On Mission, Changing the World, and Not Being Able to Do It All
This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot. It is sort of a personal issue as well as theological, so this post gets a tad lengthy. I thought about posting this over several days, but I think people tune out over a week. Plus I want you to be able to read the whole thing at once, so that you don’t wonder where I’m going with this thread.
So basically, I’m posting several days worth of blogging today. I probably won’t post again for a few days, so if this is more than you want to read in one sitting, come back tomorrow and the next day and finish up. I hope something here will be helpful for you and give you freedom as you love and follow Christ
Busy, Busy, Dreadfully Busy
I have always been a busy person. I don’t say this as any kind of pat on the back. Sometimes busyness is a good thing. Sometimes it’s not. It’s just the way things have been for me. In high school I ran track, cross country, played intramural basketball, did National Honor Society, marching band (French horn thank you very much), tried the Spanish Club, sang in a musical, did church twice on Sunday, Sunday school, youth group, and a Friday morning Bible Study. In college I ran a season of track, played several intramural sports, led our Fellowship of Christian Students group, went to voluntary chapel every time it was offered, sang in the church choir, sang in the college chapel choir, participated in the church college group, helped with Boys Brigade on Wednesday nights, went to church on Sunday, then Sunday school, then evening church, then our chapel gathering that could go until 11:00pm. I have always tried to do a lot of different things. I like doing things. I like being involved.
Needless to say, I was very busy in high school and college, too busy at times. But I found a way to manage my time, get things done, and do pretty well to very well at most things. But once I got to seminary my usual busyness, already a problem, was weighed down further by feelings of guilt, misplaced guilt I think. I was studying hard in my classes, going through the lengthy ordination process for my denomination, interning at my church, preaching once in awhile, singing in up to three different choirs, playing ultimate frisbee every Saturday, participating in an every-week accountability group, doing the usual church twice on Sunday plus Sunday school, plus midweek children’s catechism class, and I was leading the missions committee at seminary. I had lots of fun in seminary. It was a great time of life. But I also felt burdened, not only by all the things I was doing, but by all the things I could be doing. High school and college has plenty of opportunities too, but in seminary all of the opportunities were good, godly, this-is-what-good-Christians-do kind of opportunities. Sure, I did a lot, probably more than most, but I didn’t go to every chapel. I didn’t take advantage of every special speaker. I didn’t do much with the evangelism committee (only going into Salem to do street evangelism once on Halloween–yikes!). I attended a lot of prayer meetings, but those amazing Koreans always attended more. I didn’t have the time, it seemed, to do everything the Bible required of me.
And even if I could have found time to do all that was available, I knew that deep in my heart I just wasn’t as interested in youth ministry (to cite one example) as some others. My passion didn’t run as deep for the 10/40 window as I wanted it to. I just couldn’t muster sufficient enthusiasm for all the good causes and ideas out there. I couldn’t even keep up with all my prayer cards for all these good things.
Doing More for God
I understand there are lazy people out there (and believe me I can be lazy too sometimes). I understand there are lots of Christians in our churches sitting around doing nothing and they need to be challenged not to waste their life (seriously, I love that book and think Piper motivates for radical Christianity in the right way). I understand that many people in the evangelical world are far from generous with their resources and fritter their time away on inane television shows. But even with these important caveats, we really must be much more careful with out urgent and incessant pleas to “do more” for God. It’s the lazy and/or immature preacher who ends every sermon with a call to do more–more evangelism, more discipleship, more prayer, more giving, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. It’s the Seinfeld approach to application: “More anything? More everything!”
I know the “buts.” But people are selfish. People are insulated. People are pursuing the American dream instead of risk-taking discipleship. Amen to all of those concerns. We need to be challenged, but in ways we can actually obey, not pummeled into law-induced submission until we finally feel completely rotten about most everything in life and admit we aren’t doing enough for the poor, the lost, the children, the elderly, the least of these, the…you fill in the blank. Is the goal of Christianity really to leave everyone feeling like terrible a parent, spouse, friend, or neighbor all the time?
I believe there will always be more indwelling sin in my life and I believe that I will never do a good deed perfectly. But I don’t believe God gives us impossible demands in which we should always feel like failures. For example, God wants us to be generous. That’s clear from the Bible. And while it’s true that so long as we have something we could always give more away, isn’t it possible that some people you know actually are generous. Sure, they could do more. We always can do more. But they are still generous. They are obedient to this biblical command.
When the pastor preaches on generosity the goal should not be to make every last person feel like a miserable, miserly wretch. Because unless you live in some Godforsaken locale, there are probably people in your church who practice generosity. A good sermon on generosity might spur them on to further love and good deeds but it should not leave them feeling like complete failures. We may all have reason to repent after every sermon. But we don’t have to repent for every issue brought up in a sermon. Sometimes, by God grace, we do get it right. The problem with “do more” Christianity is that no one is ever allowed to get it right. And the problem, ironically enough, with never allowing anyone to get it right, is that fewer people feel like getting it right really matters.
Thing One and Thing Two (And Thing Three and Thing Four…)
The Bible is a big book and there’s a lot in there. So the Bible says a lot about the poor, about marriage, about children, about evangelism, about missions, about justice; it says a lot about a lot. Almost anyone can make a case that their thing should be the main thing or at least one of the most important things. But what often happens in churches (or church movements) is that the person with the “thing” thinks everyone else should devote their lives to the “thing” too. So churches squabble over limited resources, and people feel an abiding sense of guilt over not caring enough or doing enough about the ten other things that other people in the church care about more than they do.
Maybe it’s because I’m Type A or left brained or a beaver or an ESTJ or a good pastor or a people-pleasing sinner, but I often feel like I could, perhaps should, be doing more. I could do more evangelism. I could pray more. I could invite people over for dinner more. Because of this tendency I actually prefer the “do not” commands of Scripture. “Do not commit adultery”–that’s tough if you take the whole lust thing into account. Obeying this command requires prayer, accountability, repentance, and grace. But it doesn’t require me to start a non-profit or spend another evening away from my family. I just (just!) need to put to death the deeds of the flesh, die to myself and live to Christ.
Not committing adultery is, of course, easier said than done, but the command doesn’t overwhelm me. Changing the world, doing something about the global AIDS crisis, tackling homelessness–those things overwhelm me. What can I do? Where do I start? How will I find the time? I have four small kids, a full-time job, I give much more than 10% away to Christian causes, I try to share Jesus with my neighbors, I pray with my kids before bed, I’m trying to be a better husband. So is it possible, just possible, that God is not asking me to do anything about sex trafficking right now?
Before you think I’m a total nut-job and scream “physician heal thyself”, let me hasten to add: I do understand the gospel. I know that all this talk of what I should be doing or could be doing is not healthy. I know that. And I’m really doing fine. I’m not on the verge of burnout or breakdown or anything like that. Most days I don’t feel guilty about all the stuff I’m not doing. But that’s only because I’ve learned to ignore a lot of things well-meaning Christians say or write. I’m only 32 and already I’m worn out by urgent calls to transform the culture or rid the world of hunger or usher in an age or world peace. I’m not a cynic, at least I hope not. I just realize there is only so much I can do. I also realize that right now that my main work is to lead my family, shepherd my church, and preach faithful sermons. If I do these things, by God’s grace, and grow in one more degree of glory this week (again, by God’s grace), should I still feel guilty for all that I’m not doing in the world?
Two Blessings Along the Way
Two resources were very helpful to me as I wrestled with all of this in seminary. The first was the senior sermon preached to my class by Gordon Hugenberger of Park Street Church. The sermon was based on John the Baptist’s words “I freely confess I am not the Christ.” Hugenberger’s point to a group of soon-to-be pastors was simple. “Look, you are just the best man, not the groom. You are not the Messiah. Don’t act like it. Don’t let people force you to be something you are not. Don’t let them expect too much from you. Confess to yourself and to your people: I am not the Christ.” I still have a copy of the sermon (thanks Joey) and listen to it from time to time. Many pastors would do well to remember this humble and freeing confession. And many churchgoers would be thankful to have their pastors let up on all the “go do the mission of Jesus” sermons. He was the Christ after all and we are not.
The second resource that helped me was a little book called Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission by Tim Dearborn, who, at the time of the book’s publication, worked for World Vision (and still may, I don’t know). Dearborn talks about all the urgent appeals in the church to “modify our lifestyles to enable a more just distribution of the world’s resources, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build homes for the poor, tear down all barriers that unjustly divide humankind, enable the reduction of the world’s arsenals in pursuit of peace…” He argues that for too long the church has motivated people to mission by news of natural catastrophes, complex humanitarian disasters, unreached people groups, and oppressed and exploited minorities. We’ve been given statistics and we’ve been told all about the sad condition of the world. The take home from all this has been to give more, care more, serve more, love more, sacrifice more. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection had been turned into bad news about all the problems in the world and how much more we have to do to make things right.
Again, I know what you are going to say: but we do need to love, serve, and sacrifice. Absolutely, we do. But here’s what else we need to realize:
1) We all have different callings. Every Christian must give an answer for the reason for the hope that we have, but not everyone will do beach evangelism. Every Christian should be generous, but not everyone will live in the inner city. Every Christian should oppose abortion, but not everyone who march in protests or volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers.
2) The church, not the individual Christian, is God’s body in the world. We all have different gifts and the body has many different members. Even if I never directly engage the issue of AIDS in Africa, the church (through individuals or corporately) can still be showing the compassion of Christ to these orphans.
3) Even Jesus left good work undone some days. Even Jesus got tired. Even Jesus couldn’t do it all (in a manner of speaking).
4) God is the one who does the work, builds his kingdom, renews his world. As Dearborn says, “It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world.”
5) Greater is he that is in me that he that is in the world. The most important work to be done in the world has already been accomplished.
On top of all this, we need to make sure our exhortations to do more rise to the level of God’s glory and sink deep into the gospel. If the exhortations don’t culminate in the glory of God then the youth people and the evangelism people and the poverty people are not really after the same thing. They are just competing interest groups in your church or in your mind. And if the exhortations don’t go deep into the gospel (and they often don’t), then we are just beating up others and ourselves with utopian dreams and masochistic oughts.
The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is of first importance after all. So don’t forget: God loves you. God forgives you. God redeems you. God keeps you. God was here before you and will be here long after you. The truth, the world, the church, the lost, the poor, the children are not dependent upon you.
Light and Easy, No?
I’m not for a minute advocating a cheap grace or an easy-believeism. But the yoke still is easy, right? And the burden still is light, is it not? The danger–and it’s a danger I’ve fallen foul of in my own preaching–is that in all our efforts to be prophetic, radical, and missional, we end up getting the story of Pilgrim’s Progress exactly backwards. “Come to the cross, Pilgrim, see the sacrifice for your sins. Isn’t that wonderful? Now bend over and let me load this burden on your back. There’s a lot of work we have to do, me and you.” A cross, yes. Jesus said we would have to carry one of those. But a cross that kills our sins, smashes our idols, and teaches us the folly of self-reliance. Not a burden to do the impossible. Not a burden to always do more for Jesus. Not a burden of bad news that never lets up and obedience that is always out reach.
No doubt some Christians need to be shaken out of their lethargy. I try to do that every Sunday morning and evening. But there are also a whole bunch of Christians who need to be set free from their performance-minded, law-keeping, world-changing, participate-with-God-in-recreating-the-cosmos shackles. I promise you, some of the best people in your churches are getting tired. They don’t need another rah-rah pep talk. They don’t need to hear more statistics and more stories Sunday after Sunday about how bad everything is in the world. They need to hear about Christ’s death and resurrection. They need to hear how we are justified by faith apart from works of the law. They need to hear the old, old story once more. Because the secret of the gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us.