Does the church as we know it in America have to die? Mike Regele thinks so. Mike is the founder and CEO at Missioninsite, a company that provides demographic research for churches and other nonprofits. He published a book in 1995 entitled Death of the Church that I found quite interesting at the time, and still do. The cover reads, “The church has a choice: to die as a result of its resistance to change or to die in order to live.”
The apostle Paul wrote in. I Corinthians 15:36, “How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (NIV) Regele believes this is especially true for the church. In his book he insists that dying to one’s self is at the very heart of the gospel. He writes, “At the core of Jesus’ message is the insistence that unless there is first a death, there can be no life. Unless we say no to our self-will, we cannot know the depth of God’s will; unless we turn away from following our own way, we cannot know God’s way; unless we confess our sin, we cannot know God’s forgiveness and his gift of righteousness; unless we are willing to die to self, we cannot know our true selves; unless we die, we cannot discover the life of God” (Death of the Church, p. 18).
Who can argue? Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25 NRSV).
Several years ago I was appointed as pastor to a church that had been declining in attendance for many years. There were only a handful of people left in the church under 65 years of age. Several talked to me soon after I arrived and asked, “Do you think you can keep the church alive until I die? These were wonderful individuals, but like many who sit in church pews on Sunday were more interested in the building and their little group than in the mission of the church. And rest assured, they didn’t want to change anything in order to keep the church alive, much less to carry out its God-given mission.
I realized very quickly that the church I served was going to change, just as Regele suggests in his book. It would die as a result of its resistance to change or it would die in order to live. Unfortunately, it chose to die as a result of its resistance to change. It was not the only church to make that choice. In fact, I’m afraid Mike Regele may be right. The American church has that same choice and we seem to be making the wrong one.
Regele summarizes his conclusions: “We have loved death more than life. We have loved our traditions more than God. And we have loved our institutions more than people.” (pages 212-213).