My friend Zelda had a scary experience a few years ago. She was driving home late from work in her Kia in the middle of winter. The temperature had dropped below freezing, and the roads were slippery, and a bit of snow was in the air. Her Kia lost traction and she didn’t know how to handle the slippery road and she panicked; she ended up in the ditch.
It wasn’t a big ditch and she didn’t damage the car. If she hadn’t panicked, she might have been able to drive out of it, but it was slippery and she was afraid, so she called a tow truck and while they were towing her car to her mechanic’s for a checkup, she talked the driver’s ear off about how dangerous the roads were and how frightening her experience was.
Today, Zelda is still terrified of ditches. She drives a small SUV nowadays, and she stays away from ditches. Most of the time she drives the SUV on suburban streets with curbs and sidewalks, but when she’s on a road that has a ditch, she crowds the centerline; she pretty much straddles the yellow line on any road with a ditch. If she’s not paying attention, or if she’s particularly scared, she probably has her wheels over the yellow line, but she’s not watching the line, she’s still got her eyes on that ditch.
I’m concerned for Zelda. It seems that she’s in more danger now than when she slid into the ditch. If there’s someone like her coming the other way on that road, crowding the centerline, eyes on the ditch, then they’re going to crash head on, and they’ll both be badly hurt; or she’ll swerve dramatically to miss the oncoming car, and she’ll land in the ditch again anyways.
We do that, don’t we: when we have a bad experience, we can get – if we’re honest with ourselves – a little extreme about the opposite viewpoint.
Let me tell you about three imaginary people: Arlene, Bernard and Charles.
Arlene is a consumer Christian. She goes to church Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights usually, unless something is seriously wrong. She goes out to lunch afterwards with friends and they critique the service. For Arlene, a service is always measured by how good it made her feel, and if it made her feel like she could make it through the next few days until the next service. If she felt good enough to go.
She’s plugged into a couple of support groups, though she doesn’t really have to deal with the issues that one of them addresses and she’s not sure what the other is about; she just wants to be connected, and the leaders make her feel better. She reads a fair bit, always books about the good things she has the right to expect from life and how to deal with the bad things that have happened to her. She invites her friends to church, but they usually aren’t really interested, or they come once but usually not again.
Arlene has become dependent. She’s dependent on her church services, her church and group leaders, on her Christian resources and her Christian culture. Her life is defined by “I need to depend on you!”
Interestingly, Arlene’s twin sister Arielle has similar issues. She’s been living on welfare or disability for several years, and now she has a case worker that’s pretty helpful. She’s cared for by a number of helpful but impersonal government programs.
Now, I don’t want to judge Arlene or Arielle for their lifestyle choices. I don’t know the stories of their lives (partly because they’re fictional, but you get the point), or whether God expects a different standard for their lives or not. I am not their judge, and I like it that way. The point I want to focus on is their dependence on others.
Dependency is not evil. Children (whether young people or young Christians) must be dependent, but the need for dependency is something that any adolescent – biological or spiritual – must grow out of.
Bernard goes to a real organized church. After attending for a number of years, he’s been appointed to be an usher and so Sunday is the only day he ever wears a jacket and tie because that’s expected of ushers. He tithes to the church now too; that was part of the expectation for becoming an usher. His family attends the appropriate classes that the church offers, and they’ve been assigned to one of the home groups that one of the elders leads in his home where they review the pastor’s sermon every week.
Bernie’s church is big on obedience, on discipline, on accountability. Tithing is a big subject there. So is regular church attendance. And daily devotions. And the need to be involved in the programs of the church.
Bernie loves his pastor’s sermons. They teach him about the reality of the weaknesses in his life, how the problems in your life are because you aren’t devoted enough, submitted enough, obedient enough, and they show him places where he can submit more, be devoted more.
Questions are really not encouraged. It’s hard to do something new, something different, because there always seems to be some unwritten or unspoken standard that he needs to live up to before starting something new, and besides, shouldn’t you be involved in this new program that the pastor started rather than starting your own? “No, you can’t be a home group leader: all home groups do is breed rebellion and distension; besides, we still need you to teach Sunday school; later, after you’re more submitted we can talk about it again.” But that time never comes; though he continues to grow, Bernie
’s never mature enough.
Success in Bernard’s church is measured by conformity.
Bernard has a twin named Bertrand who was dating Arielle for a while, until one of the elders pulled him aside and explained how she was rebellious because she used to attend this church but had left here for another church without the pastor’s permission.
Bernard’s church life is characterized by the phrase “You need to depend on me!”
It’s easy to be judgmental of Bernie’s church, or Bertrand’s, and that’s probably not appropriate: their leaders will have to report to a different master than you or I, who has given them different marching orders than ours.
I want to point out that Bernie’s basic issue is the same as Arlene’s: it’s dependency. Arlene has made herself dependent; Bernie was made dependent by his church leaders, but ultimately it’s the same issue for both of them.
Charles has a different story. Years ago, he got frustrated by the church. He rejected his neediness and his dependent life, and he hasn’t gone to church for years, and he’ll tell you all about it if you bring up the subject: the wounds are still fresh, even though they’re years old. He’s still rejecting the church’s attempts to control him.
Sometimes, Charlie stills inclined to pursue God but “without the constraints of organized religion.” The reality is that he’s more talk there than action; maybe he doesn’t know how to follow God on his own, or maybe there really is something of value in worshipping in community that he lacks, but it’s hard for him to follow God on his own.
Charlie’s brother Chad has also been burned by experiences in church, but he’s still part of church. Chad kind of keeps his distance. He has a few friends in church, and they talk about the weather, the sports, the government. They’ll sometimes argue passionately about favorite doctrines, but Chad never finds himself in a circle that expects to hear about the issues of his heart, the passions of his life or anyone else’s. It’s not that he’s afraid of being known, but he’s determined not to be needy; sympathy makes him uncomfortable. “I’ve been needy long enough,” he said years ago. “Never again.”
Charles has been in the ditch before, and now he straddles the yellow line, racing towards a wreck of one kind or an other, though he has no idea. Chad doesn’t straddle the yellow line: he limits his driving to roads with sidewalks, so he never has to deal with his fear of ditches, but he can never leave the suburban community in which he lives: the highways don’t have sidewalks. They’re so determined to avoid one danger that they’ve placed themselves in another danger, a dangers than the one they’re avoiding.
The generation we live in is changing the face of the church. This generation questions everything that previous generations have held as truisms. Worse, they expect to be in charge of their own destiny rather than placidly following the course that someone else has laid out for their life. As a result, I’m meeting many believers who have a tough time fitting into the church. They look at the options A, B & C, and they are confused and increasingly frustrated. They have decided for themselves that they’ve grown out of the need to be dependent (A), and they’ve developed a habit of when people try to tell them to be dependent, they interpret that as control (B), and they resist it. They look at the alternatives: the rebellion of Charles’ life, the spiritual lobotomy of Chad’s, and they understand that these are at the very least unhelpful, and in reality, they’re probably sinful, so they don’t choose them.
Many young believers are finding themselves in a “no man’s land”: there is no place for them in the church, and being out of the church denies a fundamental value they have for fellowship with God and with other believers.
The irony is that many pastors and church leaders are missing this fundamental fact: Church-as-we’ve-always-done-it has some weaknesses. “Church is successful” they say, some because their attendance and their offering baskets are growing, some because they know that “The Church” is God’s only plan for believers on this planet. Some church leaders – more than I expected – teach their people that leaving fellowship (or leaving this fellowship) is rebellion, is dangerous, or is sin.
Here’s my question to the church leaders among us: is it possible to make room for grown-up believers, to receive them as peers, not as “sheep” or as “underlings” but as
“co-heirs with Christ
, if indeed [they] share in his sufferings in order that [they] may also share in His glory.”
I’m having difficulty imagining what that would look like.
It does not look like a fellowship of believers with no leadership, no authority. It does mean no man-made authority: nobody gathering people around themselves in order to be a leader; nobody every says, “Because I said so.”
It does not
look like anarchy, where everyone does “as is right
in his own eyes.” But it also doesn’t look like one primary person in a position of leadership dictating the only vision, the only one who knows the plan, the vision, the direction of the group.
It does not
look like people rebelling against control, nor like some people controlling or manipulating others. Have you ever noticed that the only “control
” in the New Testament is “self-control”? Controlling others has been replaced by their own self-control.
I imagine a group of believers who are committed to the personal growth of each other. Each member is determined to see the others grow more than themselves, to see their dreams and hopes fulfilled more than their own.
The people are committed to the people in the group, not to the positions those people hold. I have a living covenant relationship with others in the group (with all of them in a small group, with key individuals in a large one), and they are committed to those individuals, knowing that those others are equally committed to me. I will never be considered “expendable”, and neither will any one else in the group. People are more valuable than programs, than schedules, than services, than positions.
There are leaders among them: leadership by committee so often is a euphemism for a situation where the strongest rule by force or by manipulation. There is a senior leader; there are other leaders, though it’s not a position of seniority or of additional privileges: these men and women are called to equip the rest of the body, to develop and deploy the rest of the congregation. But the leaders are first brothers and sisters in the group Before they are “leaders”, they are family. They are like the head of the family: dad knows how to be firm, but in a healthy family, everybody knows that his love for them comes before his firm direction or corrections.
This is a group where there are very few people that are not involved in “the ministry,” though few (if any) of them are paid by “the ministry”. They work in the community, among the community, and they all see themselves as “ministers” of God, ambassadors of Heaven in their workplaces, their stores, their neighborhoods. Their leaders both affirm this and model it.
There are very few people in this community who are not involved in mentoring someone else, and in being mentored themselves in one way or another. The relationships among them are sufficient to allow for sincere (and perhaps blunt) questions from others that are in their circle of friendship, without raising self-righteous or self-defensive challenges.
I know several churches where these values are held and lived. Some are denominational churches, others non-denominational, and some are house-churches. None of them walk in perfection in this, and they may point out (and I would agree) that as long as we’re dealing with human beings, perfection may be a little tough to come by. The point is, this is do-able.