Slippery Jesus

We who delve into the bible and lead congregations… Yes, it appears possible to do the one and not the other: One can delve into the bible purely for personal benefit, or one can lead congregations and ignore the bible. But the best option is to delve into the bible, thereby listening to God, and from that listening, lead God’s people. Surely this leadership need not be from the top – from the position of pastoral CEO or Chair. Bible-produced leadership is just as possible from someone who has no official position.

Back to the original thought. Here I am, delving into my bible and leading congregations (I speak of my life over the past 20 years). I find myself in an uncomfortable place. One of the things I find in the bible is that people need Jesus. This bible-enunciated need has also been evidenced by what I see in actual living, breathing people. I need Jesus. Other folks need Jesus.

Have you ever noticed, however, that many people either don’t think they need Jesus or if they see the need, fail to act on it? I’ve been lost, so I know what it is to be blind to the Gospel. I’m a sinner, so I know what it is to not act on what I know I need to do. The confusion I’m talking about today is with the church (sinners within) rather than sinners without.

Almost every church I’ve pastored would have defended the idea that it is the church’s job to join in God’s work of helping people know Jesus. Almost as universally, these churches have acted like meeting the needs of church members and keeping them happy  is the most important task of the church (or of the pastor, as the case may be). Those folks out there ought to come to our programs and participate in our ministries.

But they don’t. At least not enough to staunch a decades long decline in United Methodism as a whole – and most of our congregations taken individually.

Faced with these details, many who speak up for leadership in the church tell us we need to change. We need to get back to God. Out of obedience to God we need to do everything possible to fulfill the Great Commission – and to lead our churches in that direction. Yes! my heart says. That’s exactly what we need to do. If some of the members aren’t up to it, if they want to stick with the old ways that continue to not win the lost, well, they can just be lost themselves. The changes we need to make to fulfill the Great Commission will necessarily leave some behind, since not all are concerned with the Great Commission, apparently preferring to keep things they way they’ve always been. Nice and comfortable.

New pastors come to these “don’t rock the boat” churches with instructions to “reach people,” to “grow the church.” The old timers don’t know what hit them. They just know that their church has been taken from them. Or… the hard charging, determined-to-reach-the-lost-at-any-cost  pastor is run off with this tail between his legs, either to go plant a church, try another transformation, or to sell insurance.

Where does Jesus fit in this mix (mess)? We could look at John 10 – the Good Shepherd. He’s a good enough shepherd that he doesn’t lose any. That’s way better than any shepherd (pastor) I’ve ever known. We all lose some, if for no other reason that we’re different from the last pastor. Surely the pastor who read John 10 and patterned ministry after Jesus would do everything to make sure none were lost?

Maybe. Maybe not. What about the Jesus of John 6? That Jesus begins well – feeding the multitude. We all like a free lunch. But by the end of the chapter he’s gotten so controversial that most of the crowd has left in disgust. He turns to the twelve. “Hey! Do you guys want to leave also? If so, you better hit the road.” Where’s the Good Shepherd who wants to keep everyone, no matter the cost?

Jesus is slippery. He just doesn’t fit our models.

Some of us like the model of Jesus as chaplain. Be nice. Make everyone happy. Don’t rock the boat.

Some of us like the model of Jesus the creator of storms. Stir things up. Cause a ruckus. Polarize.

Well, which is it? Do we pastors work our tails off to make everyone happy so no one ever leaves? Or do we push radical change to reach the lost, regardless of who (or how many) may depart in the interim?  I – with the help of Jesus – could make either case.

But I don’t think either is the right place to begin.

Instead, let’s consider stepping back and engaging Jesus in his context. Instead of taking our perception of our own context and laying Jesus (or our abstractions of Jesus) on top of them, let’s do what Jesus did. Put ourselves entirely at God’s disposal. Regular prayer and fasting. A broken heart for people – those on the inside, those on the outside. An irrationally stubborn commitment to his mission (how rational do you think it is to forego a quiet life of carpentery – or fishing – to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, whipped and crucified?) regardless of how people responded (his best buds all ran away. Oh. All but two. One betrayed him, the other stayed close enough to deny him).

What would happen if we congregational leaders followed this Jesus – regardless of whether it made people happy or not? Regardless of whether it brought in the crowds or not?

It may be that we’ll be crucified. Wouldn’t be the first time. But it just may well be that we’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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This entry was posted in Bible, church growth, Jesus, Leadership, Ministry, United Methodism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Slippery Jesus

  1. John Meunier says:

    A bold challenge.

    Like every other challenge to really be like Jesus, it scares the willies out of me.

  2. Richard H says:

    That’s a good way to put it, John.

  3. Derek says:

    minor correction: John stayed with Jesus. So did Mary.

    But more importantly, I REALLY related to what you write here John. We’ve been to so many churches that want to make things comfortable for us, and frankly that’s why a lot of us emergent types don’t bother to go to church at all. My bed is more comfortable if comfort is the goal. What I want though in a church – what my heart yearns for and thrives on – is a vital living relationship with God that challenges all of us to love God and others more.

  4. Great stuff, here, Richard, John, and Derek!

    It wasn’t very long ago (sadly) that I began to realize how badly (church folks) often tend to miss the motivations and yearnings of unchurched folks in our evangelism and church-growth strategeries(mispelling intentional). I did blog about it a little over a month ago.

    Really good stuff to read on a rainy Monday morning….

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