The problem with following Jesus is that doing so brings us to the cross. Following Jesus everywhere but to the cross is a popular rerouting of the American church. Our avoidance of death results from our disbelief that God raised Jesus from the dead and will do the same with us.
In his classic fourth-century work, “On the Incarnation,” Saint Athanasius, the great pastor and bishop of Alexandria, emphasized how the resurrection of Jesus frees us from fearing death. He explains, “Human beings, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior.” Christians, Athanasius insists, despise death because we know that resurrection lies on the other side.
Statistics suggest the church in America is dying. But church attendance cannot tell us whether or not this is a cruciform dying. Failing church attendance can be the result of a church that has lost its courage to follow Jesus (think of how the disciples scattered from the cross), or a church that has courageously followed Jesus (the early church lost many members through martyrdom, after all). Church attendance alone cannot tell us whether we have kept in step with Jesus. Far more important than the question, “How can we fill the pews?” is the question, “Are we following Christ to the cross?”
When asked about the church’s future in a July 2014 interview, Stanley Hauerwas responded, “I’m quite uncertain where the church is headed. But I am sure the Lord will raise up Christians for the future in a manner that may be quite surprising. Our hope is exactly that trust in God’s work. But how I see that work happening in the West is that he’s making the church leaner and meaner.”
At Greenville College, we care deeply about the vitality and courage of the local church to follow Jesus to the cross. Greenville College ministry students are actively involved in local churches and other ministries within and beyond our local community, as they help others to follow Jesus who bids us to come and die.
This past summer, we placed 10 seniors in ministry internships all over the country. One student’s internship took him to inner-city Chicago and as far as Brazil, where he served in a ministry soccer academy for underprivileged youth, which included refugee kids and children with disabilities.
At Greenville College, we believe theological education plays a vital role in renewing the church’s faithfulness and courage to follow Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we support our majors in seminary and graduate school, and encourage them to use their education to better serve the church.
As the church in America grows leaner and meaner, my hope and prayer is that we will become the kind of church who will follow Christ all the way to the cross and into the arms of the living God.
Benjamin D. Wayman is assistant professor of religion at Greenville College and a pastor at St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church.