The Paradox of the Church

Paradox is nothing new to the church.
For instance here is one Paradox:
"Modern American Christians are the most active people on earth – they are also the most static."

Most of us have heard this said often: "Just too busy." "Sure would like to… but just too busy."

In the past some people used to wear large crosses around their necks to suggest their spirituality.
Today, Christians use frantic scheduling for the same purpose.
"… Too busy for volunteer work – they insist – even too busy to watch TV."
This might cause some to say that Christians have become an authentic perpetual-motion machine.

What activity keeps believers so busy?
The answer is of course – the church.
We have been taught that there is something highly spiritual either to be derived or demonstrated
through frensic, extremely church activities.
Schedules are so packed – every moment is packed.

Twice on Sunday most believers attend worship services.
It has been estimated that less than 10% of the participants conduct 90% of all that is going on.
At the same time, 90% of those who attend do little more than sit passively (or occasionally stand,
but rarely longer than the length of the song and a prayer) through 75% of the activities.

To many believers, worship has more to do with the admiration of a talented choir or a gifted speaker
than with the expression of adoration and thanksgiving to a living, mighty, eternal God.
And no wonder!
One sits quietly through most of the active worship… and through Bible study,… and through prayer meeting
and through other meetings.

Visitation too often translates into courtesy calls made for the purpose of inviting visitors and absentees
to return to "our friendly church."
There is no evangelism or spiritual concern – just friendly talk.
Just about as often, fellowship results only in friendly small talk – this time among the faithful.

The question is not one of what else we can do to reach the unsaved.
Someone must ask question: "What are we doing?
Is all of this rushing around truly justified
?"

A commandment in the New Testament calls for a life-style centered around the Christian faith.
It is almost as if we are implying that nothing spiritual can take place outside the church house.
And it is sad to say – that we consume so much time in the building – that there is no time left
for ministry outside the building.

It is little wonder that in spite of all of our money, education, and potential, the church today is losing ground.
Our most dedicated members are hamstrung by meetings, paperwork, and the resulting fatigue.

I read about a Christian layman who visited his seminary friend at his work.
Their families were both involved in a nearby local church, and both fell into that category
of "dedicated, young, middle-class marrieds," the kind of young marrieds that every Church desires to have.

Paul had dropped by the store to share a frustrating dilemma that their church was causing for him.
He was a deacon, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the finance committee, a member of the choir,
an active participant in the visitation program – people would call him a "leader."
He was committed to Christ, and he loved his church.

Yet Paul was enormously frustrated because he suddenly realize the disparity between the demands
of his church and the demands of Christ.
His church insisted that he be present for every service and ever meeting.

By contrast, Jesus Christ had called him to be the salt of the earth, to minister to his family and neighbors
with whom he had a unique influence.
But he had no time for this.

When neighbors called, Paul had to interrupt conversations in order to rush off to meetings at the church.
When neighbors invited him and his wife over for dinner, far too often they were already committed
(weeks in advance) to a church function.

There was no time to tuck his son into bed with a Bible story because he was usually asleep
when he arrived home.
He was seldom with his wife.
Either that he was in a meeting and she was home, or he was in the choir, and she was in the nursery.

Without knowing exactly have to voice it, Paul had stumbled onto a startling realization.
He was hiding his light under a bushel – his local church.

All his quality time available for ministry to family and friends, the people with whom he had the most influence,
was being greedily gulped down by church bureaucracy.
His hunger for service had been exploited, and then paralyzed by churchianity.

In 1 Samuel 15 we find an interesting parallel to the present circumstance.
The passage is the culmination of an ongoing narrative delineating the failures of Israel.
The people were continuing to perform the rituals of their religion, but had not allow their faith to accomplish
those things that God had ordained it to accomplish.
In his response, God pointed out through Samuel,
"To obey is better than sacrifice." (1 Samuel 15:22)

Obedience to God is more important than rituals.

Like Israel, we have sometimes been too eager to sacrifice for our faith.
In the name of religious ritual, we have given up money, time, family, friends, influence, and recreation.
Yet, just as in the case of Israel, our rituals have become meaningless to God
because we have ceased to be about what He is all about.
We have no time left to be salt or light – to those who need us!

After all the years of hearing our leaders pray from the pulpit, "Hide me behind the cross,"
we have done just that – hidden!
Behind crosses, behind stained-glass, and behind towering walls of concrete and brick,
we have hidden our faith and our life-styles.

Small wonder that our neighbors and families remain unimpressed.
Either they are bemused by the pretense of our frantic flitting about, or they are vexed by the way
we make such a fuss about "loving" them while taking absolutely no time to demonstrate it.

We must remember – the local congregation is not an end in itself;
it is a means of participating in corporate worship as God's Word commands us.
The local church is a means of deriving the benefits of fellowship – encouragement, exhortation,
and shared concern.
The local church is a means of being prepared for ministry.
The local church is a means of mobilizing small groups of believers toward that spiritual mission
of evangelizing the world.

The local churches not to be a hiding place where Christians may cower in their pews
in the face of the world's need.
The local church is not a spectator's booth where we may sit and offer commentary
while angels do spiritual warfare.
The local church should be a launching pad where worship, discipleship, fellowship, and education create
an atmosphere of readiness and competence from which believers are hurled dynamically
into lives of caring in ministry.
The local church is a means, rather than an end.

The search survives through supernatural power, rather than manpower.
The church will enjoy the blessings of God once again only when members are looking outward
instead of inward.

Having thus adopted a true perspective of the local congregation, we are now in a better position
to consider the nature of our faith.
Our faith is characterized in the Bible neither as a meeting nor as a series of meetings.

Time and time again the writers of the New Testament depict faith as a walk.
It is a race.
It is a continual advance.

Biblical faith does not revolve around meetings, for whatever their purposes may be.
Biblical faith is not revolve around circumstances or people or buildings.
Instead, Christian lives should revolve around faith.

Church homecomings and anniversaries can be painfully enlightening, if not always delightful.
What a few of the old-timers are asked to recount their fondest memories pertaining to that church,
the incidence of accomplishments they recall will generally share at least one telling thing in common
– they will all have occurred at the church building.

By contrast, most of the things deemed memorable by Paul, Luke, John, and others took place
on the highways and byways of life.
True, there weren't a lot of local church buildings back then, but there were agreed-upon meeting places.
And some significant things are naturally recorded is happening in those places.
But love and concern were too powerful and it spilled over in the streets.

Had Paul ever resorted to the use of the phrase, "a great time," he would no doubt have reserved it
for something more stellar and 65 people showing up for Thursday evening revival meeting
to hear a humorous 25 minute message.

Here are some adjustments that we must make:
1. The local church is a means, not an end.
2. Life must revolve around our faith, but faith must not revolve around meetings or buildings.
3. A true shortage of leadership in your local church is God's problem, not yours.

What was that?
That last one was so shocking that a proof text is surely in order.
Christ taught his followers that "the harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few." (Matthew 9:37)
We can certainly relate to that problem, can't we?

Now we need to see what Christ prescribed for that problem.
What He didn't do was unload additional burdens on the apostles.
He didn't insist that the shortage of workers meant that their followers should "take up the slack."

Instead, He stated that God would take care of that problem, and instructed his disciples
to ask God for additional help.
We see this in Matthew 9:38: "Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest,
that he will send forth laborers into his harvest
."

In times of a labor shortage, the words of Christ instruct us to look up.
But more often than not, church leaders and committees on committees say, "Bear up."

Somebody has got to change the light bulbs, teach the young people Sunday school class,
plan for the fellowship and chair the… committee.
No church can function without deacons, finance committees, teaches, nursery workers, choir members, and…

The complaint is that "we have only got 25 regulars."
"Somebody just has to double up."

Double up.
Bear up.
Tighten up.
Hurry up.
Mess up.
Crack up.

Done correctly, for example, the work of a Sunday school teacher should demand all the free time
that a working Christian can afford.
There is the thought and preparation which ought to go into every week's lesson.
It ought to receive more prayer and thought than an hour or two.
Then a Sunday school teacher should pray individually for every class member, and visit them when possible,
and be concerned in the matters that concern them.

The teacher should be there when they are ill, and should remember their birthdays and special occasions.
The teacher should call on new prospects for the class and encourage members to do so also.
Indeed, the Sunday school teacher fulfilling all of his or her responsibilities can honestly use
every moment of available time.

Nonetheless, I think that, by and large, every faithful and dedicated Christian will accept teaching positions.
They also happen to be the only people who will easily accept other positions, so every Sunday school teacher
you ever meet (or let's say most of them) will also hold several other positions in the church
– a choir member, another office -- a committee position, etc.

By way of results, three possibilities are obvious.

The first possibility is that he or she bears up under the continual pressure,
but he or she is unable to do his or her best.
The lessons should be thrilling, but they are not.
The lessons should be interesting, but they are not.
The lessons should be challenging, but they are not.

The students drift away, and are never visited or encouraged to attend.
The teacher loses touch with their needs.
The teacher's prayer life suffers.

The spouse of the teacher grows to resent the church.
Helpers or assistant teachers are not trained.
So the teacher (or worker) muddles through, a committed and talented Christian,
doing a mediocre job in several areas – Mess Up.

The second possibility finds the pressures increasing.
Problems at home require even additional time.
Sunday school classes attendance drops off.
The fellowship banquet is a flop.
Finally, this teacher with enormous potential blows up, and stops attending the local church at all – Crack Up!

More hopeful is the third possibility.
Suppose this gifted Sunday school teacher had steadfastly refused to take on other responsibilities.
When one leader or another came around with new jobs and "opportunities,"
he or she might have generally responded:
"I can't possibly maintain my best efforts in my Sunday school class,
and assume additional responsibilities as well.
But I will pray with you that God will provide a worker for that task
."

Every believer should be willing to sacrifice to the kingdom of God.
So glorious is our calling and so perilous is the circumstance of each unsaved friend and neighbor
that no committed believer should be content with a a life of mere convenience.

But sacrifice should be for excellence, not mediocrity.
It is far better to sacrifice for one crucial task and read disciples had to sacrifice for a multitude of tasks
and reap only the lackluster and mediocre.

Not a single pastor should ever suggest himself that he should be all-discerning or perfectly insightful.
Most pastors – are more than willing to admit their failures and inadequate.

In spite of all this, dedicated Christians often seem to lose their grip in the presence of a beloved pastor
with an "opportunity" to offer them.
Whether out of guilt, admiration, or simply inability to say, "No," Christians who care are all too likely
to accept new positions even when they know there's no time left to handle them responsibly.
Yes, it does seem that someone needs to do it, and the pastor clearly needs a break.

In truth, a pastor's ultimate goals (and the goals of Christ) might be far better served by respectful refusal.
Maybe the correct person hasn't been asked yet.
Maybe the correct person hasn't been saved yet.
Or maybe the program is no longer truly necessary, and should be dropped.

Whatever the case may be, the answer will not be found in playing the martyr, and striving for mediocrity.

If God is omnipotent (as we believe He is) and deems the task important (if He doesn't,
you shouldn't waste your time",
God is far more capable of resolving the matter than you or I.

Christ taught that we should "Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest,
that He will send forth laborers into His harvest
."

The fourth adjustment that we must make is to realize that God doesn't need crowds.
So, don't wait for one.
God didn't launch the Christian faith with the mass crucifixion of thousands – just One – Jesus
– the right one was enough.

And when the Dark Ages all the church grow fat and blind, one German priest was enough
to launch the Reformation.

Evangelistic preachers, planning committees, and meeting the budget demands that crowds are needed,
but God doesn't need crowds.
God can achieve the beginnings of excellence in the local church with only one person.
Could that person be you?

Too often people who grow concerned about one thing or another decide to spearhead a crusade.
Someone decides the people are friendly enough, so he starts recruiting people to join him
in demanding more friendliness.
Or someone else decides that people are not praying enough so he requests time after the service
each Sunday night to harangue members about not praying.

If one starts a crusade and gets everyone concerned, then things will change.
Right?
Not necessarily.

If nobody is praying in your church, the easiest way to affect change is by personally beginning to spend
as much time in prayer as possible.
Then at least one person will be praying and, seeing your results, others will follow.

If nobody is friendly enough, don't wait for mass awareness and transformation, become more friendly yourself.
Explore new ways to show concern and acceptance, at least there will be one truly friendly person
in your church, which will be more than some churches have.

If everyone else is living at the church, there is probably nothing affected you can say
to stimulate a correction in their thinking.
But you can affect change!

Stop assuming new responsibilities that you don't have time or talent for.
Take a spiritual survey.
Discover your gifts and interest, seek out the most effective way you can employ those gifts
and interests in your local church.
Estimate what will be involved in performing your task with excellence.
Then schedule your time, providing adequate times for devotion and meditation, family, church,
neighbors, and your job.

Having done that, pour your time into those elements of your life.
Love your family with quantity and quality time.
Go out of your way to encountering grow more familiar with your neighbors – especially those
who are not Christians.
Do an exemplary job with the ministry that you have accepted at your local church.

And having witnessed what God is doing in your life because you have dad to reject their churchanity,
perhaps others will join you in life-style Christianity.
But if not, at least, you will be making a difference.

God hasn't called us to work only in crowds.
He has called us to be salt.

And before salt can contribute anything of value, it must be released from the shaker.
Likewise, God salty sons and daughters must first be shaken from their church buildings,
and back into the community if they are truly to be agents of the gospel.

Dedicated believers must realize the biblical role of the local church, as a means rather than an end.
The local church must be removed from the center of the believer's faith,
and Jesus Christ must be returned to the throne of each life.

Then, we will see salt.
For when He reigns, it pours.

Sermon was adapted from several sources by Dr. Harold L. White