egocentric and insatiable as are most clergy in search of affirmation. Just as happy to enjoy the benefits of empire, to mouth the mental laziness of orthodoxy, and to succumb to the seductions of “praise without practice” that afflict so many men and women of God.
There will be no recovery of the Beloved Community until we resist taking ourselves too seriously (ego); until we resist taking the purity of “right beliefs” and “right worship” too seriously (orthodoxy); and until we resist taking our marching orders from the powers that be (empire) too seriously. Instead, we can renew the church but one way—by taking the “narrow way” much more seriously. “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
Excerpted from "Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance" by Robin Meyers. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Robin R. Meyers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author. All rights reserved.