First Things First

I found this a fascinating article – if not necessarily rocket-science-surprising – about the sudden collapse of superstar pastor Mark Driscoll and his mega church Mars Hill in Seattle.

Of course, there is a salaciousness to reading such articles that I have to be careful of.  When you struggle with what you’re doing, how you’re perceived, what the next step is, how to be faithful, it can be delicious to read about those who have it all and then lose it.  That’s the wrong attitude to take in this article.  This isn’t ultimately about Mark Driscoll or how we feel about him or his theology.  Ultimately this is about people and their discipleship in Jesus Christ.  Events like this impact thousands and thousands of people.  Whether I agree or disagree with Driscoll’s style or theology, I ache for the people his abdication and the end of his church affect.

Hopefully lots of pastors and aspiring pastors out there read this article, with it’s damning critique of the corporate mentality that has infected so many congregations and seminaries.  Faithfulness is not a metric, and it sure as hell is not a metric anchored in weekly attendance and giving levels and budgets.  Yet this is what we often reduce it to.  The temptation is easy.  It feeds our pride, our desire for success, our competitiveness.  It courts all the wrong instincts in us, and uses the guise of the Gospel to fool us.  A mega-church is not by definition more faithful than a small congregation, and visa versa.

And there are lots of ways that we can find ourselves dipping into this dangerous pool of thought.  This article from my denominational leadership sounds like it’s on the right track.  It begins by shunning the topic of Christianity’s cultural dominance and how to regain it as an inappropriate and misleading goal – which it is.  Unfortunately, when the author rephrases the question halfway through the article, the rephrasing leads us pretty much in the same direction as the first question, but does so through the use of sacramental language.

I believe it does this because it focuses the emphasis of revitalization on evangelism.  Now, let me state quickly that there is nothing wrong with evangelism, inherently.  It is theologically sound and echoes the heart of God the Father and God the Son.  But I firmly believe it has also become the theological idol of the last hundred years or more.  St. Paul had to rein in the Corinthians’ exaltation of speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift.  If St. Paul were writing today, I suspect strongly he would condemn the modern Western church for our glorification of evangelism as the greatest of spiritual gifts, the one spiritual gift to rule all the others, to borrow a little from J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the Ring of Power in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  And just like the ring, invoking evangelism is more often than not a great-sounding idea with some very unexpected and devastating consequences.

Jesus doesn’t summarize the commands of God as “Love God and bring the sacraments with your unbelieving neighbors”.   He summarizes them as “Love God and love your neighbor”.  If we want to talk about the revitalization of our churches, we need to talk about individual revitalization, as Rev. Wood notes in his article.  But we need to talk about such revitalization without ulterior motives.  The Holy Spirit works in my heart, in my words and thoughts and feelings and actions to make me more Christ-like.  To sanctify me through the faith that has justified and saved me.

In this process, others will see God at work.  As I prioritize my life around my Savior, my life will naturally look different from those who have a different center.  This is what I hear at play in Acts 2:42-47.  There is no talk of revitalizing these people specifically with the motive of evangelism.  What is described is people who are revitalized, their lives are reordered and reprioritized in a dramatic fashion, and that in this and alongside this and perhaps even because of this, the Lord added to their number daily.

If we want to talk about individual revitalization, this is the talk that needs to be had first and foremost.  If such revitalization is happening, evangelism may be a natural outgrowth of the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  I maintain that it may not be for everyone, though.  And either way,  to put evangelism ahead of that personal transformation and revitalization – or define that transformation as evangelism – is in error.  It isn’t a bad error – or at least a bad-sounding error.  But it leads us to dangerous places.  Places where we are not concentrating on the power of the resurrected Christ in our own lives, in our own relationships, but rather are shifting our focus away from what the Holy Spirit wants and needs to do in our lives, and to the intangible subject of how to “share the treasures of God’s Word and Sacraments with the people in our community who are perishing.”

This is not the elimination of evangelism from our prayers or from the purpose of God, but to recognize ultimately what Driscoll and his followers learned the hard way.  When we take evangelism into our own hands, we are playing with fire.  Left in our hands, evangelism almost always devolves from Gospel into Law.  It becomes a matter of numerics, a matter of how many people have you shared the Gospel with this week?  A tally of how many people you brought to Christ?  And almost universally, it becomes guilt.  Guilt when the fruit of the Spirit is predefined, rather than left to the imagination and forethought of the God who created and redeems us and is continually in the work of sanctifying us.

Left in our hands, evangelism can’t help but rise to the status of spiritual gift idol.  Are you a generous giver?  That’s all well and good, but how many people have you shared Christ with this week?  Have you been gifted with a wonderful servant heart and are always ready to lend a hand to anyone in need?  How sweet, and when you match that with your evangelism efforts, you’ll be a real follower of Christ.  Do you have a gift with teaching or administration?  We certainly could use those gifts in every church, but we’re still going to exhort you every Sunday in sermons to be an evangelist.

I detest this manipulation and ordering of spiritual gifts.  I hate what it does to people.  And I deeply suspect that when we take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives, we won’t need to worry about evangelism.  The Holy Spirit will be cramming people into our churches faster than we can deal with them.  Or creating many new smaller communities of faith to support them.  When we decide to set goals on bringing new people into church, I immediately suspect that what we’re really most concerned about is the fact that our congregations are shrinking and we need new givers.  Younger givers.  Non-retired givers.  I suspect that growth of the Holy Spirit directed kind is going to be challenging in entirely different ways – even frustrating and annoying!  I suspect that we will be forced to grow personally, to be revitalized to accept and incorporate the many new people that might be showing up, shockingly few of whom may look and think exactly like we do.

Driscoll and Mars Hill are only guilty of succeeding with what all-too-many congregations and church leaders secretly crave and covet.  The lesson we need to learn here isn’t one of technique, but focus.  Take evangelism down from the pedestal and let the Holy Spirit show you and your community what your strengths are.  Use those strengths, joyfully.  Don’t pre-define the outcomes.  Keep your eyes on Christ.  Be willing to compromise and change strategies and have expectations redefined mid-stream.  Is it comfortable and predictable?  Hardly.  But I don’t think either of those two words could be used to describe the early Church, either, and yet God the Holy Spirit did amazing things through and with and despite those people.

That keeps me hopeful for me and the people that I know and work with.

 

 

 

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One Response to “First Things First”

  1. SB mom Says:

    Amen.

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