One of the few teachers that made a lasting impression on me was my band teacher, Tony Mazzara. I wrote about him here at CV. He was one of those teachers that give you lessons on the “assigned subject” as well as even more important lessons about life. When he was going through a difficult time in his family with one of his own adult children he shared some of the struggle with us. At the time I caught a lesson about how teachers are human too, years later I remembered the story and caught the deeper lesson on the persistent, unconditional love of a parent.
I remember a lesson he gave us one morning during band class. He asked a simple question about an old proverb. “Does practice really make perfect?” We all felt pretty sure we knew this one but intimidated to speak up. Finally someone (probably from the clarinet section) said, “Yes!”
“No!” Maz yelled back, “If you practice imperfectly you’ll only reinforce your bad habits!” Doing it wrong over and over doesn’t make it right.
I’m trying to apply that truth to the system of “doing church”.
There’s a website that collects stories of mis-heard lyrics. The thing I find with lyrics that I’ve mangled is that when I’ve been singing them the wrong way long enough the right way sometimes doesn’t seem right. I watch sometimes as people latch on to the way someone else “does church” and they make a copy, their own copy, and plug it into where they are and who they’re with. I’ve watched some of those attempts crash and burn and I’ve seen others take off and become a growing congregation. Willow Creek, Hillsong, Purpose Driven, Renewal, whatever, copy it and they will come. Or not. My question isn’t whether it works. My question is whether we’re making copies of something that’s already flawed to begin with? I’m not suggesting that copying is wrong, I’m wondering out loud if the original is reliable.
I read today a report from a church in the States that had over 1,000 people make a decision to follow Jesus in the last 365 days. Pretty cool! I mean it would be very cool if they were down line links in my multi-level marketing business. It would be totally awesome if they were loyal customers to my new brand of whatever. And it is definitely cool if they are all people who’ve met Jesus and are going to trust him with their lives – all of their ambitions, hopes, all they are, all they hope to be – for the rest of ever. My limited knowledge of the first church tells me they didn’t count “decisions” or keep a scorecard. Sure, Luke records approximate numbers on a couple occasions but either that’s it for “decisions” or frankly they didn’t keep such good records. Paul didn’t keep an accurate tally on his baptisms if we’re to believe his letter to the Corinthian church. Again, I’m not saying that numbers don’t matter, they do if they represent real people, real lives becoming a real part of the Jesus community. I’m just wondering out loud if we’re majoring on the minors, using a system of measurement that affirms that how we get the numbers must be o.k. because we’ve got the numbers.
I’m afraid that we’ve somehow become this company that’s been mandated to crank out widgets and, by God, widgets we’ll crank out. We’ll find the most effective method and we’ll reproduce it and keep counting the numbers and eventually we’ll complete our quota, the boss will come back and we either get a raise or the golden-est golden parachute we’ve ever seen. But what we won’t do, what me must not ever do, is wonder if were really in the widget business.
Jesus once “commended” the Pharisees on their ability to make converts. He said something like, “”You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned.” It wasn’t wrong to make a convert, it was great, the problem was the model they were basing the copy on.
Today I heard about a pastor type that’s telling the church that as he is “blessed” so will the church be blessed. As his “level” rises, theirs will rise. It’s a sort of Reaganomics for the Church, a heavenly trickledown effect. And it’s a lie. I don’t mean it’s questionable theology or a unique interpretation of scripture, I mean it’s not true. It’s a lie. But it works. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people give thousands and thousands of dollars away to “bless the man of God” and increase God’s blessing in their own lives. I’ve seen people give it away for 10 years with no pay-off in sight and still be willing to give lest their “lack of faith” cancel out that blessing that was almost in their bank account. It works. I’ve seen offerings go up and up and up in churches or at conferences where promises were made and we repeat it because it works. Well, it works in the sense that some people give and some get but it never works in the sense that everyone becomes wealthy. And it was never a metric used by the Church until the 20th century.
A while ago I was hanging out with a “big fish in a little pond” ministry guy. He’s been on T.V., you might know his name. He was moving into new digs as his ministry took off thanks to a recent appearance on a “big fish/big pond” guy’s T.V. show. He was explaining principles of leadership to me and a couple other friends. “You serve the kingdom by exercising your gifts.” He said. Then he pointed to a young guy who was doing some seriously heavy lifting. “He serves me and the kingdom by carrying in the boxes for me. I serve him and the kingdom by letting him do that for me. Leadership is about letting other do things you could do but it’s better if they do it for you.”
And I thought, “Psycho.”
Jesus made these crazy statements about how un-like the kingdoms of this world His kingdom is. Clearly he could not see into the future. We are so like the kingdoms of this world, how they use people and love money, that’s it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. I’m fearful that we’ve adopted our cultures metrics to measure whether or not what we are and what we do has significance and value. I’m not saying money is wrong or giving is wrong or numbers are wrong – I’m wondering out loud if we’ve fallen into a carefully laid trap where a revolutionary movement has become the poster child for the world’s system of measurement.
To be continued….