Desperation. It can be a good thing.
Desperation can cause people to finally get the help they need. It can cause people faced with health threats to finally stop smoking or to start exercising. It can motivate people to invent solutions to common problems or find cures for diseases.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say.
Desperation can cause congregations to become willing to change in order to thrive or even survive. If we congregations are indifferent to our own health, or if we lack a passionate desire to follow Jesus’s Great Commission, we usually become indifferent. We can become indifferent to what might keep people away or from visiting or joining us or cause young people to leave. Indifference can blind us to the artificial barriers we’ve erected which make it less likely that people will encounter Jesus.
FROM THE GOSPELS
When Jesus met a woman by a well in John 4, he was far from indifferent. Jesus sensed her need and was filled with a strong desire to see her become whole. He deliberately tore through the barriers that easily could have kept her from the Kingdom. A Jew, Jesus ignored the competing religious franchises as well as the racial barriers of his day and talked with a Samaritan. That was unthinkable! In speaking to a woman in public, Jesus also dismantled the gender barrier of the day. That would have been viewed by many as preposterous! Jesus ignored barriers of perceived respectability by openly talking with a woman whose varied relationships with men had unleashed the gossiping tongues of the self-righteous. Jesus even removed barriers in the woman’s own Kingdom Desperation Following Jesus’ example of removing barriersmind by asking her for a drink of water. That effectively put him in her debt and elevated her position in the dialogue.
No doubt this woman had often felt rejected, ignored, shamed, and used by men in particular. Because Jesus dismantled barriers, however, she felt noticed, valued, and safe. Jesus treated her with love and respect, even while gently but unapologetically naming her sin. Jesus implicitly called for a change in her life, but did it in a way that gave her hope that she could break out of her painful and shattered past. She was changed.
Among the closest disciples Jesus had called were both Matthew, who had worked for the Romans as a tax-collector, and Simon, who was part of the Zealots, a group which bitterly opposed Roman taxation. Jesus’ invitation signaled to them as well as to the religious establishment who despised them both that God’s Kingdom is open to all. Political perspectives are no barrier. Jesus would eat with anyone, even notorious sinners, touch anyone, including lepers, and give attention to anyone, even children. By doing so, Jesus made salvation accessible, greatly rattling the chains of the self-righteous obstructionists.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY?
Even in the Body of Christ, we still have competing religious franchises, racial barriers, barriers of perceived respectability, and gender discrimination, all of which keep the unchurched and under-churched at bay. If all the cars in our parking lots are newer and pricey, how many people drive on by because it seems clear to them that their world is quite unlike ours? Using language that is foreign to the unredeemed, dressing for worship in ways they wouldn’t or couldn’t, operating from unwritten rules because we expect people to know these things – these can all be barriers which make others feel rejected, ignored, and shamed. They may view our churches as irrelevant to their lives. Too often they are right.
We know God wants the church to grow; God is not willing that any should perish. The church is the best hope for our world, and hope for the world is Kingdom business.
In Acts 6, the church removed a barrier to the Grecian Jews by appointing Grecian elders to look out for the welfare of their widows. In Acts 11, Peter told his Cornelius story and convinced the church leaders that God was deliberately welcoming new believers who had never been Jewish: another barrier gone.
Fast forward to 1889 when one of my predecessors at Willow Street Mennonite Church became the very first pastor in Lancaster Conference to preach in English rather than German. With some reluctance and the passage of many years, the whole conference came to agree that German was not the only “spiritually correct” language and, in fact, was quickly becoming irrelevant in this country: more barrier-busting. Decades later our conference agreed that believers in Africa didn’t need to adopt our cultural attire in order to follow Jesus. If we’re open to God’s Spirit, every generation discovers ways in which we’ve added things to the gospel that make it unnecessarily distasteful. What are those things for us, today?
We all have our own cultural baggage; it’s part of being human. Can we celebrate the good parts of our own particular culture without cloaking the gospel in it? Jesus condemned the teachers of the law for loading people down with burdens they could hardly carry. The gospel demands enough of people – dying to self, surrendering to Jesus, turning from sin – without adding additional hurdles or prohibitions.
Congregational “desperation” can be rooted in things other than the fear of closing a church. Reaching our communities and even our own young people for Jesus requires that we think like effective missionaries. We must be desperate enough to see people follow Christ that we are willing to lay down preferences, biases, pretenses, and opinions that aren’t supported by Scripture. Authenticity tops nearly everything else for younger people, including those who grew up among us. A passionate urgency to help others live for Jesus should motivate us to look and listen to ourselves closely.
On several occasions I have had the opportunity to visit a mosque. The discomfort I felt with the unfamiliar helps me identify with others who know nothing of Jesus and little about those who follow Jesus. Perhaps we could ask an unchurched friend to visit our church and then give feedback on their experience.
I have been connecting with a man who visited our church recently, the first visit to a church in his life. We need to constantly look at ourselves, our worship, language, unwritten rules, assumptions, interactions with people., and even our church facilities, through the eyes and ears of someone like him. Each of us also needs to deliberately befriend people who do not know Jesus, not just so we can love them to Jesus but also to better understand those we are trying to reach.
The stretching sounds we hear as we read of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are from Christians who were trying to dismantle their own artificial barriers to faith. It was hard, but they succeeded because they desperately wanted people to find new life in Christ. Let’s beg the Holy Spirit to give us this desperation as well and show us what artificial barriers to Jesus we have erected.
Pastor Joe Sherer is the lead pastor at Willow Street Mennonite Church.