Lone Ranger Christianity makes for a lousy compass.
I met Jerry in passing some years ago, while he was seeking ministry opportunities. I hadn’t seen him since that time, so I was surprised to get a phone call from him. He and his wife wanted to sit down over coffee and pick my brain on some items.
As they started talking, I could tell they were off their game. Jerry had finally scored a high visibility staff position at a megachurch, but hadn’t done well with it. Both of them described how there had been no experience of community in that large congregation, and how this needed to change and that needed to change. I wondered while they were talking, what the people at that church would say if I picked up the phone and asked about them, whether there be another side of the story. I didn’t think Jerry and Sheila were being deliberately deceptive, but people sometimes unconsciously edit their story in order to make their case.
So I asked the two of them, “Please be honest with me—outside of your job description, did you make yourself available to the people in the church? Were you around, or did you opt out of everything you could?” To their credit, they really were honest. “No,” they said, “We had our own life and our own plans, and we weren’t available.”
But rather than own his complicity in the wrinkles of his new church, Jerry had quit. He and Sheila had left the congregation, and that’s where their confusion really started. They couldn’t figure out what to do next, but were sure they had “the Lord’s leading.” The problem was, which version of “leading” would they follow?
At one level, there was a need to get some money coming in, to make a living. That was the family compass. But then Jerry had a compass of his own. He wanted to find some kind of new ministry adventure. Sheila also had her compass, which was to relocate closer to her family. The kids probably had theirs, too. These separate motives and agendas were conflicting, directing them all over the place. There was nothing larger than themselves and their family anymore, and thus no true north.
This is American Christianity. There is a Jesus for every individual person, every need, every desire. And He always seems to lead us to do whatever we wanted to do anyway. These last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about the church as something larger than individuals and individual families. The church has been complained about (yes, often for good reasons), frequently ignored, and it’s even been attacked by no less than Christians themselves. But little energy has gone into exploring the role of it in the faith journey.
Our highest leading is always at the level of God’s people. No doubt the Holy Spirit leads us in the particulars of life, but the kind of direction I’m referring to is something more strategic in scope.
Let’s go back to the Old Testament for an appropriate picture.
Enter a large tent that the people of God constructed, according to His blueprint. One hundred and two times, the Bible refers to it as the Tabernacle. But one hundred forty times in Scripture it is referred to as the tent of meeting. All God’s people met with Him at this tent. Down in the deepest part of it was a section called the holy of holies, within which was a golden chest called the ark of testimony (a.k.a. The ark of the covenant).
Ex. 25:22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
The people at that time were gathering around an Old Testament type of Christ. The ark was wood, overlaid with gold, as Christ was both human and divine. It contained the tablets of the law, as Christ contained the fullness of God (c.f. Col. 2:9). Its lid, called “the mercy seat,” was covered with sacrificial blood, allowing God to overlook the sins of that time. In a similar, but greater way, the crucified Christ and His redemption allows unfettered access to God.
This same Christ is at the center of our gatherings, not a celebrity preacher, or a rock star worship leader. Though you are important, you are not the center, nor is your family. Nothing must ever replace the glorious Son of God, for when that happens, the tent of meeting will become a circus tent, a party tent, nothing more.
If there was any doubt about the centrality of the ark in the tent of meeting, consider the arrangement commanded in Numbers 2-3:
This cumbersome entity moved in a surprisingly cohesive way, considering the number of opinions that were afoot at any given time. We know, for instance, that at a particular point, the people felt bored, and stuck in neutral. Wilderness life wasn’t the adventure they thought it would be, and besides, Moses tended toward what many considered absenteeism— “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1).
Their impatience led to idolatry, the infamous golden calf episode. Even after the people had been disciplined, and accepted a forward direction, fear stopped them short of entering the promised land. In the face of what they considered unassailable enemies, they mutinied against God. Only a pathetic few believed victory was possible. The rest of the nation stalled, then, “they said to one another, Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). Once this attitude was sufficiently rebuked, the people then decided upon a rash invasion of the land, without the blessing of God. It failed miserably. These directional difficulties–the speed of progress, desires for retreat, and even ill-advised advances–all could have easily bogged Israel down in a sort of blindfolded, three-legged race.
But thankfully, God provided a marker.
Ex. 13:21 And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.
It was a direction they realized together, congregationally. And even with this supernatural manifestation, it still wasn’t always easy. Israel went around in circles for forty years. During that time, gradually, the old, unbelieving generation died off. God had told them that of all “who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell” (Num. 14:29-30). That forty year delay had a purpose, as the old decayed, and the new came to the fore.
Today, following God together is something just short of an art form. Western hearts are synced differently. We think in terms of loosely associated individuals whose faith is privately determined, and whose ambitions are personal sanctums. Everyone is on his or her own journey.
Perhaps knowing this, Jesus told us, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:6, et. al.).
This command takes us beyond what the Spirit is saying to our heart. It is not that our personal spirituality is no longer important. No, only that we consider things at a level removed from our immediate, horizontal interests. We don’t replace our walk with Christ for something communal; we add. By doing this, we grow into a fuller understanding of the journey.
Many years ago, the leadership of our church decided on a yearly schedule that seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit. It did not involve strict adherence to the liturgical calendar, but neither would it become a random sampling of religious topics. Instead, we committed to a robust interaction with the Bible, a deliberate focus on outreach, the milk of the Word, and several larger areas of discipleship–with each respective area being the primary emphasis in its own season. In other words, we would seek to establish a rhythm of things important to God, even if some of the things covered lacked box office appeal.
It wasn’t long before that plan bit me. In the months of January-May last year (2018), we were finishing up the book of Romans. I had settled into a groove of message preparation, research, commentaries, and was feeling good about the thrill of discovery. Romans was yielding a lot of gems.
Then the month of June rolled around. That meant a season of focus upon outreach, with works of kindness, befriending neighbors, and praying for folks we don’t know. We used the book of Jonah as a springboard, and the in-your-face application of it was to repent from hating or despising the people you have been called to reach. So, the cloud shifted, so to speak, from study and spiritual revelation, to doing things, and being other-oriented. I felt the deep reluctance of a guy who was dug into his own campsite, and wanting to stay there. I wasn’t feeling the outreach thing. In fact, I told myself that I would tolerate an outreach summer, but that would be all.
It was as though the folks in my church were packing their tents, and rounding up their livestock in preparation to follow the pillar, while I was toying with the idea of digging in. I think I’m a pretty typical Christian that way. I’d love to become lopsided, ignoring areas Jesus commanded, while diving deep into others.
The Lord, in His own way, haunted me with a question: Are you going to come with us, or just pretend to?
In the end, I made the “trip” with everyone, and it rocked my world.
Our Gatherings are a congregational following of the pillar of cloud. We move together. But when some themes aren’t your cup of tea, when they don’t reward you personally, or hit your sweet spot? What happens when the place the church passes through is a bit theoretical, or inconvenient, or uncomfortable? Suppose it doesn’t answer your biggest question of the moment?
Well, it just might be that the Holy Spirit wants to lead you someplace you’ve never been. If the church didn’t make a point of it, you’d never do it. You probably wouldn’t even think of it, because when you’re alone, you can brush off anything uncomfortable, or uninteresting. You can procrastinate, as long as you’re by yourself. God knows this.
No one reaches the Promised Land alone.