My friend, Rev. Christine Jerrett says, “When you’re giving birth, there comes a moment when you think you’re going to die.”
I must confess, I have no personal experience of this, but it rings true. The birth pains of something new can feel like death.
This has been born out many times in the history of God’s people. When God begins to do something new, at first it feels like the end. And it is – the end of the old, the arrival of the new. A few examples:
The Crisis: The Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem, carries the leaders into exile, and reduces the temple on Mount Zion to rubble.
|Destruction of Temple 587 BC|
The Reaction: People asked: “Where is God? Why did God not protect us? How can we possibly survive without the temple where we can make our sacrifices? We’re finished.”
The New Birth: The exiles turn to the sacred story and begin to create what we know as Scripture which, unlike a temple, is portable. Jewish communities centred on Scripture and religious practices spring up and flourish from Persia to Spain.
The Crisis: Some Jews believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Gentiles – non-Jews – are beginning to come to faith in Jesus and experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
The Reaction: People asked, “How can Gentiles be included in the church if they do not keep the laws of given by God to Moses? Without traditions like circumcision and abstaining from unclean food, we can’t survive.”
The New Birth: Inspired leaders like Peter and Paul realize that salvation is a free gift. Grace and faith, not adherence to religious regulations, bring us into a relationship with God. As a result, Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.
The Crisis: An Augustinian monk and professor named Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther challenges the authority of the papacy and attacks the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reaction: People ask, “How can the church survive if we don’t have a central teaching authority to tell us what’s right? If ordinary people start to read the Bible for themselves, it will be chaos!
The New Birth: With newly printed Bibles in their hands and passionate preachers in their pulpits, people discover that each individual can have a saving relationship with God by faith alone. Protestant churches flourish – and, the Roman Catholic Church also experiences reformation and a spiritual renaissance.
The Crisis: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, outlining the theory of evolution. Darwin’s work directly challenges the biblical account of creation.
The Reaction: People are horrified. They ask, “How can Christianity survive if the truth of the Bible is questioned? If the Bible is ‘wrong’ about the age of the earth, how can we trust it on other matters? The whole edifice of Christian belief will collapse.”
The New Birth: Christians begin to re-examine their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge. They discover fresh ways of reading the Bible and understanding the Gospel. They realize that Scripture and science are not necessarily in conflict.
The Crisis: The law banning businesses from opening on Sundays in Ontario is struck down. Sunday morning is transformed from a quiet day of rest and worship to prime time for shopping and sports. Almost overnight, young families start to disappear from churches.
Reaction: People are perplexed. They ask, “How can our churches survive if we have to compete with the shopping mall and the arena? How can we possibly attract enough people to pay for our big buildings and full-time ministers and programs and activities?”
The New Birth: Churches experience a wake-up call. They begin to realize they need to do more than open the doors on Sunday morning if they want to attract people. They start to ask what their mission is in a culture where church is no longer at the centre.
The Crisis: Sunday participation has continued to decline. Most churches are older and smaller.
Reaction: Some churches are wondering if the end is near. They are asking if they can survive without their buildings, paid ministers and a new generation of younger people.
The New Birth: To be determined….
We are in a place that God’s people have been many times before. Feeling like the end is near. Wondering how we can hold on to what we once had. Fearful of the future.
The lesson of the past, though, is that new birth feels like death. Where is that new birth in the midst of upheaval and decline today? Whether we can discern the new thing God is doing and reimagine what it means to be the church will be critical in shaping out future.