Complicating A One-Car Funeral Procession

I love short humor. I mean REALLY short humor. The kind that can fit into a single panel of a comic strip, or on a bumper sticker, or into a one-liner. Thus, for me, the internet is both boon and bane. There is a lot of good short humor out there, especially in the form of internet memes. There is also a lot of bad short humor out there, attempts at being funny that just flop. You have to sift through a lot of tailings to find the nuggets of pure comic gold. However, this morning, a great one appeared in my newsfeed, a little gem produced by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham:

make disciples

You can see more of his great work here.

What I love about this cartoon is the fact that it hits so many nails on the head at once. I’ve noticed over the past dozen or so years that some sectors of church seem to have appropriated all the wrong lessons from the business world. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all opposed to the church learning lessons from the world of business. In fact, I think we would do well to learn more from other sectors of society. (More on that in a future post.) And yes, I think there is some value in having a memorable mission statement, functional organizational structures and effective marketing strategies for congregations and denominations. I don’t believe, though, that those things are as central and essential as we sometimes make them out to be. Worse, I think sometimes those things become fodder for that most prevalent of human tendencies, the tendency to turn good things into idols. (It’s important to note that no one ever turned intestinal dysentery into an idol; we only to that with good stuff. But again, that’s another point to be explored in more depth later.) For now, I’ll simply say that the recent infatuation in many areas of the church with all of these trappings of the business world reminds me of another example of short humor that I dearly love (not least because it often describes me): “ (Fill-in-the-blank-person)  could complicate a one-car funeral procession.”

I have to wonder sometimes if we aren’t making this whole church thing more complicated than it needs to be. I’ve seen hundreds of lists of “Why (group) Is Leaving the Church”. I’ve seen hundreds more lists of “What You Need To Do To Revitalize Your Church”. Church consultants have become a not-insignificant cottage industry; a quick Google search will give you dozens if not hundreds of “experts” who will be more than happy to come visit your congregation, do a “comprehensive ministry review” (whatever the heck that is), and tell you everything you need to do to fix things. For a fee, of course. Again, some of this analysis is spot-on and I choose to believe that most of it is done from a genuine desire to be helpful (as opposed to a genuine desire to make a fast buck), but something in my gut tells me that in doing all of this diagnosis, analysis and reviewing, we’re missing something basic. Given that Jesus, just before the Ascension, turned the church over to a bunch of boneheads who routinely misunderstood him, deserted him and denied him, my guess is that he didn’t really expect it to be all that complicated.

I’m not a big fan of trying to boil the whole Bible down to one or two passages; I generally tend to believe we have all of it for a reason. (I still haven’t figured out the reason for some of it, like most of Leviticus, but…) That said, though, I think we could simplify this whole church thing if we really paid attention to two passages, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:34-40)

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

My contention is that, if we really studied, meditated on, reflected on, internalized and lived these two passages, a lot of the challenges facing our churches would resolve themselves. Literally thousands of pages could be (and have been) written about these two passages, and rightly so. For now, though, I would just lift up a few points:

  1. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is not to obey God, or to fear God, or even to serve God, it’s to love God. As Christian comedian Mike Warnke once put it, “You weren’t called to be a lawyer, you were called to be a lover!” In other words, what we’re supposed to be about as Christians is falling in love with God. Imagine what it would be like if our churches were full of people who treated God the way teenagers treat their sweethearts. (Don’t laugh, ‘cause I’m not really kidding about this one.) Sure, some people might think we’ve been hitting the sacramental wine a little too hard, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. Besides, have you ever had a greater experience than falling hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels, ass-over-teakettle in love with someone?
  2. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Another way of saying this is, love them the way you would want to be loved. This means taking a whole different approach to the hurting, the vulnerable and the broken in the world, especially those whose pains are self-inflicted. Think about a time in your life when you really screwed up bad. You knew it, didn’t you? Did you need someone to lecture you about it? Or did you need someone to surround you with love and let you know that you still had value, and that there was hope? As Dr. Evans Crawford once told my preaching class about Jesus helping Peter back into the boat after Peter nearly drowned in Matthew 14:28-33, “Jesus didn’t give him a lecture; he gave him a lift!” The bottom line is we can’t beat the hell out of people, scare the hell out of people, lecture the hell out of people or even preach the hell out of people. We can only LOVE the hell out of them.
  3. The commission Jesus gives the disciples is to make more disciples; he never said anything about making confirmed-and-contributing members, committee chairs, model citizens, mission statements, strategic plans, marketing strategies or five-year-vision-whatevers. Those other things are all fine and dandy if they help us to make disciples or occur as the byproduct of making disciples. But they are not primarily what we are about. We need to get back into the discipleship business. And the way we do that, according to Jesus, is by baptizing them and then teaching them to obey all that he commanded. Like that bit about loving God with every fiber of our being. And that bit about loving our neighbors as ourselves. I got to sit in on my daughter’s 2nd grade class a while back, and I was struck by how the teacher taught long division to the class. First she explained the concept, then she demonstrated for them, then she invited a volunteer to do it while she and the rest of the class helped, and then she set them to work practicing while she floated around the class checking their progress and giving help where needed. Maybe we need to teach discipleship the same way. There is an apocryphal tale of a Lutheran pastor shaking hands at the door after worship one Sunday when a little old lady in the congregation said to him, “I’ve been hearing ‘Go in peace, serve the Lord!’ every Sunday for seventy-some years now, and in all that time, nobody has ever asked me how it’s going!” That needs to change. We need to explain discipleship, demonstrate discipleship, invite participation in discipleship and then turn people loose to be disciples, monitoring their progress and giving help where needed. And we need to stop “majoring in minors,” like making kids memorize the books of the Bible and a lot of the other frankly not very important stuff we spend our time on. If God thought it was that important for us to memorize the books of the Bible, God would not have invented the table of contents. Or those nifty little tabs you can put in your Bible.

Now, some folks will argue, “It can’t be that simple!” In response I would ask, “How do we know if we don’t try it?” My belief is that if we really got serious about loving God, loving God’s people around us and making disciples who learn in love and go out to love the hell out of the world, we will change lives, which will change the church, which will change the world. I believe that, because I’ve seen it work. I see it every Sunday in the congregation I serve. They’re way ahead of me in this, actually, and they often remind me not to overcomplicate things without even knowing that they’re giving me that reminder. After all, how complicated does it really need to be?

One thought on “Complicating A One-Car Funeral Procession

  1. Hello! First time visitor to your blog 🙂

    I find this whole area interesting and complex. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there are the churches that are so disorganised that people are burning out, where just a bit of sensible planning would help a lot. And not just that, but there are people who are gifted at the planning who could really serve God if their gifts were given space and encouragement to flourish. Often the language used to oppose planning is being Spirit led. But that kind of assumes the Spirit never leads the planners as they sit and pray and ask for guidance in the planning.

    Then there is the over-planned, over-controlled environment that feels like another day at the office, where there are so many rotas and meetings and committees and the simplicity of faith expressed in love seems lost in all the busyness.

    My guess is that it’s about keeping the focus on the right things, nurturing the gifts of the people God brings together (including the leadership and administration gifts) and keeping the right balance.

    But anyway, an interesting topic, and post! 🙂

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