Clear and Present Danger
What are the biggest threats to the church? I suppose it depends who you ask. Evolution, divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, Islam, the Canadian Charter of Rights and even Lady Gaga have made it to the top of various hit lists.
The church loves to take shots at these external threats from our own places of entrenched safety. They make convenient targets. The perceived threat of these issues becomes distorted by the sheer volume of ammunition we expend on them. The ensuing firefight would suggest that all hell is breaking loose. But when the smoke clears a little, it slowly dawns on us that very little ground was gained. I think it is fair to say that this has been the case with the church’s ‘stand’ against evolution (witness the Scopes Monkey Trial) as well as divorce. The verdict is still out on Lady Gaga.
But the biggest threats to the church are not external.
It’s not that these conversations aren’t important, and some do have a sinister tone, but their power lies in their ability to distract us from the danger that lurks beneath the surface and much closer to home.
The real threats to the church are the same that Jesus faced in the wilderness temptations.
The lure to make bread is the temptation to be relevant. Do something useful. To be certain, Jesus did make bread in his time and for his purposes, but not to satisfy the demands of the Devil. And to be certain, the church does a lot of relevant work in our communities. But when we are driven by the threat to be relevant we settle for trendy fads that cripple that true occupation of the church – worship. The one thing that the church will do for all eternity is also the most useless thing in the world. As Marva Dawn is fond of saying, worship is a royal waste of time! It is not utilitarian. It is not primarily for our benefit. It is not relevant to the sensibilities of a consumer culture. And so we must resist the demand to produce something useful, the demand to be relevant, in order to preserve our true calling.
The demand to jump off a high tower is the temptation to be spectacular. Get their attention by doing whatever is necessary. Welsh preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones was once challenged by his church council to come up with a plan to attract more people to the church. His response? Advertise in the paper that the Rev. Dr. Lloyd Jones will preach next Sunday in his underwear. His point? It is fairly easy to draw a crowd if you want to use sensational tactics. The popular media live for this kind of stuff. But, in the end, who gets the attention?
But it is the final temptation that has repeatedly crippled the church. The promise to possess the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to seize hold of power. This is the achilles heel of the church. Our greatest point of vulnerability is our natural human inclination to dominate the other; as Lady Gaga says, ‘we were born this way’. The disciples of Jesus often argued over who would sit in the seats of power, and Jesus often had to remind them that the greatest among them would be the servant of all.
The thirst for control is subtle; it often comes disguised in the skin of a greater good. It is relatively easy to become blinded by an inflated sense of our own importance when we feel we are doing essential, even godly, work. Very rarely does the church abuse its authority in the name of evil. But when agents of the church take upon themselves an aire of authority that they do not and should not posses, they unwittingly succumb to the temptation to seize power and become the pawns of Satan. Sadly when the church yields to the temptation to sieze power the greatest number of casualties are usually the result of friendly fire.
The pressures to be relevant, sensational and powerful are a clear and present danger to the church. We need to be aware of the warning signs and resist these temptations as we pursue the values and motives of the Kingdom of God.
“Be alert and of sober mind.Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of struggles.”
Note: The basic angle on the temptations of Jesus comes from Henri Nouwen.