One of the most interesting and troubling things I’ve found about myself and my church (any of the churches of which I’ve been a member!) is the number of things we know we should do and even decide we will do, but which never get done. Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is certainly ecclesiology, but is it shelf ecclesiology (that’s nice) or is it practical ecclesiology (let’s do that)?
In this case I can’t point fingers. In my personal life I need to get more exercise and lose a significant amount of weight. How long have I known this? Well, I’m the son of a doctor who was medical director of a health conditioning center when I was in my teens. And yes, he knew about these things before that time and after that time, and he taught them to me. I cannot claim that I didn’t know what the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive food intake (biblical gluttony, no?) would be. While I’m working on reforming this now, I do so slowly and under constant temptation to avoid the needed change. It’s not that I’m tempted to do useless things. In fact, I’m tempted to work, and for me work involves being in front of a computer. So one good thing tempts me away from another one. But that doesn’t make it right. I know I should get more exercise. I know I should eat less. Making those changes so that they are a fundamental part of my new normal is very difficult.
Romans 7 anyone? I know many Arminians see Romans 7 as a description of our pre-Christ experience. I see it as very descriptive of what I and many Christians live every day. The problem comes in when we make Romans 7 into a continuous, hopeless loop about everything. Yes, we all have our Romans 7 experiences, but we’re invited into Romans 8. Not that we’ll live at “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25) at all times and on all subjects.
It’s easy to make excuses. I’m very busy. It’s hard building up a small publishing company. I have a lot of work to do. I’m very healthy, taking no medications and very rarely missing work. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake! (Ice cream, sweets, lots of butter, bread—they’ll do it even to a vegetarian!)
But no matter how many excuses I produce, I know this: I need to change.
There are many reasons why we don’t change, and many excuses for why we can ignore things that we hear.
- We find some fault with the messenger. The wrong person is making the suggestion, so it can’t really be right.
- We nit-pick the message. There’s something in there that won’t work in our situation, so we discard everything new and go back to what we were doing.
- We are change-weary. We’ve tried to make changes so many times and have failed. Why should we try yet another thing?
- We don’t see our present problems. We’re so used to the way things are and the level of success we’re having, that we think that’s precisely what should be going on.
- Other people are much worse off than we are. The church down the street is so inward-looking. By comparison, we’re outgoing, gospel-oriented, and on fire for missions. (This is like my “I don’t smoke” excuse. I’m better than the person who’s killing himself with cigarettes.)
- This change is going to cause problems. Usually this means that the leadership is afraid of losing control.
- I don’t have enough guidance. Where is the calendar, worksheet, study guides, long term plan, etc.?
I could go on, but we’ll stop at seven. Nice number!
I think, nonetheless, that our bottom line is fear. We are surviving the way we are, but will we survive after we change? The pastor wonders if he’ll lose members. The members wonder if they’ll be happy with the new church service on Sunday morning. The education team wonders if anyone will attend Sunday School. Everyone wonders whether they’ll be annoying their neighbors. And while we might not admit it, we wonder whether we’ll be happy ourselves. So we stay the same.
One of the great fears is that we will lose control. This has been the bane of the church from very early times, I think. We’re very much afraid of the movement of the Spirit because the Spirit is not under our management. Not that we don’t try!
In Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, the 12th habit Ruth Fletcher mentions is Choosing (p. 123). Here’s a key quote:
Transforming congregations learn to choose and choose again. They don’t have to get it right the first time around. They can gain insight from any action they take and that insight will aid them opting to take the next step into the future. Transforming congregations acknowledge that when they act with courage, some people may decide to leave, but they would rather decide to do something than to remain lukewarm about everything. (p. 126)
Bruce Epperly comes at this from another angle in Transforming Acts:
The spiritual leaders acknowledged that they couldn’t do everything. They confessed that the task of sharing God’s word left no time for taking care of domestic issues. They needed partners in ministry: so they prayerfully chose a group of people to insure that everyone had a share in the community’s resources. They let go of control, and let go of power, so that human needs could be met.
In ways that are still countercultural, they relinquished the power of the purse for a greater good, the well-being of the whole people of God. They recognized that within the body of Christ, everyone has a role – their spiritual leadership of the community did not lead to micromanaging or power plays, or a sense of spiritual superiority, but a vision of shared responsibility. Perhaps, their selfless leadership inspired the Apostle Paul’s vision of the multi-gifted body of Christ in which the well-being of one shapes the health of the whole body and the whole body, operating effectively, provides nurture and support for each constituent part. (pp. 67, 68)
Giving up control and choosing to act. When we have acted, we choose to learn from that action and act again.
What has impressed me about the church, not to mention my own life, is what a difference we could make if we simply acted on the things we already know are right. Yes, new information is good, but we have a tendency to collect the information and fail to perform the actions. There are many controversial things. But if we laid those aside and simply acted on what we know to be right, what might happen?
I doubt that church would like like the church in America at this moment.