Listen To Article

In my first year of mental health counselor training, she called me out. My supervisor – a wily veteran whose style was a mashup of Yoda and Jason Bourne – grabbed me by the shoulder after a counseling session with a sex addict and said, “What the hell were you doing in there?” Stunned and stuttering, I replied, “Helping him see how bad his choices are.” My supervisor said, “The poor guy is drowning. Let him drown, or with all your effort he’s bound to take you down with him.”

Let him drown.

I was a student of a cruciform theology, but in theory only. I still thought people got fixed with the facts, that any problem could be solved with more data. I still believed that if I was right and said it loudly and clearly enough, the person listening would hear and be transformed.

My supervisor knew the pattern and process of transformation – death to resurrection. For me, it was a theological box about a one-time event to be checked on an ordination exam. For this mentor, it was the cruciform spiritual journey each of us must take.

In the many years since, I’ve become a witness to slow transformation. I’ve seen it in fits and starts in me and in dazzling metamorphosis in clients and parishioners. But I’ve also learned this – we humans resist change! The trees permit a transformation process each year. The land seems to know. We don’t. There are reasons for this – we’re traumatized, we’re stubborn, we’re narcissistic, we’re anxious, we’re scared. The dying is painful. If we permit it, we’ll succumb like the caterpillar to the chrysalis tomb.

When I wear my therapist hat, I steward this dying for individuals and married couples. That’s hard enough. Can you imagine stewarding a congregation? An institution? I rarely see leaders steward organizations well through change processes. Many who resist this cruciform journey the most are likely on the narcissistic spectrum, I’d suggest, and thus convinced that their decisions and dictates ought to be followed unwaveringly, their success strategies employed without hesitation.

I’ve seen many pastors with big, bold visions for the future, but lacking any capacity to navigate the death journey(s) to get there. It’s sad how ‘up-and-to-the-right-Americanized’ our leadership strategies and church assessment tools are. They won’t help us through this coming drowning.

Recently, I’ve been telling my students that there is a coming ecclesial drowning, a dying we’ll be prone to resist, but a dying that is in our midst. Translate that – it’s already here. Mike Regele predicted it 25 years ago in his prophetic book The Death of the Church. Phyllis Tickle mused about it in The Great Emergence. A student texted me a few months ago and said to me, “I’ve been hired by a dying church.” She meant a local congregation, but I heard it as a larger cultural/ecclesial observation. Years ago, Regele foresaw shifting economic and demographic and technological realities contributing to a seismic shift in American ecclesial life. We’re living it now, friends.

Depending on your theological inclinations, you may think the proper survival response is to hunker down or to open the gates wide, to get more active or to get more precise. No matter, you can’t deny the dying.

In times like this, anxiety reigns. Our instinct to protect and preserve kicks in. Reactive inclinations like scapegoating and polarizing trump unhurried, reflective processes and careful thinking. In our social media age, we take to tactics that resemble mine from a long time ago (and today sometimes!) – efforts to correct and fix and convince – but in a depersonalized, sound-byte fashion.

Our anxiety is mitigated by the cheap drug of certainty. Our strategies become hostile, invasive, and (if you think you’re right, no matter your “side”) justified assholery (you won’t find the word in a theological dictionary, so don’t bother looking.) It seems that if you think you’re right, being a bully is permissible.

I don’t know exactly how this dying will play out. I’m anxious about it. It impacts my longtime call, my livelihood, even my daily mood. I’m trying to resist the urge to fix it or to propose some “this is how we’ll save the church” recipe. I’m learning to attend what I can control in my little sphere and surrender the rest.

I teach seminary students, and I can offer them some of the inner resources to navigate their own dying and the deaths they encounter. I can offer them some hope of chrysalis transformation. Right now, seminary is my small world of influence and I’ll do my best to steward the process. Plus, it takes enough energy each day to navigate my own anxious reactivity and arrogant certainty. I still have plenty of my own dying to do.

My clients will tell you that my frequent mantra is “Trust the process.” Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus was both a bearer and a steward of the dying. Jesus didn’t seem anxious as the religious structures were falling apart around him. He witnessed the anxious strategies of those who wanted to forge the “right” future – the urgency-addicted Zealots and the precision-addicted Pharisees and the manipulatively-addicted Sadducees and the self-protectively addicted Essenes. He didn’t feel the urge to correct everyone at every turn, even save everyone at every turn! Instead, he told cryptic stories they’d need to chew on for years to really get. In the end, he didn’t resist when they crushed him. Jesus played the long game. What extraordinary trust in God’s generous and generative economy of things, an economy of dying and rising.

I’m anxious right now. I wonder if the churches of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles will become nostalgic stories told like the stories we tell of Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira. I’m certainly not going to give up. The work is before us.

But if the transformation I’ve seen in people who’ve permitted the dying is any sign of what’s to come, I’m also deeply hopeful. The chrysalis will open and reveal something new. We’re already seeing signs of the rising. I may not be here to see it in its full fruition, but I trust the One who stewards the Great Dying and the Great Rising, the One who is in all things and holds all things in the Great Unfolding of that hidden-yet-emerging reality we call Kingdom.

Trust the process. Steward the dying and rising, friends. Most of all, trust the Risen One.

And in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts on this. Here are some questions I’m wrestling with. I invite you into the conversation.

What does it mean to permit this dying, not just in ourselves or in people we care for, but in the church and in institutions?
– Where does permitting this simply become an excuse for being lazy and disconnected from urgent matters of justice and mercy?
– If Jesus healed some but also walked past many urgent needs he could have immediately solved, how do we choose where to engage and when?
– How do we begin to acknowledge and repent of our up-and-to-the-right self-preservation and success strategies?
– Who are the modern day Zealots? Pharisees? etc. And does our tribalistic behavior keep us from the dying and rising personally and communally?
– How do I steward this dying in a seminary institution we’re fighting to keep alive and relevant?
– How does stewarding a dying-to-rising process contribute to the revitalization of churches, of cities?
– How do we celebrate the living/growing of ethnic minority churches while we (white churches) are shrinking and dying?
– What does a cruciform leader look like amidst this new reality?

Thanks for reading. Be in touch with your musings.

Chuck DeGroat

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

18 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Great stuff! Giving Thanks for The Spirit speaking/teaching though you!

    – If Jesus healed some but also walked past many urgent needs he could have immediately solved, how do we choose where to engage and when?

    “… I’m trying to resist the urge to fix it or to propose some “this is how we’ll save the church” recipe … Jesus played the long game. What extraordinary trust in God’s generous and generative economy of things, an economy of dying and rising.”

    I’m reminding myself, like Ephesians chapter 1, that “the church” is already been chosen. Many have already passed though this existence, now awaiting resurrection. Sprinkled throughout this current chaos of vacant facilities, budget shortages, declining pastor salaries/benefits, empty pews, and folks who purposely avoid church and any resemblance of it, are the rest. We, who are left to notice this mess, are still commanded to find them and lead them to recognize to Whom they really belong.

    …Playing the long game with Jesus …

  • Nate DeWard says:

    I needed this. Thanks!

  • Shirley Heeg says:

    Do we “permit” dying? I clutch a moment when I hear myself permitting something. Where does that come from? Authority, responsibility? I don’t know if I even allow. Death doesn’t ask. Death comes. From personal experience, that was/is quite a gripping reality, despite, like everyone, I’ve known it for years. SH

    Isn’t this about accompanying dying? And how do we do that? Maybe our real-life models for that process are inadequate or compromised by culture too. In suffering, endurance produces character which produces hope. That has a cause and effect ring to it. I like the sound of the hope in your side of this discussion. And that it’s hope in God — God’s vista-view, God’s pace, and God’s sure grip on our reality.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    Thank you! So much about life forces us to assess how much we really rely on Resurrection Event as the core energizer of our commitment to follow the Way of Jesus. Gotta keep soaking in the gospel news that “Death cannot keep its prey,” even as we feel sadness and disorientation at so many biological deaths and institutional deaths that we witness and experience.

    • Kent says:

      Hi Chuck,
      I’m seeking clarification: are you saying The Church will die, or that individual congregations and some denominations will die?
      Thanks,
      Kent

  • Matt Lantz says:

    Great word as always Chuck!

    A good reminder about trusting the process. I can certainly identify with needing to get out of my own way and work through my own anxious reactivity daily enough to keep extending hope into my areas of influence.

  • Dale Gish says:

    As a spiritual director, I see people dying in a multitude of ways, some helpful and some quite destructive. I see people being chewed up by the principalities and powers, sinful and broken structures. Some die as they shed their faith and move away from Jesus. I see people realizing that their faith had them living in death and they have to die to that death and find new life in Jesus, one that is more connected into the heart of God.

    On a corporate level, I agree that the church is dying in many ways and some of those dyings are needed and we should not resist. Other dyings are more like Psalm 11:3, where destroyed foundations damage God’s people in harmful ways that will have long term consequences.

    Regardless of the type of dying we face, our call is to turn to the living Lord in the midst of the death. We come to the Lord in our weakness and death, asking to join him in his death, that he might raise us, give us hope and new life.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Chuck, for your musings. With Kent, I’m a little confused as to what you are actually saying. As to who is dying, you could be speaking of individual congregations, or the church on a broader level, or maybe even Christianity. What do you have in mind?

    Here’s what I think. The church on a much broader level, even Christianity, is dying in our Western and more educated culture. We’ve seen it in Europe and increasingly see it in the States and Canada. To the educated, a belief in the supernatural is making less and less sense. It just doesn’t stack up to reality as we experience it. Other than living a moral life (that’s common sense), Christianity really has no benefit. I would guess that the church (broadly) in our culture is on its way out. Of course, this will take generations in the happening.

    I really think Dale’s comments of finding new life in a living Christ only contribute to the downward spin of the church in our culture. It’s just more of this supernatural talk that doesn’t measure up to objective reality.

    The church is growing, elsewhere, but only in less educated and poorer areas of the world. Perhaps our denominations need to focus more on “missions.” But the problem with that is that our home based churches would rather pour their money into their dying churches here (hoping to gain some new life) rather than the church in other areas than our own.

    • Dale Gish says:

      Can you say more about why “finding new life in a living Christ” contributes “to the downward spin of the church in our culture”? Isn’t that what is happening in the poorer areas of the world?

      • RLG says:

        Hey Dale. I hope I didn’t offend. I know we all can believe differently. And Christ is the psychological answer that many find gives them hope. But I wasn’t speaking to the narrow focus of individuals but to the much broader focus of the church in our culture. We are living in the scientific age, a post Christian age. There was a time when the story of a six day creation, a moral fall of Adam and Eve (the first humans) and the rest of humanity along with them, with the resulting need for a Savior, was considered somewhat believable. But today in our scientific age the talk of Jesus, as the second Adam, who has come from heaven to give new life just makes little sense. And your suggestion that people are being chewed up by the principalities and powers, sinful and broken structures with a need for finding new life in Jesus is the kind of talk that sounds like it fits in a much more backward culture. That, generally speaking, is the reason we are seeing a dying church today in our Western culture. I hope that explains what was unclear in my previous comment.

        • Dale Gish says:

          I’m not offended, but if the church isn’t about Jesus Christ, alive and at work among us, then what is the point? I can assure you that Jesus is very much alive and at work, and where he is at work, death is being transformed into life. That may seem foolishness to many in an “advanced culture,” but it also seemed foolishness in the Roman culture, and the Hebrew culture as well. I don’t need to fight with science, but I think our culture has a lot of hubris seeing all other cultures as “backward.”

  • John says:

    Thanks Chuck for your insight. I confess I am not a regular reader but a friend sent me your article because he has seen our church as one that is attempting to embrace the death of our western church model. And to do so, not with mourning (although there is plenty of that), but with excitement about what the church can be when it is alive! Can I suggest an easy read that tells of the journey of our church? You can find it here:
    https://www.amazon.com/Megachurch-Multiplication-Churchs-Journey-Movement/dp/173286960X

    And I definitely don’t point to our story as THE answer for the western church. But as a humble submission of another group of believers seeking to learn from those who are seeing God move powerfully, and to faithfully multiply disciples of Jesus.

  • Marla says:

    I actually felt the Holy Spirit tell me to go and read John 12 last night. Then the part that jumped off the page included the verse you quote in this article that says, “24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”

    Reading your post was confirmation to what I already felt in my heart was happening, that we are on the brink of change and new beginnings. My husband called me from work on Wednesday and asked that I bring a can of paint called “Flex Seal” to our church that night so that they could use it to paint over some damaged wood on the children’s playground. As I was handing the paint to our pastor, I felt that it was rather symbolic. We were “whitewashing” the old. Then, during the Bible study it was mostly just complaints of medical needs being shared and pondering days of old. I thought, “Where is the new life in the Spirit?” What have our churches become? And as my husband and I have been called to this new place to minister just a couple of months ago, how can I do more than just bring a can of paint to whitewash the old? I pray that with the help of the Holy Spirit, I can draw nearer to Jesus and allow Him to help me to completely die to whatever old things I am bringing in. Like the security blanket I used to carry as a little girl, I pray that I can toss out that well worn and tattered thing that isn’t helping me at this point. Death is painful but necessary and I pray we can all die to whatever it is that is holding us back from all that Jesus wills to do in and through us all. Then the true church of Christ will arise anew.

  • Rev David J Jones says:

    I really appreciate this important reminder. It is not an easy thing to do. My impulse is to save and preserve and comfort. Thank you for this.

  • Matt says:

    This is amazing. This is one of those times where you’re just swimming in the sea of the words that the rest of us are simply trying to find, thank you for articulating, keep writing about this please.

    I was most engaged by your final question: “What does a cruciform leader look like amidst this new reality?”

    I don’t think I’ve seen one yet, because I’m not sure that on this side of the death and resurrection process, anyone filling the title “leader” will be doing the necessary work.

    I’m almost wondering if it will be the LGTBQ, minority, homeless, immigrant “lay-person” that stewards the “leaders” into the death of their “leadership.”

  • Bev Sterk says:

    Good questions! First of all leaders have to be honest and open that the institutional church is dying, and it’s not going to revive in the form we have known it… and that is actually a good thing. What I see instead is leaders trying to give the impression that all is well, that somehow the denom they are with is bucking the trend of the declining denominations, instead of being open and honest with the members. I call the response of leadership propaganda.

    in general, what has helped me is recognizing the difference between the institutional church and the organic Kingdom Church/the ekklesia/the people/the priesthood of all believers… yes, the institutional church is dying, but God said what can be shaken will be shaken and a man made institution can and will be shaken… but that which cannot be shaken is the Kingdom Church, the Ekklesia, the people… of the increase of His government there will be no end… His Kingdom Gov’t/Church is ALWAYS increasing, ALWAYS growing! that is our hope!

    I recently watched Thor: Ragnarok, and it’s crazy how the secular world can be prophetic and get this, but we, the Church seem to be blind to it…
    but there is a line in the movie that “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people”… this is true of the Kingdom Church. it’s not an institution, it’s the people!

    God is maturing His Bride, and some of the old ways (denoms) are disappearing because they were hindering the Kingdom Church from growing and maturing as we are intended to per scripture… I Cor 3 indicates how denoms keep people immature and carnal/worldly/of the flesh…

    I believe we are transitioning/transforming into a new era of the Kingdom Church… yes, there is a lot of resistance, especially from those who have a vested interest in the institutional church, and are protecting themselves and their job security. The insitutional church has had decades to address this decline, and what I’ve seen is sad and pathetic, not willing to be honest about the flaws and shortcomings of the institutional church, and not willing to be open and honest with those that are part of their denomination, but instead keep trying to promote this healthy image that all is well to the members, when the leaders have known for years that there are many signs all is not well with the institutional church.

    just some thoughts…

  • Brad Hayton says:

    Hi Chuck,

    I just was checking out Mike Regele’s 2014 book on homosexuality and transgenderism and stumbled on your site. My own background is Calvary Chapel (20 yrs), Presbyterian/Lutheran, Evangelical, and now Catholic (25 years). I’m a product of Biola, Talbot, Bethel Sem (St. Paul), Regent Coll (Vancouver), Fuller TS, but also CSU Fullerton, UC Irvine, USIU, and others, even a diploma and grad degree in Orthodox Theology and many certificates in Catholic theology. So my background is psychology, Bible, historical theology, and economics. I taught at Azusa Pacific U and other California Christian universities for 13 years.

    I’m always puzzled at the ecclesiastical theology of various Protestant denominations. They have usually been molded by “the times,” and indeed evangelicalism is mostly American culture divinized. For the past quarter century I’ve been involved in Catholic and Orthodox churches. There just isn’t the feeling that they are “dying.” They watch the culture seducing their flocks into the world, but the Church feels even stronger. When I’ve attended my old haunts of Baptist, Calvary churches, or other evangelical churches, I’m amazed of how techno savvy they are and how they have succumbed to both the issues and techniques of the world. They seem more like entertainment and self-help centers.

    And now evangelicalism and Protestantism are positioning themselves in the “post-modern” world. To me, the “emerging church” movement is simply a secular movement, or perhaps Christians playing at giving up their faith in the name of “being relevant.” In the process, they’ve lost their Faith. Perhaps that is why many of them endorse and enjoy the writings of Borg and even Ehrman.

    Should the “church” die in order to live? Yes, we should always being following Jesus in ways that not only integrate the good of each culture but also transform cultures. How did God become flesh? And in the context of Protestantism, is there such a thing as the “visible” institutional Church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic? Protestants affirmed a “no,” and consequently emphasized only an “invisible” church and thousands of unconnected “visible” churches. Now most “believers” separate “religion” from “spirituality,” further demeaning the value of “church.” Both modern and postmodern Christianity are distinct products of the Protestant break with the institutional Church.

    The recent burning of Notre Dame symbolizes this process. It was built by a Catholic culture that emphasized the deity and humanity of God: the true, good, and the beautiful becoming flesh. Baptists don’t build cathedrals. Europe is now either secular or Muslim, and the little remaining Catholics in France hardly attend Mass. The institutional church is irrelevant.

    For Protestants, the institutional church has always either been labeled evil or irrelevant. For Catholics, in the two thousand year history of the Church and Creedal Christian Faith, the institutional Church is Christ incarnate on earth. Of course, the Church is more than the simple hierarchy.
    It is the people of God united to its leaders, doctrine, and worship.

    Jesus asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” as he killed Christians. Ignatius of Antioch contended that if a believer was out of communion with his or her local bishop, that person was out of communion with God in Christ Jesus.

    Anyway, some food for thought. Some of the recent works of Brad Gregory might be helpful in discerning the unintended consequences of the Protestant Revolt. And there’s some great works on Ecclesiology written by De Lubac and others that might be helpful.

  • […] April, I wrote a piece on stewarding the death of the church, and if there is any hopeful way forward for us, it must begin with spiritual integrity. […]

Leave a Reply