Your Church is Too Safe
My new book, Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down, is ready to launch.
Here’s a sample chapter.
Going to Mordor
Historian Daniel Boorstin documents a momentous shift that occurred in North America in the 19th Century: we stopped calling people who went on trips travelers and started calling them tourists.
Traveler literally means one who travails. He labors, suffers, endures. A traveler – a travailer – gets impregnated with a new and strange reality, grows huge and awkward trying to carry it, and finally, in agony, births something new and beautiful. To get there, he immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him. He takes risks, some enormous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant. He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes. He is gone a long time. If ever he returns, he returns forever altered.
In a sense, he never goes back.
A tourist, not so. A tourist means, literally, one who goes in circles. He’s just taking an exotic detour home. He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs. He tastes more than eats what’s put before him. He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar. He picks up a word here, a phrase there, but the language, and the world it’s embedded in, remains opaque and cryptic, and vaguely menacing. He spectates and consumes. He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementoes, a cheap hat. He’s happy to be back. He declares there’s no place like home.
We’ve made a similar shift in the church. At some point we stopped calling Christians disciples and started calling them believers. A disciple is one who follows and imitates Jesus. She loses her life in order to find it. She steeps in the language and culture of Christ until his word and his world reshapes hers, redefines her, changes inside-out how she sees and thinks and dreams and, finally, lives. Whatever values she brought into his realm are reordered, oft-times laid waste, and Kingdom values take their place. Friends who knew her before scarcely recognize her now.
A believer, not so. She holds certain beliefs, but how deep down these go depends on the weather or her mood. She can get defensive, sometimes bristlingly so, about her beliefs, but in her honest moments she wonders why they’ve made such scant difference. She still feels alone, afraid, sad, self-protective, dissatisfied. She still wants what she always wanted, and fears what she’s always feared, sometimes more so. Friends who knew her before find her pretty much the same, just angrier.
You can’t be a disciple without being a believer. But – here’s the rub – you can be a believer and not a disciple. You can say all the right things, think all the right things, believe all the right things, do all the right things, and still not follow and imitate Jesus.
The Kingdom of God is made up of travailers, but our churches are largely populated with tourists. The Kingdom is full of disciples, but our churches are filled with believers. It’s no wonder we often feel like we’re just going in circles.
I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was 15. That was 1975, more than 25 years before Peter Jackson’s vivid screen adaptation of the trilogy. For me, the books were vivid enough. They wracked and tumbled me like some elemental thing, a wind storm, a landslide, a flash flood. Every night for several hours, I inhabited Middle Earth tangibly. I stood in its grassy meadows and rocky heights, under its canopy of stars. I bathed in its rain and basked in its sun. I lolled in the idyllic peace of Hobbiton, but fretted over the shadow moving toward it. I traveled – travailed – with Sam and Frodo on their way to Bree, pursued by dark riders. Together, we wended through the treacherous forest of Mirkwood, enjoyed the Falstaffian hospitality of Tom Bombadil, traversed the haunted barrenness of the Barrow Downs. We picked up Merry and Pippin and Aragorn along the way, then travailed on to Rivendell, arriving in the nick of time and barely breathing.
Rivendell was such a relief. Rivendell, the Elfin kingdom high in the craggy folds of the Misty Mountains, is a paradise. A place safe and serene, immune, it felt, from the shadow stretching over all Middle Earth. I wanted to stay there for good, with Frodo and Sam and all the rest. To sleep in warm beds and wake in light-soaked rooms. To eat delicious, plentiful, nourishing meals. To wander through ordered gardens, and pass over stone bridges under which rushed waterfalls as they sluiced from great heights to great depths. I wanted the story to end there, the drama to resolve there. Rivendell was a place of unbroken tranquility, and I wanted to dwell there for good.
It was not to be. Soon after arriving, the Fellowship of the Ring is formed – a rickety alliance of nine mismatched pilgrims, a dwarf and an elf, two men, four hobbits, and a grizzled and elusive wizard – who venture into wonders and dangers, battles and betrayals, wrong turns and detours, all with a singular mission, though no real sense how to accomplish it: they must get to Mordor and destroy the ring. The ring is a thing of hypnotic seduction and despotic power. If it falls into the hands of its maker, Sauron, his power will become boundless and his evil all-consuming. The shadow will become all there is. The ring can only be unmade in the place it was made, melted in the fire it was forged: the bowels of Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor.
Mordor is as close to hell as any place short of hell gets.
It’s a dangerous mission. It’s a hopeless mission, but their only hope. It’s a mission that cannot be accomplished by armies, treaties, even strategies, but only by a total and vulnerable incarnation: the smallest, weakest creatures, Frodo and his ever-loyal but none-too-bright companion, Sam, most don the disguise of evil and walk into the very heart of darkness, climb its Golgotha, and face its evil head-on. They must face it personally. Only then can that evil be broken and defeated, for them and for everyone. They are willing to lose their lives for the life of the world.
Which sounds like another mission we’re well acquainted with.
The point here: no one accomplishes such a mission, or joins it, or heralds it, as a mere tourist. Only a travailer can. Only a fellowship of travailers can.
But there is a subplot here. That fellowship is a fellowship in name only when it is formed back in Rivendell. In the place where life is easy, where good things abound, where no threat encroaches, it’s impossible to get a dwarf and an Elf to trust each other – even to be civil with one another – if their lives depended on it, precisely because in a place like that their lives will never depend on it. They can live forever there in their prideful independence. They need rely on no one. They need not trust anyone. They can simply become more entrenched in their belief that they are superior, all else are fools.
But you have to give up those illusions when you go on a dangerous mission together. There, each needs what the other brings. Each must learn to trust and rely on everyone else. Each must be humbled, and stretched, and burdened. Each must be willing to sacrifice the things that they cling to – their stuff, their status, their comfort, their dreams. And out of that willingness, deep cries to deep. Iron sharpens iron. Enemies, sworn enemies with personal and historic resentments, become friends, willing to lay down their life for the other. There is no request too great, or need too perilous, that each won’t turn heaven and earth for the sake of the other.
Tourists make poor companions. Those who dwell in Rivendell form frail and shallow community. Only travailers – only those who venture out together on a dangerous mission – form community, community with sinews and sturdy bone. Travailers discover how hard, and needed, and beautiful, and life giving community like that is. Together, they risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.
Meanwhile, back in Rivendell, every one’s doing just fine on their own.
I love that the church of late has discovered the power of life together. Or, at least, we talk about it a lot. It’s deeply right that we seek to nurture that life together over lingering meals, rambling conversations, leisurely walks, dropping in on one another unannounced.
But if we’re not careful, we’ll have a perfect life in Rivendell and forget about Mordor. We’ll prefer fellowship to mission. We won’t ride up to the gates of hell and demand they give way. We won’t invade the heart of darkness and overthrow it. And, in the end, the depth of our life together will show it: we’ll be acquaintances but not soul mates, buddies and girlfriends but not brothers and sisters, willing to help each other out in a pinch with a meal or two, a little housework, the loan of a car for a few days, but not “sharing all things in common,” not “considering others better than ourselves.”
Any church too safe became that way because somewhere, somehow, they started wanting to dwell in Rivendell more than travel to Mordor. They started caring about fellowship more than mission, and in the end lost both.
I often hear talk that pits fellowship and mission against one another, treats them as competing imperatives. “Why are we caring for all those people when we’re not caring for our own?” The logic here is that pursuing mission means neglecting fellowship. But the opposite is true: to neglect mission is to destroy fellowship. Mission enhances fellowship, and fellowship strengthens mission. This isn’t to say that our fellowship becomes easier when we take seriously our mission. In significant ways, it becomes more difficult. It just becomes necessary. It changes from a middle-class luxury to a working-class necessity. We stop being picky and get desperate. We probably argue with one another even more when we’re on a dangerous mission together – after all, the stakes are so high – but we usually argue about things that matter. We laugh harder, cry more often, fight more fiercely, and endure greater hardship. We risk much, and give much, and suffer much, and love much.
Has your church lost its mission? I can guarantee that, if it has, it’s also lost, or soon will, any meaningful fellowship. It might look like Rivendell around the place, but each will keep increasingly to his own. No one really needs anyone else, and if they did, they’d never say. After losing your mission, it’s only a matter of time before your fellowship become that in name only.
There’s a fairly easy way to measure whether your church has a dangerous mission: do you desperately need God and one another to accomplish it? I don’t simply mean praying before you work and needing a sufficient handful of volunteers to run your programs. I mean that, aside from God showing up and showing the way, and aside from people laying down their life with you (or for you), what you’re trying to do won’t get done. I cannot do it without you, and we cannot do it together without God. True mission requires leadership, volunteers, resources, and strategies. It calls for brainstorming and trouble-shooting sessions. But above all, it requires a fellowship where God works mysteriously, continuously, providentially to do more than we ask or imagine. To the extent that we can look at anything we’re accomplishing and account for it on purely empirical grounds – anyone with the same team and resources could pull this off – it may be a good thing, but it’s not a true mission. A true mission is eleven men, terrified, bickering, huddling in a hidey hole, who turn the world on its head within a generation. A true mission is a solitary man, gathering with other men and women, and spending his life and health to abolish slavery in England.
Or less historically monumental, but just as significant: it’s a church that decides the best protest they could mount against abortion is for its members to open the spare rooms in their homes to pregnant teens, or the church who chooses to do the same to end the plight of the homeless in their community. Anyone who’s attempted even a little bit of this finds out soon enough that, except we’re in this together and God be our helper, it is not just hard: it’s impossible.
I love the scene near the end of The Return of the King, the third instalment in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. The fellowship is now physically scattered but forever bound together. Frodo and Sam are somewhere in Mordor – alive, but for how long? The city of Gondor, the last bastion withholding Mordor’s forces from overrunning all Middle Earth, has won a costly victory: they’ve temporarily driven the enemy back, but much of it fortifications lie in ruins, and its armies are decimated.
A war council is drawn. They are reduced to a desperate measure: the last remaining fighters could storm the gates of Mordor. It’s a crazy, suicide tactic, bound to fail. The only good it will do is distract the eye of Sauron momentarily, and so buy Sam and Frodo, wherever they are, some time to accomplish the mission. The argument on one side is to not attempt it. For it likely won’t succeed, and everyone will die trying.
Gimli, the dwarf, speaks, and sums up the council so far. “Harrumph. Vastly outnumbered. Zero chance of success. Certainty of death.”
Then he pauses. He bunches up his bristly eyebrows, and skewers everyone with his fierce unflinching gaze. And then he delivers the resolve: “Well,” he demands, “what are we waiting for?”
Jesus said that he himself builds his church on the foundation of our total allegiance. That church, his church, the gates of cannot stand against. We will storm those gates, crash them, trample them, and raid the kingdom of darkness inside.
Vastly outnumbered? No, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.
Zero chance of success? No, through him we are more than conquerors.
Certainty of death? No, though we die, yet shall we live.
Well, what are we waiting for?
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