Life, Death, Steve Jobs and the Future of the Mainline Church

Steve Job’s commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University seems to be everywhere right now.  A whole host of media are sharing quotes from that speech.  Most of them are sharing this portion where he talks about death.  I guess I’ll join the throng and post that portion here:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Most people bring up this quote, because it seemed to forshadow Job’s fate.  But as theologian Susan Brooks Thistlewaite notes, there is something more going on here.  I think it has a lot to say about churches, especially Mainline Protestant Churches as they face an uncertain future.

For the last three years, I’ve been part of a church in decline.  When I came on staff in 2008, there was a lot of talk about closing the doors.  The previous 8 years had been ones of turmoil and loss.  The congregation seemed spent.  They had sold off their building and the new landlords (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) graciously offered First Christian time to stay in the building as they decided their future.

For a while I thought that death was closing the doors of the church.  That is one form of death, but in some ways death was all around the church.  People were aging and dying.  Programs and ministries stopped.  People were going through the motions and not really living.

Jobs was correct, death is the ulitmate change agent.  Whether it’s physical or metaphorical, it comes.  What was once new, becomes old and is swept away. The way things were don’t stay that way.

For a long time, mainline churches have been trying to avoid death.  “Do this program and you will live,” says a bevy of folks ready to offer this method or that program to people afraid to die.

But the thing is, everything changes, everything dies.

Back in January, First Christian voted to join an ecumenical partnership with two other churches: one Lutheran and the other United Church of Christ.  The three churches will share a retrofitted church building.  I could look at this as a way to stave off death, but in some way it is a death all of its own.  We will be a different congregation in that setting.  What we used to do in our current space won’t take place in the new space.  Things will die and new things will come into being.

With all of this change, I think the second part of Jobs’ message comes into being; that is- live now.  It’s so easy for churches to get stuck in the past, to do something because it’s what we’ve always done.  Jobs talked about listening to our inner voice, but in the life of the church, we are called to listen to the Spirit of God;something we are not good at doing.  Churches spend too much of their time NOT listening to the Spirit.  Instead, we listen to old dogmas that might provide comfort but not much else.

I think about how the disciples of Jesus started to go into the known world preaching the gospel.  They took a risk to live bodly now.

I hope that the congregation that I am honored to serve at and countless others near and far will learn to live now and allow the Spirit to blow into our lives.  I hope we can see that death is part of the process and allow it to happen. I hope we can learn to be bold and take risks so that at the end of the day we can say: “what an awesome ride that was!”

Thanks be to God.


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