Thursday, May 15, 2014

“Thirty, Sixty, and a Hundredfold” – Part One

On Sunday, March 11, 2014, at The Glenburn Community Church, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the morning sermon was interrupted. For those who have been following along in the parallel series in Samuel-Kings (“The Kings of Israel”) and the gospel of Mark (“The Kingdom at Hand”), the next three posts summarize the main points of that sermon from Mark 4:1-20 entitled “Thirty, Sixty, and a Hundredfold.” To those who have expressed their concern for the parishioner experiencing a health crisis in the midst of the sermon, please know that they are doing well and are very thankful for the support and encouragement they have received.

In the previous week’s sermon we discussed three categories of individuals who often choose to attend religious services, though without fully participating in the life or community of faith. Some are Dilettantes, those who admire religion, and who might dabble in some practices, but do not participate as practitioners of “the life of faith.” Others are labeled Backsliders, who have enthusiastically involved themselves in religion at some point, but for a variety of reasons choose to distance themselves from “the life of faith” they once claimed. Still others are Pretenders who want to be seen as practitioners of “the life of faith,” but whose beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and words align only marginally, if at all, with those of the religion they claim to follow.
My hope in describing these categories is to assist in maintaining and enhancing the spiritual health of devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, those who carry the vast majority of the responsibility for any particular congregation. I also find that it helps my mental health to admit that dealing regularly with dilettantes, backsliders, and pretenders…well, it makes me a little crazy sometimes. So, I recommend three distinct disciplines. I see them suggested by the difficult realities Jesus expresses in Mark 4:1-20, “The Parable of the Sower and the Seed.”
 The first of those disciplines is to Lower Your Expectations.
Those who are intensely involved in serving local congregations often have the expectation that everyone who attends, no matter how seldom, should be serving in the same way. But is that reasonable? Scripturally, there are differences in ministries due to variations in the passions, gifts, and experiences held of individual members. In response, the overworked claim that others should at least “measure up” to the investment of time, effort, money, prayer, and criticism they contribute. “And regardless of gifts and talents,” some would add, “when it’s time to fill up the _________ rotation, they need to take their turn!”
Others expect everyone to serve exactly as they do, which is “barely, if at all.” This results from a pervasive heresy: that the “ministers” of a congregation are the paid professionals on staff, with a few “lay volunteers” assisting when (rarely) necessary. Amazingly, this view is held even in small, rural churches with no full-time staff. Is this reasonable? It is, if we allow for the comma some have inserted into Ephesians 4:11-12. One punctuation mark radically changes the perspective of “who does what” in the local congregation. As it reads in the KJV, the reasons for employing pastor-teachers in the church are “for the perfecting of the saints, (and) for the work of the ministry, etc.” Markus Barth, writing on Ephesians for The Anchor Bible commentary series, points out that the error in this matter is far too important to rest upon whether there is a comma (as above), or whether pastor-teachers are given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service.” He notes the “all-hands-on-deck” approach evident throughout the Ephesian epistle, most notably in Ephesians 2:22. Regarding the “holy temple” into which the “whole building” is to grow, it is that temple “in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
Even in the most broadly involved congregations, though, the percentages of those “carrying the load” remain very low. And so, I recommend, should our expectations also remain very low. What is our alternative? Too many are already infected with the bitter assumption that, “though everyone should, most won’t serve, and that’s just how it’s going to be.” The bitterness is hardly biblical. But the perception of a devoted corps of workers carrying the load for a much larger group of dilettantes, backsliders, and pretenders seems to fit the simply math of the parable here.
The seed is scattered onto the roadside, the rocky ground, and the thorny ground, as well as onto good soil. While “The Pareto Principle” routinely quotes an 80-20 division (“80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.”), Jesus holds slightly higher hopes for us. Fully 25% of the soils result in positive outcomes. And those outcomes are extraordinary: “thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”
In light of this, we clearly have a choice among three options.
First, we could expect that 100% of those we serve will become fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ. If we do, we are likely to live in constant frustration, on the brink of despair.
Second, we could focus our efforts on motivating, influencing, persuading, nagging, and haranguing the 75% who respond only minimally, or temporarily, if at all. This leaves us with a persistent sense of betrayal and bitterness.
But if we choose the third option, to focus on the 25% who become faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we greatly increase the possibility that we will find satisfaction and even joy in our service to Christ and others…even as we wade through the 75% that remain dilettantes, backsliders, and pretenders.
But in order to do that, we must also consider a second essential discipline—if we are to maintain our spiritual and mental health. Let’s visit about that in the next post.

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