Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Getting Off the Hamster Wheel

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things …”

The COVID church life interregnum served at least one profitable purpose: it stopped all our programs and activities dead in their tracks, and forced anyone with critical faculties to give at least a cursory examination to their validity and usefulness.

That was a long overdue exercise. But when governments finally pushed the “continue” button and allowed us to unlock the doors of our buildings, many Christians couldn’t wait to climb back on the hamster wheel and begin spinning again.

Some of the more reflective folks did not. I do not believe they are necessarily being carnal.

The Perpetual Motion Machine of Church Life

Modern churches are machines. Oh, we pay lip service to the “body”, “bride” and “building” metaphors of the New Testament, but when it comes right down to it, the average evangelical’s vision of corporate Christian life is more like a perpetual motion machine than any of those biblical images. It may be unintentional. It may be inevitable. But it seems whenever we go about trying to give some sort of consistent shape to church life, what we end up creating is a mechanism that enables us to efficiently fill boxes on the calendar, book speakers, advertise regular meetings, run programs and special purpose initiatives, purchase and consume supplies and, yes, generate revenue.

All these activities may go on week after week without any particular spiritual exercise or thought because they have become our established routine. And, like the businesses in our communities, Christians in many modern churches are untroubled if they carry significant debt in the process. After all, this is the Lord’s work, right? Right?

Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I sat and talked with a pair of Christian women who decided it wasn’t, at least not for them.

The Difference Between the Sexes

I will be honest: when I was a callow youngster, I never gave much thought to where those delicious monthly pot luck dinners were coming from; to the regular nursery schedule; to the chapel cleaning calendar; to whether the Sunday School was adequately staffed; or to where the bread, wine, coffee, cookies and other goodies we consumed during and between services came from. I participated in the parts of church life I enjoyed and which suited me and blithely ignored the rest of what was going on around me.

Turns out women don’t do that. Or most women at any rate.

I should probably have noticed that. See, one of the major differences between the sexes is that far more women than men are deeply concerned about what other people think. Men can usually shrug off the disapproval of others if they feel convinced about the correctness of their own priorities. But women frequently feel they will be considered negligent if they do not participate in every possible church activity, meet every perceived need and answer every call for action.

They are probably right. Our churches all have their Marthas: women whose first impulse when they notice something needs doing is to draft somebody else to help. And, when help is not forthcoming, their second impulse is to browbeat and chastise those who are not participating, either directly or behind their backs … or just sign them up without asking.

It never occurred to me that some of these draftees do not enjoy what they are conscripted to do, or are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the regular local church machinery on their time or household budget. I just assumed that, like me, if they didn’t think an activity profitable or had other spiritually important things to do, they simply wouldn’t let anyone drag them into participating. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No, what these women would do is try harder, stretch themselves further, and make themselves increasingly miserable in the process of trying to be what they think we expect them to be.

The Good Portion

A fair bit of unnecessary bitterness comes from that. Oh, you won’t usually see furious exchanges in the kitchen. Nobody comes to blows over it. But there is often a lot of low-level grumbling and murmuring going on that the men in a local church never hear about unless they get a taste of it from their wives in the car on the way home from meeting. It’s not that these women don’t want to serve. They just don’t want to devote endless hours to forms of service others have plunged them into with no consideration of their personal situation or their other ongoing obligations. Those activities may be traditional, but they have no specific biblical warrant. In many cases, these women have other outlets for service on which they would prefer to spend their time, budget and energy. For example, they may feel that opening their home for the afternoon to a few carefully chosen guests constitutes a better use of resources and a more profitable time together than sitting around long tables in an atmosphere-less church basement where conversation is constantly interrupted by the requirements of waiting on others, and little actual fellowship is experienced.

Likewise, some believers, both men and women, are finding they prefer actively discussing scripture with one another in their living rooms at home to pew-sitting in a stupor as someone preaches the same old sermon for the fiftieth time. I don’t blame them. But for Christians who conflate regular attendance at the scheduled meetings and special events of the church with faithfulness to Christ, such a choice may seem lazy, immature or uncommitted. Many of these folks have no hesitation telling you that.

When the Lord declined to let Martha use him to draft her sister into kitchen duty, he did it very tenderly, but also very firmly. Just as the repetition of the word “verily” at the beginning of one of the Lord’s sayings signals that it’s time to pay serious attention to what follows, the repetition of Martha’s name reminds us of the affection the Lord had for the sisters. I like the New Living Translation on this one. It reads, “My dear Martha”. I think that’s really the sense of it. But as much affection as the Lord displays here, he is not about to play along with Martha’s suggestion. Mary had “chosen the good portion”, and he was not about to take it away from her.

I don’t think the Lord was telling Martha to come sit down at his feet with Mary, or suggesting that her natural inclination toward service was a wrong priority for her. Service may well have been exactly what Martha was made for. But it wasn’t what Mary was made for. And here’s the thing: only Mary could rightly decide what Mary’s priorities should be. To our own Master we stand or fall, right?

Organic vs Mechanical

So what’s “the good portion” today? Well, like Mary and Martha, that’s going to differ from one person to another, isn’t it, just as gifts, experience, skills and disposition differ from individual to individual. Church socials and pew-sitting are sacred cows for some people; they would never give them up. On the other hand, instead of stockpiling groceries for the regular church pot lucks, one of my friends prefers to bake donuts and take them around to her neighbors door to door, looking for opportunities to witness and build bridges with them. You should see those donuts disappear! And so does she — across or down the street. Her neighbors are ready to bend her ear at the first opportunity. They know she is interested in them and cares about their lives. Her husband volunteers at a local food bank, driving meals to needy families. He’s more inclined to actively meeting needs than sitting in yet another regularly scheduled church meeting.

For Christians who only recognize service when it is packaged traditionally and signed off on by church leadership as a legitimate “ministry”, this may all seem a little too random and disorganized for their taste. But to me, the organic is always preferable to the mechanical. And if we are attentive to the imagery of scripture, we will be careful about drafting, shaming or pushing people to be involved in the activities of the church that appeal to us personally. There are many parts, yet one body.

What About the Mortgage?

But wait, some will say. If everyone abandons those church activities they don’t feel drawn to or don’t find profitable in order to put their time, money and energy into whatever form of service suits their own gifts, desires and inclinations, how will the church run its programs? How will they pay the mortgage?

Good question. But it’s a question for people who think a church should have a mortgage in the first place, assuming there are enough of them to keep a roof over their own heads. It’s a question for people who feel all the traditional North American church programs must be run in every church or there is something wrong. It’s not a question for Christians who would rather be sending their discretionary budget to the mission field or spending those evening hours in a home Bible study, or evangelizing their neighbors.

They already know what they should be doing, and how to make it happen.

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