Over the course of my ministry I have been interviewed by numerous search committees when I was under consideration for a pastoral position. I have frequently been asked about my philosophy of ministry and my strategy for church growth. I have been asked about my style of leadership and approach to decision-making. I have never, never, been asked questions like, “What is your approach to spiritual formation? How will you help us to develop Christlikeness and holiness? How will you pray for us?”
In earlier blog posts, I noted that, if I were ever asked a question like that, I would answer something like this: “I will pray for you the way Paul prayed for the believers in the church in Ephesus.” In those posts I noted that there are two prayers recorded in that book, the first in chapter one and the second in chapter three, and I focused attention on the second of those prayers. In this post, I want to consider the first one.
Toward the end of chapter one of Ephesians, after he has reminded his readers of the ways in which they have been “blessed with every spiritual blessing… by the Father, by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit,” he then tells these believers how he prays for them. Here is the way that prayer is recorded in the words of Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation called The Message.
When I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the Christians, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
All this energy issues from Christ: God raised Him from death and set Him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with His presence. (Ephesians 1:15-23)
The church is Christ’s body, in which He speaks and acts, by which He fills everything with His presence. What a great privilege to be part of God’s cosmic purpose for the church, which is Christ’s body. Now perhaps you can see a bit better why God responds so strongly and reacts so negatively to the idea of doing things, even the right things, in the wrong way. When it comes to the church as the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world, doing church the wrong way is like performing an operation with dirty instruments… like trying to run a gasoline engine on kerosene… like trying to quiet a sick child by feeding him candy. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned or rightly-motivated we might be, the results are still disastrous.
In the sixteenth century, when the medieval church was at the height of its power and influence, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther dared to stand up and tell the authorities that they were doing the right thing but in the wrong way. The Protestant Reformation dawned, and the world has never been the same. Within a generation after Luther, a group of Swiss-German believers carried that message one step further, and Anabaptism was born.
The American evangelical church of the 21st century is in need of Reformation every bit as much as the medieval church in 16th century Europe. We put programs ahead of prayer; we value competence more than character; we pursue strategic planning instead of spiritual formation; we exalt celebrity over humility, and we are marked more by impatience than by endurance. We are more concerned with what God can do for us than what He requires of us.
We need to recognize that doing the right thing in the wrong way has left us with a diluted, watered-down version of the gospel that is something very different from the gospel of the Kingdom. It is, in fact, a false gospel. A “gospel” that adds benefits and ease to our lives but expects nothing in response is foreign to the message of the New Testament. It is, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a gospel of “cheap grace.”
I close this series of blog posts with one final quote, and that from an unusual source. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher, was known as the “Danish gadfly” for his tendency to provoke and torment the religious establishment of his day, the Lutheran Church in Denmark. He lived a short and in many ways unhappy life, his situation made all the more pitiable by the deplorable condition, the diluted character, the spiritual mediocrity of the Christianity which he saw all around him. About that situation he wrote the following words, which are as pertinent to the evangelical church of our own age as they were to his.
Imagine a kind of medicine that possesses in full dosage (the power to cure a particular ailment) but which, in a half dose (produces just the opposite effect.) Suppose someone is suffering from the ailment which the medicine, in full dosage, could cure. But, for some reason or other, perhaps there is not enough for a full dose or because it is feared that such a large amount might be too much—in order to do something, the person is given, with the best of intentions, a half dose. “After all,” we might muse, “it is at least something.” What a tragedy!!
So it is with today’s Christianity… But we Christians go on practicing this well-intentioned half-hearted act from generation to generation (persisting in doing the right thing in the wrong way). We produce Christians by the millions, are proud of it—yet have no inkling that we are doing just the opposite of what we intend to do…
The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies,… not atheists, not profane secularism—but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. … The very essence of Christianity is utterly opposed to this mediocrity….
Today’s orthodoxy…is utterly dangerous to Christianity. (True) Christianity does not oppose debauchery and uncontrollable passions and the like as much as it opposes this flat mediocrity, this nauseating atmosphere, this homey, civil togetherness, where admittedly great crimes, wild excesses, and powerful aberrations cannot easily occur—but where God’s unconditional demand has even greater difficulty in accomplishing what it requires: the majestic obedience of submission.
(From an essay called “The Greatest Danger” in Provocations, pp. 16-17)
May God enable us to throw off the mediocrity of contemporary Christianity… to cease doing the right thing in the wrong way… and to enter into the full experience of the “majestic obedience of submission.”
To God alone be the glory.