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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Minding Our Own Business

Our church just got a flow chart. It’s our very first.

Congratulate us. We have a new hierarchy, with the elders and lead pastor pegged in at the apex, then a sort of “Christmas tree” pattern downwards, with levels for “administrative pastors” and “pastors of family life and missions” and then various lay designates like Sunday School supervisors and teen ministry functionaries below them. (The congregation itself didn’t make it onto the diagram, but I think they’re assumed to be down there somewhere.)

And … oh yes … Someone Else is missing. I just can’t think of who he is.

Weep for us. We have entered the age of the business-model church. Our elders are still around, but are as weak as milk. “Spiritual professionals” now run things on our behalf, and we funnel up funds to make it worth their while. Hirelings are in the house.

Meanwhile, the lower functionaries are being classified, titled, regimented, segmented, and put into streams of accountability. Formal roles are taking over from volunteerism. Jobs are no longer open to talent. Giftedness is out. And the “priesthood of all believers”? What’s that? The wider congregation is settling back into the pews, oblivious or indifferent to what God may have equipped them to do. From now on, they are to be the ground-level consumers whose needs will henceforth be supplied by our new institution of spirituality.

For us, it may well all be over. Save yourselves while there’s still time.

Self-Sufficient Churches

You see, local churches are not multinational corporations or even small businesses. They’re not about money, markets, strategies and customer service (though recently the church consultancy industry has been quick to assure us that they are). No, a church is an organic entity, a local manifestation of the Body of Christ. Its priorities are spiritual, not consumerist. Its purposes are worship, prayer, God’s truth and real fellowship with others dedicated to the same values. Things like numbers, flow charts, mission statements, demographics, surveys, financial reports, popularity, marketing and investors, things so central to running businesses, are not at all what we’re about.

Here’s the key difference: businesses and corporations run very well without reference to God. But the local church cannot be what it should be for even one minute if it is out of connection with its head, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s dead without him.

In fact, if you are running something you call a “church” and it can go on without prayer, without going back to the scripture continually, and without giving any thought to the Lord’s view of anything it’s doing, then what you’re running isn’t actually a church — it’s merely a religious bureaucracy. Real churches, by definition, don’t run without depending on the Head of the Church.

Decapitation

And yet, how many of these religious bureaucracies do we have around us today? Plenty, it would seem. Many so-called churches now do their day-to-day operations without the slightest need for spiritual input. In fact, many of them run very well by the cleverness of business experts or by the sheer ingenuity of their own members.

This isn’t really news, is it? But I suspect my saying it is going to annoy some folks anyway. “What do you mean? How can you say we’re not being spiritual? How do you get the right to judge what we do? We pray before every meeting. We use scripture as much as anybody. Our worship services are as good as anyone’s, and probably better than most. How dare you tell us you think we’re not up to snuff? Mind your own business!”

Don’t Mind Me

Okay, let’s not get upset here. I’m not accusing all Christians of selling out to the methods of the corporations. But I am saying that if we’re operating like a corporation, then there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with us. And I’m not the first to say it.

In fact, half a century ago A.W. Tozer, that cunning old codger, saw this specific problem coming, and made the same point better than I can. His poignant little essay, The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches (1963) is called by many “a Christian classic”.

Of course, we don’t read Christian classics today much, do we? But maybe I can talk you into taking a bite of this one, because frankly, I think he could have written it yesterday. It’s just that relevant. Tozer writes:
“Among the gospel churches Christ is now in fact little more than a beloved symbol. ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name’ is the church’s national anthem and the cross is her official flag, but in the week-by-week services of the church and the day-by-day conduct of her members someone else, not Christ, makes the decisions. Under proper circumstances Christ is allowed to say ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden’ or ‘Let not your heart be troubled’, but when the speech is finished someone else takes over. Those in actual authority decide the moral standards of the church, as well as all objectives and all methods employed to achieve them. Because of long and meticulous organization it is now possible for the youngest pastor just out of seminary to have more actual authority in a church than Jesus Christ has.”
And he continues,
“Not only does Christ have little or no authority; His influence also is becoming less and less. I would not say that he has none, only that it is small and diminishing ... The Lordship of Jesus is not quite forgotten among Christians, but it has been relegated to the hymnal where all responsibility toward it may be comfortably discharged in a glow of pleasant religious emotion. Or if it is taught as a theory in the classroom it is rarely applied to practical living. The idea that the Man Christ Jesus has absolute and final authority over the whole church and over all of its members in every detail of their lives is simply not now accepted as true by the rank and file of evangelical Christians.”
Well, maybe: but how would he know? He’s old and dead.

True. But he was too shrewd to leave the buy-in to chance. So no sooner had he pegged the problem than he rolled right into a series of extremely practical questions we can pose to ourselves about our own church. He asked:
“What church board consults our Lord’s words to decide matters under discussion? What Sunday School committee goes to the Word for directions? Who remembers when a conference chairman brought his Bible to the table with him for the purpose of using it? What foreign mission board actually seeks to follow the guidance of the Lord as provided by his Word and his Spirit? What Christian when faced with a moral problem goes straight to the Sermon on the Mount or other New Testament Scripture for the authoritative answer? What theological school, from the lowly Bible institute up, could continue to operate if it were to make Christ Lord of its every policy?”
In all these scenarios, said Tozer, we may crack the spine of our Bibles for a minute or two, but then we charge ahead on the assumption that we (or our preferred experts) really know what has to be done anyway; and in all our activities after that, added Tozer (with dripping irony), “… the Head of the Church is respectfully silent while the real rulers take over”.

Lovely. Well, is he right? Have you been at any planning meetings, elders’ meetings, “worship” services or other such nominally spiritual gatherings that fit the patterns he indicts above? I know I sure have. And more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve participated in the kind of indifferent decision-making Tozer calls to account. I find it as natural as anyone does to think I know something, and then rush ahead to get it done, instead of giving a moment’s thought to how the Head of the Church fits into my plans.

In fact, what is he doing being fitted into my plans at all? Shouldn’t I be looking to be fitted into his?

Minding the Lord’s Business

And that’s the point. I should not be minding my own business: I should be minding his. I should not be asking “What do I think can be done here” or “What is my vision for this ministry” or “How can I make my church better?” Instead, I should be asking, “What is the Lord doing in this area, with these people; and how can I fit into the plan he’s unfolding for his glory?”

And if I think that’s going to happen without me praying or opening his word, I’m just fooling myself. If I think I can storm ahead after some kind of perfunctory prayer for blessing, I’m being an idiot.

A Little Foolishness

I mean that literally. Do you know what an idiot is? It’s someone who thinks his own id (self) is sufficient. The ancient Greeks coined the word. They thought the stupidest thing a person could do is absent himself from communal life or political involvement, and follow his own private prejudices. But the Greeks were wrong: the stupidest thing is to try to do spiritual work without dependence on God.

The apostle Paul understood that. When the Galatians were turning back to the old religious practices, he asked them this question: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” His point is that they were saved when they gave up on themselves and turned to God for help; and having begun that way, did they really think that they would afterward be transformed and perfected as Christians by mucking about with fleshly, legal adjustments? How absurd.

But if Tozer is right, this cuts us too. For what could be more foolish than to think that we could perfect the church, the fellowship of the people of God, by the solitary ingenuity of the self we had to put to death when we were saved, or by the wisdom of the world, the same world that crucified the Savior?

Relearning Dependence

We need to relearn our dependence on God. And I don’t mean that we just need to grasp it in theory (for who would deny it?), but that we need to make it our practice. For it is not what we say we do, but what we actually do that reveals what we actually believe.

How much do we need the Lord? What do we need him for? Are we willing to wait as long as it takes, to do as much prayer and as much study as we need in order to discern that will, or are we ruled more by the urgencies of the moment? If what he wants is impolitic, challenging, unpopular or unpalatable, how willing are we to bow and do his will anyway? How can we open up spaces in our church lives and our personal lives for the Head of the Church to speak powerfully to us again?

These sorts of questions will surely determine the future of the local church. After all, we’re not minding our own business …

We’re minding his.

2 comments :

  1. Great article. Just curious, why do you choose to fellowship in a church where you clearly disagree with how they operate?

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    Replies
    1. Good question: maybe I'l have to do a post about that. People might find it interesting.

      The short answer is this: local churches change. They begin committed to one thing, then get committed to something close to it but not it (all the while using the language of their original convictions) and then not committed to the principle at all. And when that happens, we're all faced with a difficult choice, and have to ask ourselves, "Just how far can I/should I let this go, and what should I do if I don't"?

      For different situations, different answers are probably appropriate. Discernment is the big challenge there, to be sure.

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