Blog Archives

When a church dies…

Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.

The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).

We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.

We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.

The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms.  We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good.  We need to be willing to be re-formed.

We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.”  The Church – even THAT church – will go on.  Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being.  That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.

Unmasking, if not Smashing, Idols in the Church

Today I am glad to have two guest bloggers, John Wilkinson and MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  I have known MaryAnn since we were seminary classmates and John by name when he was in Chicago Presbytery before that, and then through mutual acquaintance (okay my dad) over the last several years.  John and MaryAnn are candidates for Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA).

Selecting our next Moderator and Vice-Moderator will be at the top of the agenda of the General Assembly when it meets in Detroit in June.  All our candidates are capable leaders and voices for our church but I personally hope John and MaryAnn’s candidacy is advanced. I cannot sum them up in any tight phrase but their voices will be good leadership and vision for our church at this time: passion and patience, conviction and wonderful deep listening skills, pervade all their work.I am grateful they took time from their busy pre-Assembly writing and speaking, not to mention pastoring and parenting their particular worlds, to write this follow up to my last post in my series on the Holy Spirit section of the Brief Statement of Faith.

Stay tuned following their post for more ways to connect with their work.  And without any more of my babbling, John and MaryAnn:

“to unmask idolatries in church and culture…”

Did you know that the original language in the Brief Statement of Faith was different than the final version? It’s true! According to theology professor George Stroup, the committee suggested this language to the church for use in its new confession:

“to smash idols in church and culture”

The church balked at the word “smash.” We Presbyterians are a polite and peaceable folk, it would seem—even when it comes to idolatry! However, the active word takes seriously the destructive potential of idols in our lives. Idols are those things that we construct or place our ultimate trust in, thinking they will bring us wholeness or security. But as Christians, we know that our only hope, joy, and comfort are in Jesus Christ, our Lord. (And Jesus does not promise us security, but abundant life, which is sometimes risky for the sake of the gospel.)

Still, the verb “unmask” is an intriguing compromise. We all wear masks from time to time, hiding our true selves from one another and from God. Perhaps part of this invitation is not only for us to remove masks in others – church AND culture – but to remove our own, so that we all appear as honestly and openly before God who already sees us as we are and as we are becoming.

Unmasking is both a pastoral and prophetic calling. It requires care, mindfulness, and tenderness. It also requires clarity, fierceness, and tenacity. Some masks go easily. Some don’t.

Andrew asked us to consider: what are some of the idols in the church? The fact is, anything can be an idol if we put our ultimate trust in it.

Consider this list:

  • appealing to young families
  • organ music
  • praise bands
  • the latest ministry fad
  • the denomination itself
  • stability—not wanting things to change
  • change for novelty’s sake or to appear “relevant”
  • growth in dollars, members and programs

Nothing on the preceding list is harmful in itself. In fact, God can and does work through them all. But all of them can become idols if we think they will save us.

We recently ran across this phrase: The foolish one says, “Not allowed,” The wise one asks, “Why am I uncomfortable?” Yes, sometimes in the midst of change, we’re uncomfortable because something essential to us is being threatened. But other times—probably more times than we’d care to admit—our discomfort is a signal that our idols are being threatened.

In the midst of these questions, we go back to the opening phrase of the Brief Statement of Faith: “In life and in death we belong to God.” What a comfort! The core idolatry is in believing that we don’t belong to God. Or, that we belong to something or someone else. Or, that we belong to ourselves. That unfolds in a million different ways, and is both cultural and social as well as intensely personal. And it’s the church’s job to help unmask those idolatries.

Find more vision from John and MaryAnn about the PC(USA), the calling of the Church, and the challenges and possibilities for those who follow in the way of Jesus Christ in these places:

John’s website

MaryAnn’s website

Our Facebook page

Brief Statement of Faith: Unmasking the Factory of Idols

Part of a series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: see below
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silence: forthcoming
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: forthcoming
  • In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive: forthcoming
  • To serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

“To unmask idolatries in Church and culture”

This is one of my favorite lines in the creed.  Well, maybe second after hearing the voices of those long silenced… but we’ll get there in the next installment.  It’s part of why I love this section.  It’s power-packed.


John Calvin is known for many things (it’s up for debate if they add up to him being famous or infamous).  One such thought that sticks with me is the idea that humanity is a factory of idols.  And just because everyone should be subjected to some Calvin here is a larger piece of that quote (skip it if long posts make you break out in hives):

Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God…. To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth…. Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. (Institutes of Christian Religion 1.11.8)

I’m also reminded of anthropology courses in college reading the work of the late Joseph Campbell (one of the world’s leading authorities on myth… you absolutely MUST watch his interviews with Bill Moyer one day) and particularly his work on the masks of God.  In a nutshell we cannot approach the infinite mystery that is God and so we created masks of God… stories, icons, etc.  Campbell warns we must not, however, mistake the mask for God.  This is the trouble.  We stop short after a while and stop seeking the God beyond the mask we created and we settle for the mask alone.  This is when an icon becomes an idol.  That which is meant to point beyond itself to the larger holiness of God becomes not a launching platform, but a stopping place.  We sit and worship that which was never meant to be the object of worship but only subject or tool or way to worship a larger reality beyond it.  We become limited by a particular reality of God to the larger holiness and wonder of God.

Take Moses for example.  There is a lot going on here that could be unpacked in a whole book but let’s just focus in on one aspect of the conflicted way Moses becomes a mask of God for the Israelites: the golden calf.  We all know that the Aaron and the Israelites melt down their gold to make a calf to worship as their god.  But do you recall why?  What is it that they lack that drives them to create a god of gold?

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (full story in Exodus 32)

The people miss Moses.  They aren’t feeling a need to make gods to replace God.  They are feeling a need to replace Moses, their mask of God (Moses even wears a veil to protect them from the reflected glory of God).  In his prolonged absence they need to replace the mask (Moses) that had already become their god in the place of God, the God of Abraham and Isaac.

I could speak a long time on idols.  Let us have that suffice.  I think what we need to hold on to is this (which is by no mean all there is to say):

  • Idols are human, and thus limited, creations.
  • Idols become objects of devotion or devoted-ness.
  • Idol devotion is the worship of a particular reality to the exclusion of the larger work and being of God.
  • Idols often start out as good things, may even still be good things.  The problem isn’t the idol – it’s how we choose to relate to it.


Church and Culture

I love that the Brief Statement names idols of Church.  We can so easily fixate on the problem that is culture.  But first and foremost the idol factory is the Church itself.  After all it’s the Church that is a type of vehicle for the worship of God.  It stands to reason then that the Church is the most in danger of relating in unhealthy devotion to a limited representation of God. We are in the God-people business, but how easily does that become being in the Church-people business?

Culture isn’t left out, nor should it be.  The Church always lives in context.  And the Church is, I think, never more than a subculture within the larger potting soil of the culture in which we live and have our being.  Culture too presents objects of devotion.  They are perhaps more slippery because they do not claim to be gods, and yet they crave your full attention and allegiance, and billions of dollars are spent in evangelism.  Just start watching TV commercials but imagine you are watching an advertisement for community of faith.  What god are they selling you?  What way of life are they trying to convince you that you yearn for?

This hardly scratches the surface but we create idols of parenting styles, of sports, academics, success, and achievement.  Anything that seeks your whole attention as a goal in and of itself to the exclusion of a larger reality is, in some way, seeking to become and idol and object of devoted-ness. The world is a factory of idols – good, bad, and indifferent – the question is how we choose to relate to them



I’ve said enough.  Whatever work here that was mine is done.  Connect the dots now.  What are the idols we need to unmask among us?  And what’s more – how can we unmask God from the idols of our well-intended creation?  What are we devoted to, to the exclusion of a wider reality, a larger circle of love, and deeper sense of connection to all life?

This is our task, to know that we will seek out idols.  We will create them.  We will find ways to make the infinite finite and we will worship short of the full mystery and wonder of God.  But, with the Spirits help, we can also seek out idols to unmask them, to undo them, and to release the infinite creativity of the divine from the trappings and cages and limited understandings we possess.

What unmasking is the Spirit calling upon you to do in your life: your community, your church (and our Church), and the wider world in which we live and have our being?

The Cross Must Come Down!

I read this article earlier about a judge ruling that a cross as a war memorial must come down ( and I can imagine the outrage among some Christians about this “persecution.” As if there aren’t much greater and more horrific things for us to get un/righteously upset about.  So I had this provocative idea to add a bit of perspective to this.  You see just like the Puritans are the only people who really ever staged a war on Christmas (they actually made it illegal because they saw it detracting from faith not celebrating it) the Church also has its own history of waging a war on the cross.

That’s right: meet John Calvin.  Mostly folk love him or hate him – I have a rather nuanced appreciation for him myself and while we are quick to dismiss him it should probably be noted that Karl Barth (much more widely adored by 20th century Reformed Theologians like Presbyterians) who himself had issues with Calvin also had this to say of him.

Barth was confronted with the disturbing strangeness of Calvin’s theology. As he famously expressed in a 1922 letter to his lifelong friend, Eduard Thurneyeson:


Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately….I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

So why do I bring Calvin on the scene?  Because Calvin waged a bit of his own war on the cross.  Removed them all in fact from the sanctuaries in which he worshiped.  Of the Cross as decoration he had this to say (in the midst of larger rant about images in churches, and I added a coupe or three parenthetical thoughts of my own):

I still cannot see what benefit such images (not yet talking about crosses but about Christian works of art in worship spaces) can provide for the unlearned… except to make them into anthropomorphites, {i.e. people who humanize God}.-Indeed, brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than the churches (he doesn’t mince words does he?) show those objects which they wish to be seen as images of virgins.-But then we shall also answer that this is not the method of teaching the people of God whom the Lord will to be instructed with a far different doctrine than this trash (no he doesn’t at all).  He has set forth the preaching of His word as a common doctrine for all.-From this one word they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of either wood or stone.-Therefore, He will vindicate His majesty and glory against any who may transfer it to graven images or other things.  And not once, but against fathers, the children and the grandchildren. (1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, p.21)

That’s right.  John Calvin was a remover of crosses.  A remover of all religious imagery.  John Calvin was a word guy of course (and a Word guy as well).  He probably would have greatly struggled in this image driven world we live in today.  Not probably – he would have – but lucky for him he’s 500 years dead.  However…. like Barth we could use to spent some time with Calvin’s thoughts on this subject.

It is okay to be image driven – but not image fixated.  Jesus story was about the word made flesh – not the word turned into a wood/stone/metal image that does our witness for us.  Let the cross be take down – its our lives that are meant to be speaking this story.  Paul Ricoeur’s great work on symbols reminds us that they only have meaning when they are embedded in the story from which they are birthed.  A cross has no meaning by itself, and as Calvin would be quick to remind us it actually becomes but a graven image when it no longer reflects the story from which it speaks.  And so Calvin stripped the cross out of his worship – crosses that had become bereft of their deeper meaning – to get us back to the story, the good news, the word made flesh.

Jesus sits at a meal and breaks bread and says, “when you do this, remember me.”  Too often today we wish to leave our remembering, and even our doing, to static symbols, buildings, and platitudes.  In a season of Advent what I am always reminded of the most is that we are called to, awaiting, participating in an incarnational ministry.  “The word became flesh and lived among us.”  And we became the word and went into the world.

Let the crosses come down; and let us live the cross in our lives.