Renewing the Church: The Leading Causes of Life or the Tsunami of Death?

My favorite phrase is “the leading causes of life.” It was conceived by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, and I’ve written about it several times. Gary is Senior V.P. for Health and Welfare and Director of the Center for Excellence in Faith and Health of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.  Larry is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and Senior Pastoral Scholar for Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. They co-authored the book, Leading Causes of Life.

Their phrase endures, for me.

But another phrase is making the rounds in conversations in the denomination in which I labor: the “Death Tsunami.” It’s intended to describe the impending demographic change that will happen over the next several years as older members pass away.

It’s meant to be prophetic. Behind it is the thought that if these older members are not replaced with a younger group the days of the denomination itself are numbered.

 

I’ve been bouncing these two phrases around in my head, asking which excites me, gets my creative juices flowing, makes me want to get involved in making things better?

Guess which one does it for me?

I know the death phrase is meant to attract attention to a real problem. But it frames the future in such an inexorable way I just can’t get a handle on how to respond to it. As Gunderson and Pray write, “If death defines our efforts, then it will win every time.”

Hearing this, I want to start singing Joe Diffie’s country music song, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I die).” That’s about all the energy I can get for this framing of our collective future.

On the other hand, I can get energized about looking for the leading causes of life. It makes me want to search out those places and people who are creating, causing change, moving forward. It’s energizing to seek out what gives us life, makes it purposeful, gives it meaning. We are on a journey toward life.

For too long the mainline denominations have wallowed in their narrative of death. They’ve come to believe it, and they’ve allowed others to confirm it. Well, I don’t.

I believe we belong to each other and to God. This is the essence of our connection. In my denomination this means that the local church, annual conference and general church have the capacity to do more together than any of us can do alone. This gives us the capacity to transform the world for the better if we claim it and live it.

And that leads us to what Gunderson and Pray call coherence. Coherence is that web of blessing that defines our roles as human beings. It calls us beyond ourselves to become involved with others. It gives us life, they write. We are not alone and all about ourselves. We’re in this together.

In a world of rampant narcissism, the Christian faith calls us to become servants to those most vulnerable, in need and without voice. How counter-cultural is that?

And that call leads us out of helplessness and despair to agency. We can change and create change. We are not the inevitable victims of the tsunami of death. We are the agents who can bring, with God’s help, new life, new meaning, new purpose and hope to the dry, arid places that seem without the refreshing waters of renewal and healing.

And when we act in this way–moving toward life and toward others–we are blessed and we become a blessing. We sense that we are accountable to those who have come before, those who will follow and those with whom we share the invigorating journey called life.

So, like Joe Diffie, “I wanna go to heaven but I don’t wanna go tonight.” And “I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead” that perplexes me. So I’m not giving in to the tsunami of death talk.

Instead, I’m looking for life through connection, coherence, agency and blessing, and I see these at work in the stories of this denomination everyday.

Let’s seek the leading causes of life.

 

2 Responses to “Renewing the Church: The Leading Causes of Life or the Tsunami of Death?”

  1. Mike Weaver June 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    Hi Larry,
    Thanks for the inspiring words. Yes, it’s so tempting to focus on the “negative” as a way of awakening people to the problem (in this case, membership decline) instead of the hope that we have. When I hear the word “coherence,” that web of blessing that defines us as human, I can’t help but think of Jesus. And though coherence, connection, agency and blessing have an authentic ring to them that resonates with our spirits, a Christian way of understanding these things is simply: resurrection. The hope I grab hold of in the midst of despair is the reality that God has raised Jesus from the dead and intends to do the same for me (and us) today, and tomorrow. Because of that, we have no reason the fear any “death tsunami.”

  2. Marty Folsom July 10, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Larry – thanks for looking at the future of our church with this perspective. Now that I think of it, God arranged for humanity to not only survive, but to prosper, though different generations. The interaction between and among those generations is a way that God acts through and with us in many ways. I believe He means for the generations to work together for His good in the Church. After all, if God had wanted us to all be the same age forever, we would not have the opportunity to grow. Growth needs both wisdom and vitality. One without the other will always fall short.

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