The Naked Church – Chapter – 7. When Did It Get So Complicated?
Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset
about many things.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – Even as I sit at my desk writing this chapter, a ravenous monster lurks not more than 12 feet behind me. He is big— ten feet across and eight feet high. His name is Library. In small doses he can be very helpful, but when he lines up all his resources against me, he can be quite formidable even though he can’t move an inch.
He has eight shelves full of books of every size and description. Most I’ve read, some I’ve skimmed, and some are there because I still hope to read them. But each one calls to me with its own agenda. Here are five books with detailed blueprints for deepening my spiritual life. I have nearly two dozen books on the definitive church structure, none of which agree with the others except on one point—my church is doing it wrong!
I have a dozen books on human relationships and family life. I’m amazed that marriages even stayed together before the invention of the printing press. And I have 12 different slants on eschatological events, each using the same Scriptures to prove widely varying points of view.
I have workbooks that offer me ten easy steps to anything I want—but most of them don’t work. And just try to prepare a preachable sermon with Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Finney, and Spurgeon staring over your shoulder!
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – But my selection of books on current issues is the most intimidating of all. I have 15 selections cheering me on to more activity than I can produce in six lifetimes. Sell your home and live among the inner-city poor! Get rich so you can send money to God’s evangelists so they can help the poor! If God hasn’t specifically told you to stay in America, go overseas as a missionary! We must stop abortion now! The list goes on and on—antipornography, New Age movement, politics, Latin America….
Sometimes I want to rip this monster from my wall. It’s not that I don’t enjoy books, since my wall wouldn’t be full of them if I didn’t. But I get this nagging feeling that we’ve made Christianity far more complicated than its Founder intended. And I get that same feeling whenever I look at a church calendar or my own schedule, or attend a pastor’s conference.
When our hearts cry out for an intimate fellowship with God that seems to escape us, maybe we ought to look at how complicated we’ve made a very simple gospel.
Busyness: The Complication of Time
Have you ever planned an elaborate party and invited all your friends, only to have most of them back out at the last minute? You might even have sympathized with their excuses, but in the end you were still deeply disappointed. No one cared enough to make the sacrifice necessary to come.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – Jesus told a story exactly like that in Luke 14. A man prepared a banquet and invited his friends. Then the excuses started. “I have just bought a field and I must go see it.” “I have just bought five yoke of oxen and I’m on my way to try them out.” “I just got married.” The host of the banquet grew angry. He vowed never to let his first-invited guests come at all, and instead he invited the poor and the handicapped to his banquet.
In this parable Jesus wasn’t talking about attending parties, but about partaking of God’s kingdom. Busyness can keep even well-intentioned people out of the kingdom, and if that was a concern in Jesus’ day it is obviously a crisis in ours.
Though on the average we work fewer hours than any generation before us, we are far busier. Our so-called leisure time quickly evaporates in the face of household maintenance, social commitments, recreation, and taxiing our children (who must be involved in at least three outside activities in order to validate our conscientious parenthood).
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – These opportunities are multiplied by the fact that we can drive 300 miles in half a day’s time or whisk around the world by air. When we do have time left over we are too tired to do anything but fall in front of the mindless banter of television. There, sandwiched between our favorite shows, are slick appeals to even more busyness. Devised by the best minds of our time, they lure us toward even more leisure activities and entice us to buy even more possessions.
We’ve become a nation of activity junkies. Ask people how they are doing, and nine out of ten will find some way to let you know how busy they are. Though we complain about our busyness, we don’t really hate it. If we did, we would stop it. Busyness does have its rewards.
It is easier to be busy than to be disciplined. Having no overwhelming purpose for existence, we compensate by filling time with things we think will make us happy. The enemy hardly needs to tempt the believer today with evil activities when he can distract him guiltlessly with so many neutral ones. The result is the same: The Christian still loses sight of the kingdom of God.
Busyness keeps us from making difficult choices. There’s something easy about a day in which every waking minute is filled with running from one meeting to the next. “I don’t have any time today” is a great excuse for not seeking the Lord for wisdom and not yielding to his priorities for the day.
Busyness makes us feel important. Who has ever seen an “important” person who is not rushing off with something else to do? When I get a phone call prefaced with the question “Are you busy?” I feel pressured to answer affirmatively lest people think they’ve caught me sitting in the office staring into deep space.
Busyness is the price of meeting everyone’s expectations. Aunt Elma wants you at the family reunion, neighbor Bob needs you to help pour a patio, and there’s a men’s seminar at the church. Everyone wants a chunk of your time, and if you can’t risk disappointing some people you’ll be torn apart by their competing pressures.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – How easy it is to forget that there is only one Person whose expectations we are to meet—Jesus! And he expects us not to be weighed down with busyness, because this has nothing whatever to do with fruitfulness. Jesus never evidenced a harried lifestyle, and yet at the end of his earthly life he could say to his Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
Intimacy with God is found in a quiet and focused life. Hurriedness and clamor drown out his presence. Schedules always heighten the importance of pressing things and blind us to things that are essential to deepening our walk with God. Excessive activity keeps us too preoccupied to pay the price for an effective and lasting discipleship.
Yet organized Christianity, instead of addressing this sin, competes with it by hosting and prodding people to attend even more activities. Some churches host dozens of meetings each week and exalt those people who attend them all. Where are the quiet moments for enjoying God and his creation and the kind of deep conversation which arises only out of the spontaneity of unhurried encounters? How many moments like that have you had this week?
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – A couple of years ago, as I rushed across town from one meeting to another, a man by the side of the road caught my eye. He was unkempt and looked forlorn. I was instantly filled with compassion for him and felt as though I should stop and help. Instead I drove onto the freeway, lamenting the fact that I was already late and couldn’t stop.
I didn’t get away with it, though. That brief encounter haunted me the rest of the day. As I prayed about it later, the parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind. Every time I had shared from that parable I had railed at the priest and the Levite as hypocrites who had lost their compassion for people to the professionalism of ministry. I had never thought of them as compassionate people who might merely have considered themselves too busy to stop. We ask God to use us, but then we keep our lives so full of activities and meetings that he can’t get an opportunity in edgewise.
Professionalism: The Complication of Theology
The power of a clergy class over the so-called laity has always been a focal point of church reformers. Church leadership easily falls into the trap of validating their usefulness by placing themselves as an essential link to personal spirituality. Reformers have instead championed the priesthood of all believers—which simply means that every believer can have a personal relationship with God and be used by him to touch others. Leaders may have distinct functions in the body, but they do not have a relationship with God substantially different from that of other believers.
Never before in the history of the church has the theology of priesthood received so much lip service and so little actual practice as in this century. Though it is preached with conviction from our pulpits, only a small percentage of believers are involved in significant ministry opportunities on a daily basis. They may be doing busywork for someone else’s program, but they are neither thriving in their spiritual experience nor confident to intervene in crisis situations.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – I would say that fully 90 percent of those who were already Christians when they came to a fellowship I pastored did not at that time have a daily time of worship and Bible reading which was effectively nurturing their lives. They had been accustomed to being fed by pastors and TV preachers. When opportunity arose to lead someone to Christ or to liberate them from oppressive bondage, they were told to see the pastor or come to church for their answers. We are breeding a generation of believers who perceive themselves as incompetent to live out the Word in their own experience.
How are we doing this? Church leaders have historically used two tactics to keep people dependent. Regrettably we have our twentieth-century versions of these today, subtle or unintentional though they be.
The first revolves around interpretation of the Word. Are the Scriptures clear enough for the average person to read and understand, or must they be interpreted by a professional? In the days of John Wycliffe this issue was obvious. The Bible was available only in Latin, which the priests alone could read and interpret. The church killed anyone who translated it into common languages or who possessed translated copies. This they did in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit used mostly unlearned men to pen his Word. The New Testament itself was written in the style of Greek used on the street, not the classical style used by scholars.
Today misapplied scholasticism serves the same purpose of making people feel as though they can’t understand the Word on their own. I’m not against the knowledge which the church has gained over the centuries nor using the original languages to help us understand the Word more fully. If, however, we use those tools week after week to say that though the text seems to say one thing it really says something else, we effectively destroy people’s confidence in feeding from the Word themselves. Good preaching doesn’t dazzle people with interpretations of the Word that defy the imagination; but instead equips people with a fuller appreciation for the inherent simplicity of the Word and increases their ability to understand it. At the end of a good sermon people should respond, “Yes, I see that!”
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – The second tactic to keep the masses dependent on leadership is to make them a mediator in the salvation process. In the Middle Ages the church viewed the communion elements as the means of salvation—which only a priest could consecrate. The priest could withhold communion from whomever he chose; convincing them that they had been denied salvation.
We have long recognized that the whim of a man cannot determine salvation. Many people, however, surrender the quality of their spiritual life to ministry professionals and become willingly dependent upon them. We’ll take a closer look at this phenomenon in Chapter 11, but for now I want only to point out the adverse effect which ministry professionals often have on spiritual intimacy.
Instead of people sitting at the feet of Jesus themselves, hearing his voice and obeying his will, they sit at the feet of their favorite teacher. Public relations techniques have produced a generation of leaders today who aspire to lead by their own personal popularity. We have our celebrities just like the world does, and many Christians are more awed by them than by the Lord himself.
Media use today has only heightened this problem. Instead of multiplying ministry through transformed people, we seek to do it through satellite dishes and direct mail. How ineffective these have proven to demonstrate God’s love or to help people grow up in Christ! Some people can’t make it through the day without a fix from their pastor’s cassette ministry or a word from the TV evangelist they champion. In an age of capitalistic Christianity, leaders only encourage such dependence: “You must hear what I’m going to talk about next week.” “This series on growth will change your life like nothing else you’ve ever heard.” Dependent people ensure the future of the ministry.
Even church-growth experts suggest that this kind of promotion and visibility is essential for church growth.1 We’ve entered dangerous waters indeed when the promotion of a man’s image is the means by which we extend the gospel. The Reformation did us little good if we only exchanged one pope for thousands of little popes through whom to live out our Christian experience.
The Naked Church – Chapter Seven – No wonder people perceive themselves as incompetent to handle the situations in their life through personal knowledge of the Word, sensitivity to the Spirit, and support of the body! While our books on child-rearing were intended to help parents, they often do the opposite. I constantly remind discouraged parents that they do not need a degree in child psychology to raise their children. Any parent who takes a personal interest in his or her child is in a far better place to disciple and discipline that child than any outsider, no matter what the outsider’s knowledge or experience. Though we can benefit from the insights of other people, we must be sure that they do not intimidate us.
In the same way, daily Christian living has become far too complex. Jesus chose the weak things to confound the wise. With all the principles and precepts that have been outlined in recent years, we need to ask ourselves whether we’ve kept things simple enough for the person on the street to walk with God in confidence. Jesus channeled a powerful gospel through the lives of fishermen, farmers, and former harlots. Walking with Jesus is within the reach of every individual, for he makes us competent to walk out the gospel in our own lives (2 Corinthians 3:4,5).
Protocol: The Complication of Relationships
The worst thing about getting married is enduring the dating ritual. I hated it. Every date is a constant guessing game of each other’s feelings. Every nuance is evaluated and reevaluated. Should I hold her hand? Does she like me? Should I give her a good-night kiss? Would she go out if I asked her again?
In dating such complications may be unavoidable, but it seems as though we’ve let all relationships become that complicated. The most thought demanding aspect of our lives has become what others think of us and how we should relate to them. Protocol and public relations are two factors that add to this complication.
Our society is governed by written and unwritten rules of protocol—what you can and can’t do or say in every imaginable situation mostly depending on the “pecking order” of our society. To breach your assigned position is unthinkable, even when doing so would greatly enhance the work of the kingdom.
Jesus knew no such restraint. No one approached people with greater compassion. Yet, when the situation called for it he could take whip in hand and clear the temple of those defiling it—even though they were the religious leaders of the day. Elsewhere he called them hypocrites and even rebuked his own friend with “Get behind me, Satan!” He also disappointed his closest friends by not rushing to their side at Lazarus’ sickness.
We are so bound by protocol that it is difficult for us to rescue someone we see drifting away from God. We think it is none of our business.
How many times have you seen your brethren growing cold in religion, and have not spoken to them about it? You have seen them beginning to neglect one duty after another and you did not reprove them in a brotherly way. You have seen them falling into sin, and you let them go on.
These words of Finney seem to break all forms of protocol,
and if you know anything about Finney’s ministry, you know he
often did this very thing. For some reason it is more acceptable
today to gossip about someone’s failure behind their back than it
is to speak with them about it.
Public relations has added another complicating factor to relationships by placing more effort on how we appear than on what we really are. A friend of mine served on a curriculum council at his children’s elementary school which was about to be evaluated by a state team. To prepare the council, the principal went over the questions they would be asked and the answers they should give. My friend stopped him and suggested that instead of worrying about the right answers they should be honest about what they were really doing and be evaluated on that basis. The suggestion was met with incredulity.
Corporations use such PR to sell their products, and people use it to sell themselves. In modern society image has become more important than reality, and we can even come to believe we’re something we’re really not.
Here is where protocol does its most damage. Whether we’re praying, worshiping, or sharing, we can easily be more concerned with how we’re appearing to others than we are free to be who we really are. Gossip holds the power it does because we care more of appearances than reality. The very threat of someone smearing our reputation will make us conform to their desires.
That’s why organized religion often puts a premium on pretense. Rather than free people to be real and let God work in them, we compete to see who can act the most Christian. We constantly worry about what others think of us and manipulate circumstances so that we can move up in the spiritual pecking order. The problem is that most people can’t sustain these oneupmanship games very long and eventually crack under the weight while living up to a false image.
Intimacy with God only flourishes where genuineness rules over appearances. Jesus told the woman at the well that God is seeking real people, those who “will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” People who find the life of Jesus are those who are absolutely genuine, the same outside that they are on the inside.
I can always tell when I’m around people like that. Groups that are caught up in pretense are always preoccupied by conformity and gossip is usually rampant among them. Those that do understand God’s life are always confessional, freeing people to be honest and real, even with their doubts and weaknesses. They know God wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Christian life was never intended to become so complicated by busy schedules, intricate theology, or pressure-filled relationships. Jesus made it so simple that anyone he touched could understand it enough not only to see them transformed, but to also pass it along to others.
Aren’t you tired of rushing through life and missing out on moments of peace and refreshment in God’s presence? Aren’t you sick of feeling incompetent to make the gospel work in your own life as well as in others who want help?
Aren’t you ready to give up trying to be whatever someone else wants you to be, or lying awake at night wondering why Joanie gave you the cold-shoulder on Sunday morning? Don’t you want relationships with other believers that are full of forgiveness, encouragement, admonishment, and affection?
In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength (Isaiah 30:15).
The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever (Isaiah 32:17).
Isaiah knew that God’s life doesn’t flow in the complicatedness of life. When you turn your back to such complexities, you’ll find that intimacy with God is one of the simplest things to learn.