The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (specifically Romans 1:18-32) are familiar to most Christians. This opening argument in Paul’s discourse is one that sticks out in our heads particularly because of the way it confronts our very idea of what it means to be a created being living under the rule of our holy Creator. Our most basic conceptions of authority, morality, the human condition and idolatry are all deeply challenged in these few verses. What makes this section of Paul’s letter especially biting is that the longer we meditate on it, the deeper it cuts to the heart of the problem: it is our very heart that is the problem.
The thrust of Paul’s argument in this opening section to his letter is simple: God is creator and he alone is worthy to be worshipped and praised, but we humans turn created things into objects to be worshipped. We all know better – for the entire cosmos cries out to the power and glory of our Creator – but we cannot help but go our own way and chase our own idols.
What idols are you chasing? Power? Money? An Instagram-perfect marriage? Reputation? The Romans 1 reality is that the longer we search ourselves, the more idols we will find. Often it is those we suspect less that have the deepest grips on our hearts.
I have come to the realization that for the last several years I have chased the idol of the ideal: the ideal income, the ideal house, the ideal work-life balance. My most selfishly and deviously disguised idol has been that of the ideal church; the place that would run exactly as I think it should, where everyone would believe exactly what I believe, and where everything would go exactly as I think it should.
Most Christians chase the idol of the ideal church to one extent or another. When we begin to feel unfulfilled by a church community, when conflicts begin to arise, or when we simply don’t like the music – we all feel that question arise from deep within us: “So I guess I should leave?”
However, I think this temptation might actually be more severe for those who have committed to a life in vocational ministry. I think the reason is pretty obvious. Many of us spend countless hours in classes and reading books on church leadership and government. We develop strong opinions about how things should go when we hear lessons from mentors we look up to. And so, as we chase our idols of the ideal, we mask it with “holy” words like polity or philosophy of ministry. We develop abstract arguments and tell ourselves that if a church’s elder meetings don’t look exactly like the Jerusalem Council, then it must not be a very good church. Oh, how we claim to be wise but instead reveal ourselves to be fools (Romans 1:22).
I know how to mask my idol of the ideal church well – in fact, I think I’ve become quite the expert at it. Having served in three churches now which all fall on a very wide spectrum, I’ve seen the strength’s and weaknesses of multiple approaches to ministry. With a critical eye I look at other churches and think, “Fools. If only they did it this way, all their problems would go away. If only they had a better system, nobody would have gotten hurt.”
As I’ve been on my perpetual chase for the idol of the ideal, I’ve pursued the perfect system. The system where everything in the church goes smoothly and perfectly. The place where nobody would be able to hurt or wound someone else because the system would protect them. The church where every sermon would be completely and perfectly doctrinally sound because the confessions and catechisms would make it so. In other words, the system where knowledge rids a church of its sin and weaknesses.
However, the truth is that knowledge is not our problem. Knowledge can no sooner rid someone of her sin as it can rid a church of sinners. Knowledge cannot produce change at the deepest fibers of someone’s being; knowledge cannot restore a broken heart; knowledge cannot bring dead people back to life.
Only love can do that.
So we find that our never-ending chase for our idol of the ideal only ends in death. Death to ourselves, and the death of Another who gave himself up in love.
I must confess that this idol runs far deeper than I yet know. But here is what I do know: systems won’t fix sinners, and systems won’t fix churches. Only love can do that; a kind of love which is only found in a Shepherd who gave up his life to serve the people whom he loves and restore their affections for their Creator (Mark 10:45).
What does that mean for me? It means it is time to forsake my chase for the ideal. It is time to pray for an increasing desire to serve a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed church; where I can seek to model Christ’s love for them as I come to understand better his love for a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed sinner like me.
In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.
One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.
Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:
1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.
2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.
3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.
4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.
5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.
Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:
“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.
The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.
A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”
Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.
This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.
When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?
Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.
I am an introvert. I always have been. I took the Myers-Briggs test a few years ago and my strongest pull was in the introvert category. Since that time, I’ve always felt like the label ‘introvert’ has a negative stigma surrounding it; like culture only positively receives extroverted and outgoing people. I’ve often tried to avoid this label, or make myself become an extrovert. If you’ve been around the church awhile, you’ve probably heard plenty of sermons or read plenty of books about how Christians are meant to be compassionate, outgoing, engaging, well-spoken and constantly extending hospitality to others. I think the picture often painted in churches is more of what an extrovert looks like in the church, and not necessarily how each of us can uniquely glorify God with how he has created us.
What that means for me is I’ve often felt like my strong tendency to wax introvert is more of a disease than a personality trait. I’ve always been aware that I can be received as shy, socially awkward, or hard to get to know. I’m near the bottom of the list when it comes to asking others to spend time with me. People wear me out, and when I come home from church on Sundays I tend to feel exhausted. I dislike being in a room with a lot of people, and I’m more comfortable talking TO a crowd than I am being IN a crowd. I prefer a quiet corner of a party over the main room. It is really, really difficult for me to talk to people – regardless of how well I know them. I much more enjoy quietly setting up or tearing down our church than I do having to actively engage with people. I often don’t mind standing or eating with people in silence; that is normal for me. I like having “me” time, it’s how my batteries recharge. Workouts by myself, time spent alone watching or reading something is how I think and energize myself.
You see, it’s not that I think being outgoing, engaging, hospitable or conversational are bad things or that I don’t like to do them. It’s not that I don’t like being around people. It’s not that I’m shy, rude or socially awkward. I am a lot of things, but those aren’t really the words I would use to describe myself. Some people might think I don’t have much to say; on the contrary I have quite a bit to say (have you seen my Facebook or read my blog?)! I love people, and I love talking to them about Jesus. I love sharing the gospel with people. The thing is, these activities and forms of communication both terrify and exhaust me. When I hear about doing them, the stress of thinking about being terrified and exhausted in turn makes me exhausted.
In light of what is often spoken of in churches and how culture tends to receive people, I’ve struggled with feelings that there was something socially and culturally off about me.
This is especially difficult as someone who wants to pursue full-time ministry opportunities in the future. If this is who I am, can I really be someone who God can use in ministry? More often than not, it seems like those whom God uses are the “go-getters.” If it’s hard for me to actively spend time with people, how could I ever minister or pastor someone well? These factors continually and constantly build up doubt and shame in my mind.
I’ve been thankful and blessed recently by some blog posts by Thom Rainer (president of Lifeway) and Ron Edmonson (pastor and church planter). Both of them are strong introverts like myself and have written and discussed much in the way of being an introvert in ministry. They have helped me see I’m not alone, and helped me realize that just like anyone else I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and that God through his Holy Spirit has appointed me uniquely with gifts to serve the common good (1 Corinthians 12).
I am reminded of Moses prior to his journey to Egypt. When God appeared to him to tell him that he would be the one to deliver his people from bondage and slavery, Moses resisted. While some might think Moses as foolish for resisting God, his reasoning makes a lot of sense to me:
But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue…Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” – Exodus 4:10, 13
I look at this line and can’t help but think Moses was an introvert. He wasn’t what some might call a “people-person.” It was hard for him to talk to other people. But God doesn’t make mistakes, and chooses people for very specific reasons:
Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” – Exodus 4:11-12
God chose Moses not because of his strengths but in spite of them. This is a comfort for me and I hope it is for anyone else who has these personality traits. My service to God – whether in full-time ministry or not – may look different than some or most, but he has chosen me uniquely to serve his kingdom in some way. Not because I am strong, but because Christ is strong.
Help me, Oh Lord, to be content with who you’ve created me to be in light of who you are. Help me to have a willing heart to serve you not because of my strengths but in spite of them.