I wonder what you consider to be the greatest challenge for the Church in the West as we head into the third decade of the 21st century?
There are certainly no lack of candidates for that poll position in the problems confronting the church
The decline in church membership
The growing hostility of secular culture to Christianity
The rise of militant and confrontational atheism
The changing culture as whatever post-modernism is squeezes whatever modernism was out
The growing power of Islam
Speaking personally I have come to the conclusion that our greatest contemporary challenge is not a new problem but one which is a perennial challenge. Its a problem that stretches right back to the church in embryo, to Jesus first group of disciples. It is displayed at its most blatant in this incident
Matthew 28:20 Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favour. 21 “What is your request?” he asked.
She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honour next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”
22 But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?”
“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”
23 Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”
24 When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. 25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I have known a few people down the years who seemed to have an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, in fact I could be one of them. James, John and their mother seem to have belonged to that illustrious group, people who only take their foot out of their mouth to replace it with the other one. In the incident we just read Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem for the final time, mind full of the enormity of what his mission will call upon him to give there. With his mind on the significance of his upcoming date with destiny Jesus is confronted by the Ben Zebeddee family with their shopping list of what they wanted to get from the revolution they knew Jesus was about to kick off.
We get a real insight into how at least these three early followers of Jesus regarded him. They saw Jesus as the one who could make their dreams come true, who could improve their lives. They wanted Jesus to help them move on up in the world in terms of power, status and wealth in a way which would enable them to leave behind their humble lives in Galilee and become power brokers in Jerusalem. I am not sure at this stage we could even call them followers of Jesus, to me they seem little more than fans. It seems that they saw Jesus as existing primarily for them.
You can almost taste the disappointment in Jesus words in that passage. He can hardly believe that after three years some of his closest friends have so fundamentally misunderstood what He and his revolution, the Kingdom of God, is really all about. He tells them bluntly that there is no place among His disciples for those who are only in it for what they can get out of it. The “Way of Jesus,” which in a few days is going to be so publicly and radically displayed on a hill just outside Jerusalem, finds greatness in, serving not being served, in giving not getting.
Which brings me on to the greatest challenge I see facing the church today in the 21st century. The truth is that its not different from the challenge that faced Jesus on the Jerusalem road in the 1st century, its moving those who claim to be Christ followers from being consumers to contributors in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think its an over exaggeration to say that the contemporary church is being held captive by Christian consumers.
These are church attenders who want to consume what Christ and his church can offer them but resist sacrificing in any meaningful way to contribute to the Kingdom of God. Just like James and John and their pushy mother they see Jesus as being the one who could help them achieve their ambitions in life rather than understanding that they are called to give their lives for Jesus’ ambition for this world. These people want Jesus to improve their lives but are less keen on any sacrifices involved in giving their lives to Jesus mission to improve the world. To be brutally honest they want church to be about what they want, what they like and what they are comfortable with rather than what Jesus calls it to be. Oh I know no one says that outright, but at church meetings, at AGM’s and leadership meetings that this the way all too many church members vote.
The problem which that perspective creates is that the Kingdom of God, which should be the obsession of the church, is inevitably on a collision course with the consumer culture we live in. The admen, the soaps and the celebrity mags tell us that greatness comes from getting, getting power, getting money, getting fame, getting pleasure, getting more, more. Consumerism puts us at the centre of our own universe and encourages us to believe that life should revolve around us and what we want and the tragedy is this consumerism has infected the church. Today what could be more radically counter cultural than believing greatness comes through serving and giving, through making a purpose greater than our own comfort the prime motivation in our life?
We need to hear what Matt Smay and High Halter as they describe what it means to be a follower not just a fan of Jesus,
“You don’t get to keep all your money. You don’t get to do whatever you want with your time. You have to share your stuff, your money, your kids. You have to exchange your ambitions for God’s, your kingdom for His, you must be available for God to interrupt your nicely scheduled day with needs that will make you want to pull your hair out” Is that the way you think most people who go along to church buildings Sunday by Sunday live? No me neither.”
The sad reality is that contemporary churches in the West have too many fans of Jesus who bring their consumerist mentality to church and want to be consumers of the Kingdom of God not contributors to it. Yet this consumerism is the very embodiment of the self focused, self interested, selfish orientation that the New Testament calls the “flesh” and warns is toxic to living for God. You simply cannot be a follower of Jesus and have an unchecked consumer mentality, even if all you want to consume is hymns that you like in an environment that makes you feel comfortable.
Despite all I have said I find this is an encouraging not discouraging story, James and John finally get “it.” Perhaps it was when confronted by Jesus hanging on the cross and seeing God the Father give that sacrifice the divine thumbs up through the resurrection and ascension that the penny dropped for them and they understood that giving rather than getting was the essence of greatness in the Kingdom of God. These two men radically reorientated their lives, they literally gave the rest of their lives to serving Jesus in his mission of the Kingdom. They put Jesus at the centre of their lives and kicked consumerism out, moving from being selfish fans of Jesus to committed followers.
Which brings me to the question that keeps me awake at night is how do we help people in today’s church take that same journey? How do we motivate people in our churches to become active contributors to what God is doing in this world rather than just wanting to be passive consumers of what they want Him to do in the church building? Specifically for my own community, Mosaic Edinburgh, how do we create a culture that is an antidote to consumerism and encourages Kingdom living without it becoming harsh in tone and judgmental in nature?
I have no specific answer, no 4 point plan to turn consumers into contributors but I am holding on to the question and praying because this story gives me the hope that we can see consumer Christians become Kingdom contributors.