I’m a lawyer. I represent lots of churches. And several years ago — at least a decade ago — I met with the church leadership for a congregation in another town about to embark on a $20 million construction project. It would easily be $30 million if they built it today.
In the course of our discussions, I needed to ask them about their benevolence program. And the leaders looked at each other rather sheepishly. One spoke up, saying, “We don’t have one.” They looked a bit ashamed, staring at their feet. Then one’s face brightened. “Actually, some years, when we have money left over at the end of the year, sometimes we give some that money to a charity. Does that count?”
We American evangelical Christians think the vision of the church is to go to heaven when we die. Logically, then, our entire mission is (a) getting ourselves to heaven and (b) because we love others, helping them get to heaven. And we do that by preaching the gospel– a gospel that usually ends at the baptistry or a Sinner’s Prayer or something like that.
Everything after the baptistry is obedience — and the only point of obedience is to make it to heaven when we die. Except we’re not saved by works. So we’re not real sure why obedience seems so important to the authors of the NT. And so we either obey as though we’re earning heaven when we die — or we obey just enough not to fall away. But we aren’t really all that zealous about obedience because faith saves, not works, and what matters is going to heaven when we die.
The result is a hollow church. We have programs, assemblies, ministers, and ministries all targeted to move people from damned to saved, but having saved them, aren’t entirely sure what to do with all these people. So we tell them to read their Bibles and pray and be good and, please, be sure to fill out the yellow sheets to volunteer for the nursery. And preach Sundays to saved people about how to get saved, because we only know how to get in the church — not what to do now that we’re in.
Of course, an intense focus on evangelism is easily justified from the Great Commission, and countless internally focused ministries can be justified as evangelistic. We can build gyms and hold weight-loss classes and form book clubs and evangelistic covered dish meals and bowling and softball leagues — all for the sake of evangelism and all attended entirely by Christians.
My church used to sponsor a church-league softball team. When someone questioned the wisdom of spending church monies on uniforms, our prior evangelistic success was pointed out. We had, in fact, brought one person to Jesus in 20 years of church-league softball — which put it among our most evangelistically effective church ministries, and easily justified the use of God’s money to buy new uniforms for all the Christian ball players playing in a Christian league against other Christians — to save souls for Jesus.
Something is bad wrong.
The usual response is to try to refocus the church toward better evangelistic techniques. Let’s go feed the poor. Paint some houses. Dig some wells. Becoming servants of the lost world that surrounds us will make us attractive — but we’ll call it “missional” rather than “attractive” because we read a book that says we should do that.
And yet the core assumption remains the same. Christianity is mainly about going to heaven when I die — and helping others make it to heaven when they die. And people are saved to help others make it to heaven.
Therefore, we dig wells to market the gospel — and to instrumentalize (fancy M.Div. term for “use”) people for our purposes. They won’t understand from the gospel that we love them, and so we show them with a fresh coat of paint on their house because we want them to be saved.
And yet, somehow, using people to sell them the gospel doesn’t change that many lives.
So this whole approach places an awful lot of weight on our ability to persuade the damned of their damned status — and hell is no easy sell. For that matter, heaven isn’t either. Frankly, life in the US is so good for so many that most people aren’t looking for a better place.
Therefore, when we get tired of the Plan of Salvation sermons, our preachers preach Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In fact, many of our preachers have more college credits in counseling than in Bible, because our church members are so desperate for advice on how to cope in a world in which neurosis is a bigger problem than damnation. Ask a Christian if he has a “relationship problem,” and she’ll say “yes,” and she won’t be thinking about her relationship with Jesus. That was handled in the baptistry. Now she needs help coping with her parents, husband, and children.
Again, we’re a mess.
The wolf and the kitty cats story
Imagine that you raise a wolf from a pup in a houseful of cats. That wolf would likely imagine himself to be a cat — poor thing. He’s way too big, can’t run in the small house’s rooms, can’t climb with the other cats, doesn’t much like cat food, and feels that something is deeply wrong — and yet the only thing he knows how to be is a cat. And he’s just not very good it.
One cold, snowy winter day, his master leaves the door open. He wanders outside and hears the howling of a wolfpack over the horizon. His sense of smell, stunted from years of being around household cleaners and kitty litter, smells the wind blowing through the pines — and the scent of a fresh kill over the horizon.
The wolf’s heart leaps, and in near ecstasy — and he has no idea why — he bounds across the snow and through the woods to join his own kind — to do what he was designed to do, to be what he was meant to be.
And for the first time in his wolfish life, he finds joy.
I was seriously tempted to end the story with the wolf eating the kitty cats, but I don’t think that’s what he would do. I think he would no longer much notice the cats. His eyes would follow his nose and the instincts burned deeply into his mind — and join the pack to chase prey. Wolves don’t just kill. They hunt. So the kitty cats, being no challenge, would be safe.
So it’s a lousy parable — and I’m open to suggestions for a better one. But in my mind’s eye, wolves are as instinctively hunters as any animal God has made. And they can’t be domesticated — not for long. And if you try, you make them miserable. Wolves gotta roam, howl, and hunt.
We’re not done with the Bible lesson. But lesson one is: God teaches us to obey for our own good (Deu 10:13; Jer 32:39) — not meaning so that we won’t go to hell but so we can be truly happy. Because we will be the happiest when we’re doing what we were meant to do and being what we were meant to be.
(Jn. 10:10 ESV) 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Abundant life, then: that’s what Jesus has on offer, not the thin, hang-on-like-grim-death approach that you find in some churches. The ‘shepherd’ parable in John 10 … explores the intimate relation between shepherd and sheep, with the emphasis on the shepherd’s desire that the sheep be led in the right direction, fed and watered, and kept secure for ever. And the point throughout is that Jesus is contrasted with other would-be Messiahs: thieves and brigands, he calls them. There were plenty of those in Jesus’ world, leaders of marauding gangs on the one hand and ‘holy brigands’ (fundamentalist terrorists, we would call them) on the other. Jesus’ way of leadership, of founding the new movement, was totally different, and totally relevant to his day and ours. A different style, an upside-down ambition, a self-giving love that, as Peter saw, would then be imitated by his followers—the world waits to see what can happen when wandering sheep, brought home by the Shepherd’s love, then start to live by the same pattern.
N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 61.
Within the metaphorical world, life … to the full suggests fat, contented, flourishing sheep, not terrorized by brigands; outside the narrative world, it means that the life Jesus’ true disciples enjoy is not to be construed as more time to fill (merely ‘everlasting’ life), but life at its scarcely imagined best, life to be lived.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 385.