Three months ago our kids started playing soccer. When we signed them up we expected it to entail an hour a week for practice with games on the weekend. We should have asked more questions. As info about the season came in we found out our son would have two practices a week with an optional third practice on Fridays and our daughter would have two practices a week. My son’s team needed a coach, so I agreed to do it. We launched into the first weeks of the season with discomfort and regret as we felt the loss of less scheduled evenings, time with family and friends, and presence in our neighborhood.
This week is the final week of soccer for this year, and while I’d expect to feel relieved I actually feel a little sad. I don’t think the change in my emotions has much to do with enjoying soccer or coaching–though I do enjoy both of those things. I think it has much more to do with acclimation. Because as I think back over the past year I remember discomfort when we moved to our current neighborhood and started spending a lot of time with neighbors and people who were a part of our new church. Before that most of our evenings were free and spent as a family. But within months our kids went from struggling with all the people around to being disappointed when there was a single evening without others around. I can remember similar transitions with work schedules, job requirements, and family commitments. It seems like when things change, a little time passes, and we acclimate to the new normal.
So why does this matter?
It matters because we will acclimate to our lives whether we are living intentionally or just letting life happen. Whether we live in ways that are healthy or unhealthy, over time we will acclimate to that way of life and it will feel normal. And once something feels normal, whether it’s life-giving or not, it is really hard to change because change feels hard and abnormal.
We all have ways of living that fit with our values and ways that don’t. How much of your life is lived in line with your values? I can identify quite a few areas where I let life happen to me, acclimate, and move on without thinking about it further. In fact, over time, I come to feel as comfortable in the parts of life that don’t fit my values as I feel in the ones that do.
Not a victim.
To the extent any of us live in ways inconsistent with our values we have the ability to change things–it’s just hard. There is a temptation to believe “there’s nothing I can do about it.” Life is just busy, nothing I can do. My spouse and I don’t get any time to really connect, nothing I can do. I don’t know any of my neighbors, but there’s nothing I can do. The list goes on and on. We pictures ourselves as victims of the harsh dictates of the universe–abdicating any responsibility to change things. But we can change things.
We can give up some of our activities. We can do one thing a day to pursue our spouse. We can go have a beer with a friend instead of turning on the TV. We can connect with God instead of hitting snooze. There are all kinds of things we can do, and we are not victims, but many of us do have an aversion to changing the life to which we’ve become so well acclimated.
“The reality is, we just don’t need community.”
That sentence proceeded from the mouth of a former small groups pastor in a conversation this morning at a local coffee shop. (This was said in the context of a larger conversation, much of which will be fleshed out below.) So much of the existence of the church–and certainly the existence of all forms of small groups–is based on the premise that community is essential to human flourishing. But is it?
5 Reasons we don’t need community.
#1 We have what we need.
The early church is often cited as a glowing example of true community. They were together every day. They ate meals together. They even shared their resources so no one was in need. And that was important because they really needed support from each other. There were people who truly were in need. As persecution of Christians began and spread there were those who were economically persecuted and couldn’t make a good living.
There certainly are places in the West where people don’t have what they need. And those tend to be the places where people actually seek out more community and share with each other. When I pastored a small, poor church, it was common to hear about people with a one bedroom apartment offering it to those who were homeless on cold nights. People shared because they needed each other.
My friend shared this example. In the past, when a hail storm came through and destroyed a farmer’s crop, other farmers would have them work the fields that had not been destroyed with them and then share in the harvest. It was necessary for existence. Now a farmer can just call the insurance company.
#2 We are entertained.
Why sit with friends, sharing stories and lives, when you can turn on the TV and watch professionally written stories that draw you into the lives of fictional characters who are so interesting? Why play a board game with family when you can destroy the invading alien army from your video game controller?
We have unprecedented options and opportunities for entrainment. Now I am far from anti-entertainment. There are some forms of entertainment that can bring people together. And there are times it is fantastic to watch a movie or TV show with no human interaction. But there is a reality that many forms of entertainment naturally funnel people away from community. We can be fulfilled, or at least distracted, all day long without any real meaningful interaction with others.
#3 We are busy.
There is nothing I hear more from people around me, especially church people (and very often myself), than that they are overwhelmingly busy. Many times this is true. We have been overcome by the wave of possibilities for activities and information and are drowning. We have no idea how to manage our lives in a way that would create the space for community. If we just stay busy we don’t even notice that deep community is missing that much. We are fulfilled and defined by our activity levels.
#4 We like ease.
Real community is messy. It can be very fulfilling, but it is messy. And messy means difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Yuck. It seems so much easier to keep to myself. Myself always wants to do what’s easy, convenient, and comfortable. Myself is such a good friend.
#5 We have pseudo-community.
Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing. I’m surrounded by friends, er, acquaintances, er, people. I am smack dab in the middle of a pseudo-community. It’s like Cheers, except without all the actual friendships. (If you don’t know what Cheers is you should really google it.)
Then there’s the next level pseudo-communities like Facebook. I love Facebook. I even think it can be a really helpful means of staying up to date on what’s happening with people in my life. And the birthday app is a lifesaver. But Facebook and things like it can quickly move from being supplemental tools to substitutes for actual community. We feel like we know people. We get to let them know us. Even better, we get to let them know the us we wish we were.
In a couple days I’ll follow this up with the reasons we do need community.
This week I had the opportunity to go to an event put on by Leadership Journal called Redeeming Work. It was focused on the meaning and importance of our work as image bearers of God. Events like this one–focused on the idea of vocation (our call into every part of our lives, not just the ones we get paid for)–are becoming more prevalent. I have personally been deeply moved and shaped by these conversations in recent years. While this focus does not comprise the whole of the Christian life or the Gospel, it is an essential piece that has been too often ignored.
One of the questions that has been raised at nearly every event I’ve been a part of around this topic is whether this is a conversation of privilege that only applies to those who are able to choose their jobs and find themselves in a place of some influence. The question is framed in relation to two groups of people–those who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively little influence. These two groups have some significant differences, but they often overlap.
So can people who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively low influence find meaning in their work? There are reasons to think they can. (In sharing these reasons I also want to acknowledge up front that it is much easier to write about these on a blog than to actually find meaning.)
We are made to work.
Work is not something people were cursed with–it was part of the gift of being human. People are made in the image of God and at the very beginning of the Bible we are presented with a God who works. He brings all of reality into being. And then he gives humanity the work of cultivating and tending what has been made. Working is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. This work does not have to be paid. This work does not have to be chosen. And this work does not even need to be liked. Not working is destructive to the humanity and dignity of people–I’ve seen that firsthand.
All work benefits others–it contributes to the common good.
Other than work that is obviously destructive and sinful, all work benefits others.
Some jobs are more obviously beneficial than others. A doctor restores health to sick people. A teacher educates children, giving them hope for the future. But what about the man who sits in a cubicle and enters data day after day? What about the woman works in a call center fielding calls from angry customers? The importance of their work may seem easier to question than a doctor or a teacher. However, if you spend a little bit of time considering how their work impacts others it is not too difficult to see the value it adds to society. I am not advocating the distance that technology and cubicles can put between people, but they cannot negate the benefit that work provides to others–they don’t have that much power. The man who enters data is enabling the execution of projects that would not happen without him. The woman answering phones is finding ways to make things work the way they are meant to and has the opportunity to help people move from frustration to joy if she is willing. (The ability to see these things requires that we don’t make an exact correlation between meaning and happiness–I’ll touch on that more in a minute.)
We all have influence.
Some people and some professions have more influence on other people and the world than others. That is true. But this fact does not negate the influence of all people and professions on the world. Every person can influence the day of whomever they come across by the way they treat them. Each employee can seek to give feedback at some level, even if it seems small. Take Jim as an example. He was a friend from a previous church who spent his days pushing a grocery cart around to dumpsters, digging out metal, and then walking it over two miles to the recycling center. Not exactly a job bursting with opportunities for influence. But Jim regularly had stories of the lives he impacted along the way. Not to mention the significant amount of metal he kept from going to landfills over time. Jim believed he could influence things, even if it seemed small to others. We may wish for more influence believing we have none or we can steward whatever measure of influence we’ve been given.
Meaning and Happiness are Not the Same
Being happy about your work and finding meaning in it are not the same thing. It is possible to find meaning in something you do not enjoy. Finding meaning is likely to increase your level of enjoyment, but it is not a necessary correlation. If the question is “Can everyone love their job?” the answer might legitimately be no. But if the question is “Can everyone find meaning in their work?” I believe the answer is yes. (Again, excluding work that is inherently unethical or destructive.) Answering yes may be a long journey, and perhaps a slow one, but it is one worth taking.
Most of our visions of life are utopian. A family without conflict, whining kids, or short-tempered parents. Schools where all children thrive, grow, and flourish. Neighborhoods where neighbors know and care for each other. A personal future full of health, financial security, and happiness.
The thing is, our world is not a utopia. Nothing goes fully the way we plan (or at least not for long). We experience brokenness in our relationships. We are frustrated in the pursuit of our plans. Our bodies break down. In short, we experience the world as it is, not as we imagine it.
This shape of things resonates well with Christian theology. God has created a perfect world, and that world included giving humans the choice to pursue evil. We did and perfection was destroyed. Brokenness has entered into every corner of life and reality. Yet the good that was there at the beginning has not been eradicated. And one day, at the return of Jesus, all that is wrong will be made right.
In the meantime, we are left with an important question–will we allow the frustration of our utopian visions to make us cynical or will we recognize the good in things and celebrate it wherever it is. Putting it another way, can we be okay with okay (or at times even excited about it)?
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I did a triathlon. I trained for months to prepare for it. It was a struggle. I had to fight off my unhealthy habits (with varying levels of success) and a couple injuries. But I got ready. We went with some friends to the mountains for a couple days before the event and on the way up I felt a cold coming on. By the day of the race I could feel the rasping in my lungs. I thought I’d be okay, but less than 100 meters into a one mile swim I couldn’t breathe. I had to consider having them pull me out of the water. I fought through it, but the best I could do was a slow breast stroke. I was one of the last ones out of the water and when I finished my primary emotion was embarrassment.
So in that case, what do I do? Focus on the difficulty and how far short I fell of my goals or find satisfaction in the fact that I didn’t get up and I finished my first olympic triathlon?
As long as we live in this world where the kingdom of God is present but not complete, we will have to continually ask ourselves that question. Can we be okay with okay? Or will we wallow in the frustration and disappointment of how what is is less than what we imagined it could be?
This year Trailhead had the opportunity to participate in a Vocation Infusion Learning Community. It was an amazing experience and is shaping the way we think about discipleship and a number of practices we’re implementing. Trailhead is committed to being low program, so our goal as much as possible is to work at infusing ideas and practices of vocation into the things we already do rather than creating new programs. Here are some of the ways that’s happening.
We’ve created a space in our weekly liturgy for an interview or story. Our plan is to do a vocation interview at least half the time, and as much as 75% of the time. At Redemption Church in Phoenix they call this an “All of Life” interview. These interviews highlight the specific types of work people do. Our first three weeks have been with a guy who flips houses, a teacher, and a stay-at-home mom. After the interview we ask everyone who works in the same field to stand and we say a prayer specifically for their work. Here are the four questions we ask.
- Tell us about the work you do.
- As an image bearer of God, what is one way your work reflects God’s character and his work? (In other words, how is the work you do the same as the work God is doing?)
- What is one way your work gives you a unique perspective on the brokenness of the world? (Sin infects everything–how do you see this specifically because of the kind of work you do?)
- God calls us to love others as he has loved us. What is one way you are able to “love your neighbor” through your work? (In other words, what’s a practical way you bless people through the work you do?)
Vocation and Kids
We are working on a number of ideas in regard to vocation and kids. We want our kids to grow up understanding the concept of vocation as much as they are able and feeling like it is an important part of what it means to follow Jesus. In other words, we want to make disciples who would find it strange not to see every part of their life as touched by the gospel.
One of the first ideas we’ll implement is giving parents a resource to engage their kids on the area of vocation, and specifically work, in the home. Many families do some kind of conversation around the dinner table. In our family we share our high and low for the day. So we’ll give parents a list of questions (similar to the four above but with language that helps kids get it) and encourage them to share this with their kids once a week. Then, as the kids start getting it we’ll encourage parents to have their kids answer these questions at least once a week.
Apply Vocation to Preaching
We’re asking our Teaching Team to consider how the idea of vocation relates to what they are teaching/preaching as they prepare. When possible we want to use real-life examples from people in the congregation to tie what we’re speaking about from Scripture to the life people live throughout the week. Sometimes this fits better than others, but we are at least looking for those connections.
Vocation Infusion Team
There are quite a few other ideas we have coming away from the Vocation Infusion Learning Community, but we can’t implement them all at once, and some of them will never fit. So we formed a Vocation Infusion Team that will do two things. First, we’ll review the things we’re already doing to see how effective they are and talk about how we can do these things better. Second, we’ll continually be assessing if there are new ways we can infuse understanding and practice of vocation into the things we’re already doing.
This week a couple articles have become popular on social media that provide some good fodder for conversation about biblical interpretation. The first one was from World Magazine entitled “Gungor Drifts from Biblical Orthodoxy.” (Gungor is a band that focuses on Christian themes.) The second was a response from Michael Gungor on the band’s website entitled “I’m with you.”
There are a number of nuances to the issue, but at the core the disagreement is biblical literalism. Do we take the stories and metaphors in the Bible literally? The article is especially focused on the events of creation and the flood. (Michael’s response focused most on the flood.) There are books that have been written about these issues, so I have no intention of pursuing the minutia of the topic in a blog post, but reading these articles spurred a few thoughts that are important to me in approaching biblical interpretation.
Jesus is the Center
The Mennonite Brethren Church (Trailhead’s denomination) speaks of this as having a “weighted canon.” The Christian faith rests on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus has not been raised our faith is pointless–mere fantasy. There are things that must be taken literally if we are to have a faith that honestly reflects the overall witness of Scripture (not just a verse here and there) and the teaching of Jesus.
I spent some time in a denomination where some churches had lumped everything about Jesus into the category of myth. While some kind of humanistic religion remained, it was not Christianity. I’m not sure where the line is on what must be taken literally in Scripture, I do know it is before the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.
Beginning with Jesus gives us a lens for viewing the rest of Scripture. Since these articles used the flood as an example, let’s run with that. How does the literalism of that event impact the truth of the gospel that is wrapped up in Jesus? If the flood were more myth than truth, would it negate the importance of Jesus from incarnation to consummation? Would it tell us less about the reality of the human condition and God’s desire for humanity?
One more point on this. One real fear for giving up literal interpretations of things like the flood or the creation account are that it is a slippery slope that leads to giving up the Bible as literal completely. Agreed. As I said above, I’ve seen it happen. So another question would be, does seeing some of the Bible as poetic or metaphorical necessarily lead to seeing it all that way? Can we commit whole-heartedly to the reality of Jesus, from incarnation to consummation, without committing to a literal reading of every story in Scripture? (I’m asking this honestly.)
Jesus is revealed in Scripture, so these questions must be taken very seriously. My hope in my life, community, and world is that he will be received as Messiah and King and that his kingdom will come. My framework starts with Jesus and works out from there.
Is science pitted against faith? That is the message that can come across when we get into these discussions. The Bible says the world was created in six days; science says it happened gradually over millions of years (I am not even talking about evolution here, that is another debate, only about time). The Bible records 6,000 years of history; science says there are hundreds of millions years of history. The Bible says there was a flood that covered the whole earth; the geological record doesn’t support this. So must we choose? Hold on to the evidence of Scripture or agree with the evidence of science?
People on both the side of naturalism (as an ideology) and Christianity seem to answer yes to this question. The naturalist community wants to sever faith from thought for the sake of dismissing faith as a fairy tale. At times the Christian community severs faith from thought for fear of having to rethink things like creation and the flood. Both of these approaches embrace an unnecessary dualism.
God created humanity in his image as beings who have the ability to think rationally and to know things that go beyond that ability. We are meant to be beings who embrace and know through thought and experience. This is not to suggest that the biblical accounts are irrational either. The truth of all reality as expressed in Scripture does take faith, but it is also rational. All philosophies require faith at some point–Christianity, atheism, and everything in between. This is not a coincidence. Any explanation of the world requires both thought and faith because that is a reflection of our Creator.
We were created as whole beings, in the image of God, to function as a reflection of God who is both word and mystery. It is unnecessarily dualistic to say that we must set aside rationality or faith when they lead us into tension. We should engage that tension using both–trusting that God has given us rationality as a good gift but that it is unable to hold the full weight of reality (and that is true no matter what your ideology).
Start with a literal reading.
On Facebook I had a friend write, “I tend to go with a literal interpretation of Scripture unless it’s obviously not literal.” That’s not a bad way to approach the text. I would say that fits with my approach. I believe the Scriptures overall are not only God’s revelation of himself–his character and his work–but also an account of history. That history may not be quite as scientific as modern history, but that doesn’t make it less true. Much of the narrative of Scripture, especially the history of the Israelites and the Gospels are written as a recording of things that actually happened. Beginning with believing that to be true is a great place to start.
The questions come up when there is significant (even overwhelming) challenge to the literal account. Michael Gungor goes into some depth on this point in relation to the flood in his article. At the very least, there are substantial challenges to maintaining a literal reading of what happened. Does that make it impossible–no–and he says that. Does it make it problematic, especially if we are not required to hold to a literal reading in order to hold on to the truth about Jesus–from incarnation to consummation–perhaps.
This year I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a Vocation Infusion Learning Community (VILC) with a few others from Trailhead. I have been deeply shaped by the people, concepts, and applications from this experience.
Last night I spoke on the story of a man deeply marred by evil and the restored to wholeness by Jesus. Once this man is restored he wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to stay. The Christian faith is often talked about as one of going.
Go be a missionary.
Go to seminary.
Go to a new place.
Yes, there are times when following Jesus means going. But there is another theme in the life and teaching of Jesus that call on people to stay. To stay in their lives–families, neighborhoods, occupations–and to live and speak as citizens of his kingdom.
I’m deeply grateful for the ways the VILC allowed me to engage the idea of vocation and was excited to be able to share something of that last night. If you feel stuck in staying or see some disconnect between what you do all week and your life following Jesus, this might be worth a listen.
We are sinners in need of the grace of God. It’s something I’ve heard since I was born. No, more than that, it has been the first word in faith in my life for as long as I can remember. I am a sinner. That is my fundamental state of existence. But recently I’ve had a revelation. It is an obvious revelation–one I should have had years ago. It’s nothing new. Things that are true seldom are. It is not something my teachers, whether in person or in books, have denied. But it is either something they did not say explicitly or I failed to hear. Sin is not the first word.
The beginning of the grand story is creation–imagination, word, breath, power–and it was good. Humanity is brought into existence and the first word is not sin. Humans are good. In fact, they are beyond good. They are made in the image of God himself–meant to carry on his work of creating, ordering, and flourishing. They are endowed with intellect, emotions, desires, purpose–and it is all good.
The reality of sin not being the first word does not diminish the reality or power of it. Humanity’s sin was to trust themselves to find real life instead of trusting that God had already given it to them. We continue on in the same sin that plagued our ancestors and it wreaks havoc beyond a nightmare. The world is broken; we are broken. Removing sin from it’s place as the first word about humanity does not diminish its destructive power. Unchecked it leads to death. Aside from the grace of God it has the power to tarnish the first word beyond recognition.
But in his mercy God has not allowed it to trample the earth unchecked. His grace touches the world, even for those who do not recognize it. But the full effects of his grace and mercy need to be recognized. They need to be accepted and clung to. Yes, it is essential that we trust in Jesus–in his death and resurrection–if we are to move toward the first word once again. He alone can dismantle sin and death. We have no hope of that on our own. Sin is not the first word but without receiving the forgiveness and victory of Jesus it can be the last.
Yet in him we have hope not only that we might move a bit closer to the first word but that the last word will resemble the first. The perfection of the creation will one day be restored in the consummation. Brokenness, despair, decay, injustice, and destruction will be banished. The first word will be spoken again.
But what does all of this matter? Why does it matter that sin is not the first word, or the last for that matter? As I have walked into this way of looking at things I have been amazed how profoundly it alters my perspective. Rather than viewing myself first as a wretch (though I often am one) I recognize that I am a part of the people meant to bear the image of God. Rather than viewing God as one who disdains my condition I see him as one who longs to restore me to what he meant me to be. Rather than thinking he needs to eradicate so many parts of me I see that his work is not about destruction but about restoration. His vision for me, for humanity, is that through the power of Jesus we could increasingly resemble the first word about us.
We are created as image bearers. Sin binds us and leads us toward death. Jesus dies and rises–providing the potential for victory over sin and death if we will receive it. When we put our faith in him he begins the work of restoring us to what we are meant to be and calls us to join him in the restoration of the world. One day he will complete this work himself. These are the words of the grand story of the gospel of Jesus.
I am reluctant to post on inflammatory issues–especially those with a political bent. This isn’t because I don’t have opinions, but because the medium of a blog (and even further, social media) doesn’t seem to accomplish much in the way of advancing the conversation. Yet there are a couple thoughts I wanted to share with the hope that they can contribute positively to the tide of reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Hobby Lobby to opt out of providing the morning after pill. Whether or not it’s really helpful–I guess you’ll have to be the judge.
Let’s be honest with our language and perspectives.
I am so sick of the crafting of language to barely tell the truth (or sometimes not at all). There are media outlets whose entire enterprise is characterized by this endeavor. For instance, to say that Hobby Lobby is denying people birth control is barely true. They are refusing to pay for one specific kind of birth control (morning after pill) because they have convictions that lead them to believe it is wrong. They cannot and are not keeping anyone from going and buying that pill. Now, a person could believe Hobby Lobby absolutely should pay for the morning after pill for their employees and have well-formed reasons why. But if we can have that conversation with honesty about what is happening we’ll get much further. When we mischaracterize a situation we basically negate any opportunity for honest dialogue. And there is no ideology that is innocent of doing this.
Let’s try to look at things rationally.
When it comes to inflammatory issues we get worked up and irrational! Passion is great–especially about things that matter, but when that passion leads to irrationality it shuts down any chance of conversation. Sometimes we need to stop whatever we’re reading or saying, take a few deep breaths, and calm ourselves down. It is wonderful for our passion to come out, but when engaging those who adamantly disagree with us, unchecked passion can become an insurmountable barrier to conversation.
If the Supreme Court had ruled the other way I’m sure we’d hear people sounding the alarm for the end of all religious liberty in America. As it is, people are decrying a massive step in the violation of women’s rights. Both of these rely on some pretty slippery slopes for footing–and those aren’t places where good footing is usually found. This isn’t to say that many small events can’t lead to substantial societal changes, but we need to check our runaway reasoning at times. Let’s try to be at least moderately levelheaded about the importance of events like this. It will help the conversation .
Let’s do our best to look at each other (and especially our ideological opponents) as people.
In engaging issues like the Hobby Lobby ruling, it is very easy to caricature our opponents and thereby cast them in a mold that allows us to see them as less than human. We assume the worst possible motives for the actions of those we disagree with–all sides are guilty of this. For instance, this post from Matt Walsh is well-reasoned and expresses many things that seem logical and true, but it does so with a tone that dehumanizes its opponents. I would challenge people on whatever side of whatever issue to be creative and compassionate enough to write and speak about their ideological opponents as human beings. Human beings who probably have a mixture of good and bad motivations for their perspectives–as we all do.
I have a confession to make–I am a pastor and I care how many people show up when we do something together as a church. This is especially true of our weekly worship gatherings. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to care about numbers–it’s shallow and egocentric. But truth be told, most pastors (dare I say all pastors?) care on some level about numbers. This has been true for me since my first gig in a church context, as a young adult pastor in a large church. We met together on Sunday nights and when there were 50 people there I felt great. When there were 15 I figured it was all falling apart. At my current church I face this issue especially during the summer months when our people are often on vacation or exhausted from a long weekend of activity. Sometimes we have a large crowd and other times it feels like a small group.
Ten years have passed from my first job as a pastor until now, and while I still care about numbers, I have had significant time to process and pray about the emotions that numbers inevitably arouse. I think my perspective has become more mature, at least at times. And there are some reflections on the topic I think are worth sharing.
There is a sense in which numbers should matter.
Numbers are not really numbers, they’re people. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, and it might sound cliche, but stick with me. When we have people at our gatherings (or other places where people might see the collective life of the people of God’s kingdom) who are not living life in Jesus, it is something to be celebrated. And the more there are, the bigger the celebration should be. If our motivations are right then we are not celebrating the fact that a room, house, or park is full, but that there are many people hearing and experiencing the kingdom in some way.
And what of the number of people who are already living life in Jesus? Well, if we believe something valuable is happening in the time we gather as a people–something that is drawing us closer to God and shaping us into the kind of community God wants us to be–then we would rightly long for everyone to be there every time we gather. And if we do not believe this then we should just quit gathering completely. People don’t need help wasting time.
In the past ten years I have become profoundly convinced that Jesus longs for the reconciliation of all people to the Father and that the life of the church is a primary way, I think even the primary way, that he has chosen to help people experience his kingdom and the life it extends to all who enter it. In the past two years I have also been challenged on the role of the gathered church for those already living as followers of Jesus. I am increasingly convinced that the gathered life of the church is essential in our formation and witness. It is not the only thing, but it is an important thing. So numbers matter because people matter.
There is a sense in which numbers shouldn’t matter.
As much as pastors might strive against it, it is a difficult thing to gather together with the church only to find that a small percentage of the church is there. I have already discussed the reasons why disappointment can be a right response, but there is no denying that the disappointment often flows from less noble sources. Pastors can invest so much of their identity in how the church is doing that low numbers can be taken as an indictment of the pastor as a person. We internalize what is happening and struggle with it not because of the benefit of people gathering together but because of what we think it says about us. This is egocentrism and it is wrong. Pastors, we must repent when this is our reason for disappointment and discouragement over numbers because it is not about us and our egos. For those who are not pastors, understand that this is a real battle, and even for those of us who understand it is wrong and fight to destroy this line of thinking, it is much harder to eradicate it from our hearts.
By the grace of God I have grown in this area over the past ten years. Especially in that first job I found it nearly impossible to keep numbers from defining me. However, more recently God seems to be allowing me to move past this. I remember one Sunday at my last church when the weather was bad and eleven people showed up on a Sunday morning. In earlier days that would have been debilitating to me. But as God was working in me in this area I was able to adjust, engage God with those eleven people, and be truly moved closer to them and to him. Experiences like that continue to allow me to sever my identity from the numbers and trust God to work whether there are twenty or two hundred.
There are two ways we can make idols out of numbers. The first is what has already been discussed–we use numbers as the measure of our worth–whether as pastors or churches. Instead of rightly giving God glory for the people he draws to himself we celebrate ourselves for the “good work” we’re doing for him. The American Christian culture is no help in this regard. We exalt the churches who grow large and their pastors. They are the ones who write books and speak at conferences. We assume that they are the best examples of the healthy functioning of communities of the kingdom of God, often without deeply exploring what’s happening in those communities. We have fully accepted the American culture of fame into the church. This doesn’t mean those large churches aren’t healthy kingdom communities, only that we very easily and regularly idolize size for the sake of size.
The second idol is somewhat the opposite. We can react so violently to the first idol that we swing entirely the other way and idolize stagnation. We lift up our lack of growth as proof that we don’t idolize numbers. But what is normally behind this idolization of stagnation is comfort and safety (those, in fact, may be the real idols). Interestingly, these are two other deeply entrenched values of American culture (along with fame). We like being small for our own sake, not because it proves something about our faithfulness to Jesus and his kingdom. I do know of churches who are committed to remaining small while seeing the kingdom grow and expand so they are continuously planting churches. That’s great! I really resonate with that approach and see great value in not growing too large, but I hope it is not driven by my own sense of comfort. The kingdom of God expands and grows (like a mustard seed or yeast in dough) and we are all called to be a part of that, whatever the size of our church community.
My hope is that as we are able to value numbers for the right reasons, and not for the wrong ones, we will dispose of either of the idols they can create. With Jesus we will long for the expansion of his kingdom and the reconciliation of people to God because it is part of his restoration of all things. May his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.