We're in the middle of a sermon series called Restore. The main idea of the series- and the driving force behind our new church- is that we believe that God’s heart throughout history is for the restoration of brokenness, and that passion and purpose of God is embodied in the Gospel- the person and work of Jesus Christ. We believe that this is a work he desires to do now, and that he wants to do that work through us. For more on this, check out the first blog in this series.
This past weekend, during part 3, which you can watch or listen to here, I came up with a phrase on the spur of the moment that seemed to resonate: “We are so busy doing the work of the church that we fail to do the work of the church.” Here’s what that means: Christians often get so consumed with church activities that they miss out on the church’s mission. Attendance at church functions becomes an end rather than a means.
This has always been interesting to me, simply for the fact that 1) I don’t think anyone ever really intends to get sidetracked like this, but they do, and 2) I catch myself doing the same thing with great ease. As a church leader, I take some of the blame because we pastors often buy into the misguided notion that a successful church is a busy church- where there’s always something happening, the lights are always on, and the people are always engaged in some activity. But I think there’s more to it.
One of the most interesting dynamics of the Bible in Jesus’ time was that there was a well-established class of religious leaders, in spite of the tangle of social and political dynamics. This group of religious folks- the Pharisees and Sadducees- was apparently so numerous that they were hard to miss- the Gospels give us the impression that most people were pretty familiar with them, and many had even had personal encounters with them. But in spite of their numbers, influence, wealth, and power, there was also rampant poverty and suffering, a dynamic that plays out constantly throughout the Gospels. These religious leaders would have been experts in the Old Testament law and prophetic writings- writings in which God constantly admonishes the people to address these very issues. So it would have been very hard to miss God’s call to do something significant about the situation playing out right under their noses. So how did they live with that cognitive dissonance?
It’s possible they had gotten so cynical that they no longer even cared, and the allure of influence, wealth, and power would have been hard to resist in this brutal time. But I don’t think things started out that way. I think, just as often happens with us, the “work” of their religion eventually crowded out the mission God had intended for them. Talking about God’s justice and mercy is far easier than doing God’s justice and mercy. Over time, this became comfortable, rewarding, even respectable. So that by the time Jesus showed up, he represented a massive threat to their well-established way.
I taught college for 5 years. One of the classes I taught early on had a very technical section of book work that took up about half the semester, providing a theoretical foundation for what followed, which was weeks of hands-on practical application doing actual projects. I discovered a curious phenomenon: I had a group of students- close to half the class- who would ace the book section, with a strong grasp of arcane technical concepts and details. But once thrown into the hands-on section, many of them fell behind the curve and did the projects poorly. I learned an important lesson as a professor: getting people to talk correctly about something has little bearing on how well they will actually do it.
We like “church activity” because it’s safe- we’re in control, we can manage the outcome, and even reap the benefits, and sound knowledgeable, respectable, and passionate while doing it. And it seems so important, and much of it truly is! But doing the actual work of the church in a practical way- its mission to be the Gospel- is messy, inefficient, frustrating, and even scandalous. And we’re all a lot less adept at it than we think.
After that initial eye-opening experience with my college students, I began throwing them into the practical work of the course on the second week. It was chaos! A complete mess. They were frustrated. I was frustrated. But we kept going- week after week. The needs of the hands-on work made their need for knowledge and understanding of the theory and technical concepts behind their work critical, and they learned those important things quickly. I watched their skills- and their enthusiasm- grow week after week. By the end of this second run of the course, I had a far more capable, far more confident group of students.
How do we do the same in the church? By starting to DO the Gospel- not when we think we’re equipped and ready, but now. Even if it’s a small start. Like any bad habit that needs breaking and replacing with a new good habit, it’s frustrating, unnatural, frightening, and even painful. But it’s the only way.
Here at Newbridge Church, we’re launching a follow-on group to the Restore series to begin to live as Restorers in a world aching for restoration. We’re going to figure out how to do this. It’s not a study group, it’s a support group. You join a support group when you have a struggle that you need people to walk with you on the journey through. I’ll be joining the group, not so much to lead it as to learn, because I need help with this. I hope you will too. If you’re interested, you can let us know here- just tell us who you are, where you are, and how to contact you. I’d love to learn with you on the journey!