17 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: This Dangerous Church

"And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching."  
Mark 11.18

A Lutheran congregation in the western suburbs of Des Moines, IA has become one of the largest Lutheran churches in the country very quickly.  Some of the folks around here are none too happy about their growth, especially the satellite sites they've been planting in towns where other Lutheran churches of our flavor exist.  At our Synod Assembly last year, several of the smaller churches in the Des Moines metro area brought a resolution that, if adopted, would require all congregations seeking to plant satellite ministries to do so only after consulting with the Synod council.  The resolution didn't name any names, of course, but even I, a newbie to the Synod with as much innate ability to sense political undercurrents as your average glazed doughnut, knew exactly which congregation this was meant to curtail.  

Those of us who aspire to ministry in and to the body of Christ live in a peculiar, dangerous world.  On the one hand, we're all overjoyed to see growth in churches, especially among segments of the population that haven't previously been a strong part of our ministries.  On the other hand, we are human and prone to jealousy, control issues and all sorts of grumbling about 'personality cults' and the like when our colleagues really get a good thing going.  And, should we ever be so fortunate as to enjoy a stretch of successes that become noteworthy, there's always the danger of beginning to believe our own press, to where we start to engage in messianic thinking (always a danger for pastors to think about any messiah except THE Messiah, you know).  

Garrison Keillor makes jokes about Lutheran humility; a source of Lutheran pride, but not too much.  We think he's just poking fun, but I think he's actually insulting the way we try to 'out-humble' each other.  Heaven forbid that excellence and success would be two virtues to which a church might aspire, or that a pastor might be someone with gifts for evangelism and outreach rather than pastoral care!  We all know churches where newcomers and the "wrong sort" of people are passively (sometimes actively) rejected for fear of how the congregation might change as a result.  Like the priests and scribes in the Mark reading for today, there lives within us all a desire to control our communities, to restrict change, to set inflexible, impermeable boundaries so as to minimize discomfort and maximize our own personal gain.

Prophecy and popularity can be a deadly mix:  an extreme case would be the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978.   We walk a fine line as we do ministry; we are called to work as hard and faithfully as we can to be both prophetic and popular, but also to avoid taking so much credit for any success that might happen that we lose sight of the fact that this is the church's ministry, not our own.  It is next to impossible to get the balance right.  In fact, so far as I know the only one who never, ever stepped out of line in this regard is Jesus.  Still, in the end the popularity died away, as it often does, and the prophetic teachings of Jesus became so scandalous that we killed him rather than endure the scathing truth any longer.  

Maybe that's why we call him the Savior and no one else.  Only Jesus was willing to forsake all popularity in order that prophecy might win out, the prophetic call from Jesus to turn to His Father and live.  As those who minister, we are not called to do the same.  We are called to point to the One who lived prophetically, whether he was surrounded by thousands of followers or forsaken on the cross, and remind our listeners and ourselves that ministry is not a popularity contest:  it is a prophetic call to follow Christ, in all times and places, in success and in failure, despised and rejected or popular and welcomed.  Following Jesus is the only safe way to navigate the dangerous waters that are His church; I wish you smooth sailing.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for making clear a rather murky area for me. Working with Lutherans to bring change and do more outreach has proved challenging. Now I understand the fear in a way I couldn't before. And I do think Lutherans have a set of checks and balances on pastors that make it unlikely (though not unheard of) that pastors will evolve into sages on the stage.