Birth is Easier than Resurrection

Given the choice, I’d rather plant a new church than attempt to revitalize an old one. Of course, no one’s giving me the choice, so what’s it matter?

But my thinking is this: it’s much easier to give birth to something new than to raise something old from the dead.

I know, I know–church planters are ready to kill me now, for saying that church planting is easy.

It’s not. I know that.

Giving birth isn’t easy. I’ve been in the L&D room twice. I’ve seen it.

But I’ve never seen anyone raised from the dead.

Ok, so old, declining churches aren’t actually dead.

Has this post run aground yet? Wait… don’t answer that.

But here’s what I’m getting at: the things that you need to place to create a growing, thriving church plant are insufficient for turning around a declining, dying church.

The hope that I’ve heard expressed on several occasions is that a young (associate) pastor will eventually come in, and being young, attract young families. With this new infusion of youth, the church is expected to gradually revitalize.

But, to steal a metaphor from Jesus, that’s an attempt to put new wine in old wineskins.

You can go down that road if you want, but it is going to mean that the old bursts apart.

In other words, it’s going to mean that the folks who have been around for decades are going to have to walk the way of the cross. They are going to have to agree that everything they think church just “is” is going to have to die for that new life to come ’round.

I’ve heard the anger in the voice of the long-time member recounting how the pews the people had given their lives for had been pulled out of the sanctuary.

I’ve received the blank stare when I’ve asked why adults have to be relegated to juice and cookies rather than wine and cheese.

I’ve endured the excruciating choir that one day will, no doubt, be filled with fine young voices! (Or not…)

A people with a history have a shared story that defines for them “what church is.” To rewrite that story for a new generation, to embrace a people who will so rethink things that “church” won’t even be the word that comes to mind for some–this is the challenge of revitalization.

Someone who wants to revitalize has to discover how to lead a people through a holistic process of reimagining what church is from the ground up, from the inside out.

“Can these bones live?”

“You know, o Lord.”

“Prophesy to the wind!”

Yes, indeed, prophesy. And raise these bones from the dead.

12 thoughts on “Birth is Easier than Resurrection”

  1. I agree, Daniel. I don’t believe we to to “there” (where we want to be) from “here” (where we are). The pain and hurt, and the actual return in the investment of time, energy, and resources to try is not worth it in my experience. Better to start with new wineskins.


    1. We worship with a congregation that has a resurrection story — the church was ready to close its doors, until a number of young couples committed to the church. The church is an unofficial “redevelopment” — one of the few that have worked, as opposed to new church plants which often do tend to work better.

      Our congregation’s story supports what you are saying, in part — it isn’t that young new pastor who will come in and revitalize the church, but the people who are committed to being a church together. There has to be a church first to “redevelop” the church,as it were. That seems to be how new church planting is done these days too.

      But I do have this question: “In other words, it’s going to mean that the folks who have been around for decades are going to have to walk the way of the cross. They are going to have to agree that everything they think church just “is” is going to have to die for that new life to come ’round.”

      Why is it only the folks who have been around for decades who have to walk the way of the cross? Why doesn’t everyone who wants to be church together have to die to the old so that the new may come?

      Our congregation celebrates its intergenerational character. Yes, those who have been around a while, who have been faithful to a specific congregation, may have had to give more — but don’t we all have to die to our own limited visions of “church” in some way? What might it look like if we all walked the way of the cross in being church? One hears a lot about the “older” folks giving up their ways: is there possibly a different way of thinking this other than “out with the old, in with the new”?

      1. Great question, MMT.

        I definitely think that there is enough cross bearing to go around, and that this is in many ways the essence of Christian community.

        But in this case I see a particular burden on the older folks, because the changes will me giving up something they have bound their lives with. They will, in fact, have to do the most changing of what was already there, the most surrendering of entitlement, power, achievement, and the like.

        Of course, this could always be done in service of a consumption-driven young people church, which wouldn’t be very church-like in the end.

  2. I love MMT’s response and couldn’t agree more. I think any organization, in order to stay vital has to find new life – but new life doesn’t necessarily mean tossing out the old. And I think we have to be careful making assumptions that those of the older generation are clueless while the younger crowd always knows where it’s at (I’m not necessarily saying that you implied that). An intergenerational approach reflects diversity and the spirit of the gospels. And yes, I believe these bones can live. (That is my absolute favorite passage from the OT. So beautiful!)

  3. Why is a newly planted church not just a new bunch of stiff-necks on a honeymoon, a new patch on an old garment? If the plant is serving a community where there are no options, that’s one thing, but if it’s a McD across the street from a BK, what’s the point, except to give church-hoppers a new place where to be seeking. Besides, a new church means a new building fund, a new closetful of vestments, new escclesial clutter, consuming resources better spent on mission. It would seem the best thing would be to stay where you are and learn to get along there. Everybody is going to have to resurrect sooner or later. Easier said than done, to be sure.

    I think the problem here is that the polar options appear to be stay the same or change; the excluded middle is grow.

    1. “Grow” also implies “stays the same”, since it works by addition.

      Granted; must admit that we don’t do vestments over here. But the new church is going to need some investment, at least in organizational structure. And I suspect that most new churches aren’t rethinking the stuff questions ex nihilo, they are just trying to make a goat-free place for the regular sheep. Just like the old one, but it will work better this time. For example, the present Presbyterians.

      (Which is how evolution improves the breed: descent with modification and differential survival; but Darwinian evolution is cruel and expensive.)

    2. Not to say that there aren’t times when the best thing is to walk away. But in the end attempting to separate oneself from the world or one’s place in it is futile … I believe I’ve done too much of that in my life, although I still don’t really understand how I could have not.

  4. So right. As a mainline minister I am convinced that the dynamism of the gospel judges churches whenever they make the offering of preservation instead of risk. If the “old” is something other than Jesus Christ, then it has no permanence.

  5. Daniel, I understand what you are saying, and as someone who didn’t plant the last church that he (still) pastors I UNDERSTAND what you’re saying.

    >>”…the things that you need to place to create a growing, thriving church plant are insufficient for turning around a declining, dying church.”

    When most of us, today, speak of “churches” and “church plants,” we’re sadly speaking of organizations, and ultimately we’re (likely) speaking of the hopeful, future success of said organizations — whatever we think that might look like. I think we’re dealing with a different category. Our theology says the church is the people, but our *practice* and thinking reflects that we really think the organization is the church.

    Perhaps if we genuinely understood the people to be the church, our desire — or long-suffering, as it were — to encourage, equip, love and care (revitalize?) the Body of Christ, the People of God would be shaped differently.

  6. My own theory is that it isn’t resurrection that’s so hard. It’s dying that’s difficult–both for Christians dying to self and for churches dying in order to experience resurrection.

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