I’ve mentioned before that when I was in seminary an older, well-respected professor told us very pointedly that it was our responsibility to cultivate friendships and community outside of the church for which we worked.
I’d love to say that this was a forward thinking teacher seeking to instill within us a commitment to cultivating relationships in our community or connecting directly with non-Christians. As I look back over my years of ministry in established churches, my lack of connection to people outside our church is one of the things that I regret most. I accept full responsibility for that sad fact, but I also recognize that the system made doing so very difficult.
I’ve talked to many ministers who share this frustration. The demands of preparing lessons, attending meetings, counseling members, being available at all hours for any random thing, implementing programs and attending more meetings left little room for friendships outside the congregation. It is no wonder that so many of us who have a passion and calling for introducing people to the way of Jesus find church work draining.
It would have been incredibly helpful if professors had made us aware that the church would want to monopolize our time and if we wanted to be salt and light in the dark places of our community, we’d need to build that time into our schedule intentionally. It would make the interview process more difficult with most churches, but I wish I’d have thought to tell them, “Hey, I want to have the freedom to be a neighbor; the freedom to model the way of Christ to those who live around us.”
I could have done this. I could have cut back on programs and invited people from our congregation to go with me: joining the city softball league (as opposed to a church league), participating in a city organized fall festival rather than hosting our own, drinking coffee at Denny’s at the same time on a regular basis, attending city council, PTO and other civic meetings. There’s no reason we couldn’t have done all this...except that it was so foreign to the way we thought, it never crossed our minds.
I wish I could say that this was precisely what that professor was trying to help us imagine. But it wasn’t.
The community he encouraged us to develop was a collection of other ministers and mentors who could help us deal with the difficulties we’d face in ministry because our church could not be our community. The reason he gave was quite simple. “You are an employee that can be fired at will. You are an outsider, this is not your home.”
I remember a range of emotions during that lecture. I was indignant, angry, sad and very concerned. I wanted to say he was off his rocker. I was the youth minister at a church in Dallas at the time and had no intention of remaining on the outside. What upset me most was that I knew, from one perspective, he was right. This was how the church functioned and I had no idea what we could do to change it.
I wrote an essay a couple weeks later entitled, “Marrying Gomer” in which I compared the minister’s call to fully embrace a community that could break his or her heart to the prophet Hosea being called to marry the prostitute Gomer. I felt convicted then, and even more so now, that we cannot love and serve a community as God intended if we come from the posture of a hired gun. I had no idea what we could do to change the system, but I knew it wouldn’t change if we just gave up and gave in.
About six months later the church laid me off for budget reasons. It strikes me now that perhaps the timing was more than just ironic. For a moment or two I considered agreeing with that professor and developing a more detached approach for my own preservation. Instead, I felt a growing conviction that (to quote Brian McLaren) everything had to change. My professor was right in his appraisal of the system, but terribly wrong in accepting it - and teaching others to just accept it as well...
For months now I’ve been captivated the little reminder on Whataburger’s styrofoam cups: “When I am empty please dispose of me properly.”
It is fairly common to hear Christians refer to themselves and others as “cracked vessels,” and I’m afraid that we’ve taken that to mean that they (and everyone else) are marked with Whataburger’s not-so-subtle reminder. Whatever it means to refer to people as vessels, it certainly shouldn’t mean that they are disposable.
When a quarterback has taken too many hits, he is let go and replaced by a newer healthier athlete, regardless of what he’s done for the franchise. It isn’t personal, its a simple necessity.
When a business needs to keep shareholders happy, scores of employees may receive a little pink invitation to contribute one last thing to the company. I actually know of one company (and I think this is probably common) that paid enormous bonuses to the management for laying off a large number of people. Their actions helped the company’s stock rise and they were compensated. Its not that the managers are bad folks, they were just doing the job they were ordered to do...but if there was money for bonuses, wouldn’t it have been great to pay it instead to the fathers and mothers that were now wondering how they’d feed their children?
When a church wants to grow and hasn’t done so in a while, a new preacher seems like a good solution - so its, adios padre, be warmed and filled...we’ll miss you and may even throw you a “get out of here party.”
When a friend proves to be too much work, we just stop returning their calls. When someone on the street asks for help, we don’t even make eye contact as we say, “no.” Most of these folks will just use our money for beer anyway...and we don’t have time to sort through every story, do we?
When a church doesn’t sing the songs we like, doesn’t hire the preacher we wanted to replace the old guy, doesn’t have the same awesome youth ministry that the “other” church has...we just “vote with our feet.” None of this is personal.
And that’s the problem. If relationships with other people aren’t personal what is?
There isn’t much we can do about the punch-drunk quarterback - his job has a shelf life, he knew it when he was drafted and if he isn’t let go it could kill him. We can try to do something about companies focused on maximizing profits at all costs (and we should) but so long as unchecked capitalism rules the day, this will be an uphill battle.
But there’s no reason we can’t do something about how you and I function in day to day life. The issue is systemic and it is quite difficult to address all the areas in our lives where we’ve unconsciously viewed others like styrofoam cups, but its an addiction worth breaking.
If we continue to view life through the lens of the present empire, we may not even be able to see where change is possible. If we understand church as a business then staff will be hired and fired on the same principles that Wal-Mart uses and our continued employment with such a church will be dependent on their ability to compete in the marketplace of religious goods and services. Likewise, people’s membership in such a church will depend on the quality of the product they feel they’re receiving for the tithe.
However if we continually seek to view the world through the Kingdom of God, things get turned on their heads. People may be disposable “out there” but when Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand, both out there and in here become places where a new reality is possible - even demanded. In this reality we are concerned not only with our own interest but also with the interest of others.
In this reality we commit to others for reasons beyond our own benefit. We do so because such is the way of Christ. In our society, to urge others to think beyond themselves is typically seen as becoming a “socialist.” That makes perfect sense, capitalism and socialism have been the only two options for organizing people since the beginning of time, right?
It’s time to move beyond the talking heads on FOX and MSNBC; beyond the rhetoric and propaganda of the Republican and Democratic parties, both sides of the carpet are advocating for the same kingdom. It is time instead to heed the word of the prophets who reminded us that God is unconcerned about our worship when we are unconcerned with the welfare of others (Isaiah 58). It is time to heed the words of THE prophet, Jesus, who warned that without love for one another we cannot uphold the most sacred of commandments.
I’m not going to get into the argument that says this is nice for the church, but it won’t work as a way to organize society. Like my old professor, this logic is only true if we’ve conceded defeat to the present system. All I will say is that whether we think that operating in this way could ever be feasible for a government or not doesn’t matter so long as the Church and the individual disciples of Jesus aren’t willing to embrace it themselves.
The time has come. People are not resources to be used and discarded. Relationships are not transactions. Churches are not businesses. And if we respond by saying, “but they are, its just the way it is. We have to pay for the building and advertising and blah, blah, blah...” then we need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. Today.
If the church has a building and paid staff and all these other things and is able to avoid behaving under the rules of the systems of this world, then great. But if any of these things; if any of our traditions, hierarchies, operating procedures, cultural expectations or anything else are keeping us from practicing the principles of the new kingdom then they need to go. In the end it is “Christ and him crucified” that matters. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus served, among other things, to step into the cycle of violence, power and oppression and stop it in its tracks. The church should not be responsible for helping the powers and principalities get keep that cycle on life support.
This isn’t a nomadic church planter’s rant against established churches and buildings. The same critique must be leveled at ourselves. Not having a building payment does not mean we are free from treating other people as disposable goods. We have all accumulated the trappings of the present system. Rather than focusing on the bottom line and seeing people as “contributing units,” our temptation may be to see someone as the next house church leader or “person of peace.”
Just like buildings and programs, this isn’t inherently bad at all - quite the contrary. The problem enters the equation (in either instance) we begin seeing the next house church leader instead of a person; the need to pay for the building instead of the need to proclaim hope. We begin viewing people in terms of how they can help us, benefit our agenda, boost our ego. It isn’t that the people no longer matter, its just that they take second place to what they have to offer.
Tone of voice is hard to decipher in written text. To be clear, my tone is resolved but not meant to be overly harsh. I am deeply convicted that we have a serious need to shake loose the bonds of our syncretism, but I hold this conviction with humility understanding that I myself am implicated. None of us are perfect. None of us can boast pure motives - myself least of all. We strive for perfection and Christlikeness not because we are deluded enough to think we’ll attain it (not on our own power anyway) but rather because there is no other goal worthy of setting our sights.
You and I may be cracked vessels, but its time we stopped resigning ourselves and others to being disposable cups.