Embracing a Theology of Death

By Neil Cole, Church Multiplication Associates

In every town of America there is at least one church with a building worth hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. This church meets every Sunday morning with only eight to ten silver and blue haired women and one or two balding gentlemen for a “service”. Empty parking spaces, silent pulpits and dusty pews cry out for days of glory gone by. The church has been dead for years, perhaps decades, but has been kept alive unnaturally by an artificial life support system. The soul is gone, brain waves have ceased, but mechanization keeps the lungs breathing, the heart beating, and the door opening every Sunday morning at precisely 10 AM. Why? We are so desperately afraid to admit failure that we will keep the church alive as long as we can. It is as if the continuity of Christianity depends upon this one church staying alive. If the church dies God has failed, and we cannot allow that.

Why are we so desperate to keep churches alive? While I know that the church is special to Jesus (His bride!) I think we have lost touch with something very spiritual…death. Can it be that death is as spiritually right as life? Well consider this, without death you cannot have a resurrection, the Gospel, salvation…life. Perhaps it is time that we embrace a theology of death.

The thinking behind this has caused us to commit the worst treason possible against heaven&emdash;self-preservation. Why is self-preservation so bad, aren’t there worse things a church can do? Self-preservation is nothing short of blasphemy, it is taking into our own hands the function of Deity. It is playing God, plain and simple. That is the problem. As a consequence, literally tens of thousands of Christians and churches are deceived into a “churchianity” that is carried out by men, for men, under the name of God. I wonder if God likes getting the credit for all of the crap we do.

While we clearly avoid a theology of death, the opposite is not a theology of life, for life is not what you will find in churches that strive to avoid death at all costs. I don’t know how it happened, but sometime in history we bought into a theology of safe. We think that we should do what is safe, for ourselves, for our families and for our churches. In fact, we are convinced that anything that is unsafe must be outside of God’s will and is thoroughly un-American. A theology of safe is put in place as a defensive measure to avoid death. This leads us right down the path of self-preservation.

Jesus is not about safe. He is the one who said things like… “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” “Let the dead bury the dead&emdash;you follow me.” These are not safe and wholesome words, they are words that shake us up and toss us out way past what is safe.

I have come up with two acronyms to expose some of our delusion regarding these things. The first reveals our inadequate theology of SAFE. The other is how Jesus wants us to embrace a theology of DEATH.

Safe is…

Self-preservation = our mission
Avoidance of the world and risk = wisdom
Financial security = responsible faith
Education = maturity

This is what a theology of death looks like…

Die daily to who we are
Empowerment of others (not self) is our life
Acceptance of risk is normative
Theology is not just knowledge, but practice
Hold tight to Christ with an open hand for everything else.

Jesus said, “He who clings to his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” We need to embrace a theology of death, our lives depend upon it!

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chris on May 7, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Steve,

    I am sure we could agree on something but I’m not sure what it is. In the first place, that statement would seem to me to be inaccurate because there is no way 8-10 elderly people could maintain a building worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. A building of that type would cost a lot to keep up.

    Christ said…”where two or three are gathered together in my name…”

    What makes you the authority on when a church building should close?

    Reply

  2. Posted by Steve on May 7, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    Chris – Did you even read past the first paragraph? First off, I didn’t write this piece, though I do agree with its main thrust: that the church is way to self-preserving and needs to adopt a theology of death.

    Second, the point of blogs and columns and such are to present an often controversial perspective for dialogue and rebuttal. No one is claiming to be the “authority on when a church building should close,” and you don’t have to agree with what Neil Cole is writing here.

    But please, instead of tossing cheap-shot one-liners, step back, take a breath, count to 10, and write a thorough yet concise statement of your position. In this case, why the church embracing a theology of death is a bad idea.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Chris on May 7, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Sorry Steve, I see now you didn’t write it.

    If 8 people met in your living room would it still be a theology of death, or does the meeting place determine whether it is a theology of death?

    Reply

  4. Posted by Steve on May 7, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    No worries, Chris.

    The location doesn’t matter. When groups of Christians stop exalting Jesus and expecting the Holy Spirit to work among them when they are together, one might call that particular gathering “dead” or “dying.” John addressed this in his letters to the churches in Revelation. Most of us have been to churches where we simply didn’t sense “life.” This phenomenon can happen just as easily in a living room or pub or park or wherever — when the presence of the Spirit and the mission of Christ are not real in a group, death is occuring.

    It is a scientific fact, however, that from death springs new life. Our Christian faith depends on that concept (Jesus … cross … grave … resurrection). Why, then, do we often hold onto that which is dead instead of calling a spade a spade and asking God to breath new life? (and then posturing ourselves to accept that new life in whatever form it takes)

    Reply

  5. Thank God for the fact that WE are the temple of God!

    We have a theology of SAFE when we “run to the church for refuge” by running to a building.

    I am so thankful that I can say that the church is a refuge because the people surround me in tough times. And, they celebrate with me in good times.

    The difficulty with this post is the paradox of scripture that says that we must have a theology of “dying to self” AND a theology of “life to its fullest.” The Gospel is BOTH a call to come and die and go and live.

    So, maybe more importantly, we must have a theology of wisdom, of balance, and of evaluation.

    Reply

  6. A “theology of death” is only relevant if it leads to resurrection and new life. If the story of Jesus had ended with his death, there would be no church.

    I think Roberto’s comment makes so much sense. It is time we looked at the church for what it is. The church is you and me, not a building or home or pub or barber shop or any “place.”

    Death occurs in a person not a place. So, the theology of death applies to the person. Roberto puts it so well, “The Gospel is BOTH a call to come and die and go and live.”

    Reply

  7. Wow – I totally love the acronyms and the idea of a theology of death. As I view the life of Jesus – I think it completely “jives” with how he came (as a baby); how he lived (with no where to lay his head); how he “triumphed” (going death like a lamb to slaughter) and how he left (resurrected – but only showing himself to “faithful” and then ascending into heaven).

    Jesus weilded the “left hand of power.” Showing and demonstrating strength through weakness. May we learn to relinquish, and not grasp.

    Reply

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