“I can tell you what I don’t miss,” she snapped. “I don’t miss the pettiness of church.” Since I’m a pastor, her words hit me like an iron skillet in the face. I felt defensive, but I knew what she meant. I’d felt the same way myself, but I’d never used the phrase “the pettiness of church” to voice my frustrations; nor had I heard any one else.
The lady’s comments were prompted by a question from my wife, Page. The woman had stepped down from her ministry position at her church, but still attended with her family. Page is great at making conversation, so she innocently asked the former staff member, who happened to be visiting in our home, “What do you miss about being on staff?”
I was shocked not only by the lady’s answer, but because I considered her church to be anything but petty: focused, intentional, creative, evangelistic, exciting, successful in fulfilling their mission; but not petty.
For the next several days I kept replaying the woman’s words in my head. Her statement made me take an inventory of my ministry. Here are the thoughts that I had. Is that how my staff sees ministry sometimes? Do people who attend our church consider what we do petty? And then the real cutting question: If someone who loves God and has committed her life to ministering to others considers the church petty, how do non-Christians feel? While we believe we have the most important mission in the world, do those outside our walls write us off as petty and trite?
I asked God to show me the ways I was concentrating on petty matters of opinion, taste, and preference. The Lord showed me that when I was distracted by unimportant battles and petty arguments, at least two results occur. First, I waste my energy, passion, and time on trivial matters, which draws my attention away from what Jesus said was most important. Second, I give people outside the church a false impression of the Christian Church’s mission.
Many Christian leaders are frustrated because they don’t witness more people transformed by our message. If churches have lost some of their effectiveness, what might be the reasons? Why don’t we observe more lives transformed? Is the problem with the message? Has the Holy Spirit lost His ability to draw people to Himself? Have the hands of God gotten arthritis so His touch doesn’t warm human hearts any more? Hardly. The problem isn’t with God or His abilities. The place we need to examine is within the Christian community.
Actually, the tendency of people to turn religious molehills into mountains is not unique to our day. Jesus addressed it as well. He spoke harshly to some religious leaders who had misplaced priorities.
Matthew records Jesus’ rebuke:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. . . You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
The tithe was a critical part of Jewish religious regulations. Jewish families were expected to give a tithe, a tenth of their income, to support the Levites, who did the work of the temple. Every single person or family was to set aside and give a tenth of their produce to God; but generally speaking in Jesus’ day, mint and dill and cummin were herbs that were used in the kitchen. All three of them were used in cooking; and dill and cummin had medicinal uses, but they weren’t major crops. Most families would’ve had only a small patch of them in a garden. Sometimes they might just own one plant.
A person would have to be very nitpicky and legalistic to tithe a leaf or two off of the plant, but Pharisees followed the letter of the law. But those same men, Jesus said, practiced injustice. They didn’t show mercy to others. They took oaths they didn’t keep. In other words, they followed the trivial, petty matters of the Law, but neglected the most important.
Then Jesus illustrated his point. He said those who were guilty of the petty practices were straining gnats and swallowing camels. What’s that all about?
GNATS AND CAMELS
Since gnats are insects, the Jewish leaders considered them unclean, along with camels. In the first century, Jewish people, to avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, poured their wine through a gauze-like material so that any impurity could be strained out. Jesus painted a word-picture of someone carefully pouring their wine through a strainer and then in the next moment, swallowing an entire camel. This is a picture of someone who’d lost his sense of proportion. And in the first century, the religious leaders were self-appointed representatives of God. And Jesus was saying, “You guys are killing us. You shouldn’t neglect the tithe, but you have neglected what’s most important: justice, mercy, faithfulness.”
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life straining out gnats and swallowing camels. God has called you and me to a much higher purpose. I’ve asked God to show me where I need to change my own heart about the most important matters of my faith in Him and and life mission.
I want to see the kingdom of God advance and people transformed. Local churches play a major role in the transformation of millions of lives. When the Church stays on mission and obeys the mandate of Christ, it’s beautiful to watch, and it’s unstoppable. Jesus said not even the gates of hell will prevail against his church. In other words, “I’m going to build my Church and nothing can stop it.”
The place for me to begin this journey is with my own intentions, especially regarding how I view people. Do I see them as objects to use to help me reach my goals or as people to motivate and equip to reach God’s objectives?
The people in the church aren’t my people; they’re God’s people.
Concerning the people outside the Church, I’m beginning to understand that they care very little, if at all, about what goes on inside our walls. They aren’t interested in church politics. They won’t show up Sunday and hold their breath until I announce my next sermon series. They don’t care about how much money is put in the offering plate; but they know when someone loves them. And when a follower of Christ shows love to another person, he or she pays attention.
When my daughter Gené was 11 years old she received a letter from her best friend. Her friend, who was more like a sister, didn’t know Jesus. Gené had such a burden for her to know the Lord.
Gené decided she would be proactive and start inviting her to church. She wrote the girl’s name on a slip of paper and carried it around with her as a reminder to pray that she would be saved.
Gené loved her friend unconditionally. One Christmas she attended a church Christmas program with us. During a presentation of the gospel in the program Gené’s friend was saved.
Several years later, Gené’s friend wrote her this letter:
I’m writing this because you are my best friend. You are more than a friend. You are like a sister to me. I hope that we will be friends forever, or at least a really long time; ‘cause I’ll never forget the time I gave my life to Jesus. You were there to talk me through it. You are the one that brought me to church and still does. I still love you like a sister.
When we are mad at each other, and it seems every time we get in a fight we make up, it brings us closer. And I just want you to know you are my best friend and that is why I wrote this.
It may seem silly, but sometimes life is silly and that is the truth.
I love ya like a sister.
To borrow the words from a popular credit card commercial, “Priceless.”Gené’s friend doesn’t really care about the size or shape of the pulpit, the particular translation of the Bible we read from, whether we always say a prayer before we take up the offering, whether we play drums, if we have a praise team or a choir, whether we use hymnals or read words from a screen, whether or not the pastor wears a tie, or where we place the announcements in our worship service.
All she knows is that she was lost and Jesus came to seek her out; and because he paid the price for her sin, she can be saved.
God came to the earth as Jesus Christ so that my neighbor and coach and boss and employee could be transformed into the image of His Son. And we are the vessel he chose to take His love to the nations.
With every passing birthday I’m coming to terms with the brevity of life. Life is so short, and I want to spend the rest of my life advancing the most important cause in the world—the mission and message of Christ; even if I swallow a few gnats in the process.