Sunday, June 22, 2014

How Complaining Keeps the Church from God's Mission

God is a missional God. The Spirit of God is moving across creation to restore all things. There is nothing beyond the reach of God's redeeming touch.

God calls his people to join him in his mission. Some churches (and small groups) step into the flowing river of God's mission. Others don't. In this post I want to identify one of the most significant things that keeps God's people from joining God in his difference-making venture. I call it "Attacking Easy Targets." Ultimately we are complaining ourselves out of mission as we place blame and pick fights.

Like a bully at a playground who picks on those who cannot fight back, there has been much ink used and tons of rhetoric spoken by church leaders attacking these easy targets. These easy targets fall into the category of things about which we are concerned but over which we have little to no influence.

Target #1: The Culture
The first set of opinions can be grouped under the label “There’s a problem with our culture.” Recently, I read a Facebook post written by a relatively famous Jewish actor who was taking all kinds of shots at the American culture. Honestly, he sounded more like a fundamentalist Christian pastor who was laying all of the blame for the state of our world at the feet of politicians. Finding fault with the culture comes with all kinds of accusations about problems with the educational system, the media, the government, and the entertainment industry. Somehow Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Washington D.C. are to blame. Something or someone out there is undermining what God wants to do in the world.

When we really think about this, it’s really a sad argument. Throughout the history of the church, every great advance of the Gospel was met with great opposition from the culture. We only need to look at the first 300 years the church life to see this reality. And today this continues to happen. I have a friend who does work with churches in Southeast Asia. He tells me that every new convert in those churches is persecuted in some way and that his research shows that ten percent of them are physically beaten for their faith. Yet the church in this Muslim culture is growing by leaps and bounds.

It's easy to blame the culture for what we don't experience in the church. Here's my question: Why do we expect the world to be anything else than the world?  

Target #2: The Traditional Church
A second set of “easy targets” could be grouped under the heading: “It’s the church’s fault.” Blog rants abound that blame the church system itself, pointing to things like the clergy/laity divide or how denominational systems were never endorsed by the Scriptures. It’s not uncommon for some writers to mock Christian leaders because they believe that they represent a system of doing the church that hinders the expansion of the Gospel. Then of course there are many who place the blame at the feet of Constantine, the fourth century Roman Emporer who supposedly became a Christian and eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Because of the choices made back then that have entrapped the church in “pagan” structures, we are not able to make a difference today.

It’s easy to attack church systems and structures. It’s easy to point the finger at established leadership, denominational systems, and the people of power. While I believe that we need prophets who confront the status quo, and while I do think that we need to challenge aspects of church life that hinder community and mission, there is far too much simplistic in its rhetoric. It casts judgement on current church systems and structures as if God has revealed to them that he wants to toss it all out and start over.

It's easy to blame the church structures that we have inherited and lay fault at the feet of all the leaders who steward those structures. Here's my question: Why do we expect to find some kind of perfect structure that will suddenly open the difference making door?

Target #3: Consumeristic Christianity
Easy target set number three could be labeled “It’s because you don’t get the Gospel.” The blame here falls at the feet of individuals who are consumeristic Christians who want the benefits of Christianity without the costs. They want grace without discipleship. They are not radical. They don’t understand what it means to be a zealot for Jesus. They just need to take a leap of faith. The answer to this problem is to embrace radical discipleship, the serious kind that makes time for extended mission trips to impoverished countries. Or where you quit your job and buy a house in the city to fight for socio-economic restoration. Or where you quit every activity in your life and throw yourself into every program at the church. Like the pastor from my high school days who went off on his congregation because they did not show up on a Saturday to plant trees on the church property, it is easy to assume that we know why Christians are not serious about their faith.

Rather than pointing fingers at what we assume are consumeristic Christians, what if we did the hard work of getting involved in their journey and seeing how God is at work in their lives? What if we offered a beautiful alternative of self-sacrificial love instead of ranting about people's consumeristic spirituality?

Culture, the church, and consumeristic Christianity are easy targets. Of course there is some merit to pointing to them as a problem. We need prophets who will challenge the status quo and call us into more. But it’s easy to spend energy blaming things like government, historical decisions, or church structures because the reality is that most of us cannot do much about them. These are global or macro issues that impact us, but in most cases we have very little influence upon them. When we take aim at these macro problems, we spend energy on that over which we are concerned instead of investing energy in the things in which we have influence.

Steven Covey used circles to help people think about this in his best-selling book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. First there is a Circle of Concern. In this circle, you might list things like the state of the economy, global warming, drug abuse in your city, and the three issues of culture, church and consumeristic view of the Gospel. Your concerns might be issues that you see at work or even in your church.

I am very concerned about our culture. As I work with churches, I have great concerns about church structures. And consumeristic Christianity bothers me to my core. In some cases, my concerns fall inside my circle of influence. Covey writes, "There are things over which we have no real control and others that we can do something about."

The question for us is whether we focus on our circle of concern or our circle of influence. Covey continues:

“Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.

Reactive people, on the other hand, focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weaknesses of other people, the problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. Their focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes, reactive language, and increased feelings of victimization. The negative energy generated by that focus, combined with neglect in areas they could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.”

In other words, if you focus your energy on easy targets over which you are concerned but have no actual influence, you will actually shrink your circle of influence.

The way to address that which is in your circle of concern is to focus on your Circle of Influence.

In almost every case, the way we make a difference on a large scale begins on small scale. We change the world when we love a neighbor, pray regularly while walking, or help develop a food pantry. Making a difference most often comes in small, unseen ways that will get no noteriety. Saint John of the Cross wrote, “Mission is putting love where love is not.” And most of the time, love gets no attention. It’s not radical, or zealous, or something that looks like a leap of faith. Difference making occurs as we love in small ways over a period of time in the same places and with the same people.

If you want to be a part of a church that makes a difference, if you want your small group to make a difference, refrain from wasting your energy on easy targets. It's not worth your time. Stop ranting on social media about all kinds of things that are wrong from your point of view. We all have concerns. We all know that life is not as it is supposed to be.

Instead focus your energy on what you do have influence. Spend your energy on serving your family today. Invest in a co-worker who needs a listening ear. Pray for your neighbor. You can change the world if you focus on your circle of influence.

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