Monday, June 30, 2008

Foolish Expectations

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
We wailed, and you did not weep
(Luke 7:32)

I regularly receive phone calls from other men in the pastorate, asking my advice when there is trouble in their congregations. I don’t say this to make you think that I'm some kind of ecclesiastical guru or that I have all the answers to these kinds of church problems. I'm not and I don't. Most of these appeals come from friends or former seminary students with which I have maintained friendly relations.

Many of the problems arise when people in these congregations air their grievances with letters or emails to the pastor or session.

And, just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that this is wrong or that you should never address your elders or pastors with corrections and suggestions. That process can be quite healthy. I welcome genuine criticism. My leadership, and our church, is always in need of reformation and development. And, just to be balanced, there are times when Pastors and sessions do things that are very wrong or don't do things that are quite necessary. In situations like these, people in the congregation are justified in addressing their leaders.

Even so, I have a sizable collection of examples of these complaints and written accusations as they are passed on to me. And there's a disturbing pattern. Everybody has certain expectations about what the church is supposed to be doing, especially for them. And, to be honest with you, often these complaints sound like whining from spoiled children. The church isn't doing this enough or that enough. Or it's doing too much of something and not enough of something else.

I should also confess here that I myself am not free from this problem. As I grow older I have to repent of the way that I once criticized former churches and pastors and sessions and even my own presbytery and denomination. This is just to say that I am not only pointing my finger, I am reflecting on my own sinful foolishness as well.

The reoccurring, disturbing pattern is to demand that the church meet all of your own personal expectations. Which is often simply another way of saying: God needs to give me this and do that, or serve me this way and that, or I'm not gonna be happy with his church. You know how it goes. The pastor talks about sin and judgment too much. Then in the next paragraph; there's too much feasting and joking and partying in this church. The details of these grievances are often quite petty, even when they are dressed up with spiritual, pious talk and accented with biblical proof texts.

Each of us is that proverbial child in the market place that is never satisfied, whose expectations are never met. This is at the heart of our sinful condition. We think we know what we want and need and therefore sit down with our arms folded and wait for God to meet our expectations. Like spoiled children. Adult babies. Brats, I think is the proper word.

What you have in the Gospel stories is the Lord of heaven and earth, appearing in the flesh to serve his people, to serve the world, and nobody is satisfied with what he is doing. Everybody thinks that it's not enough or it's too much. Confounded, we know what we need and want, and this is not it.

And we know how it ends. Where it ends. It ends with the cross. Humanity doesn't get what it thinks it needs, what it expects from God, and and so we crucify the Lord of heaven and earth.

You and I must read the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—as if they were mirrors. Not just windows on the foolishness of the Jews or the arrogance of the Romans, but mirrors. If the Spirit of God is at work in your heart and mind, you will see yourself in these stories.

As I have said so often, you have to learn to identify yourself, your behavior, your motives, with the sinful foolishness of the people of God when they are face to face with their Lord. You cannot say, "I would never do that. I'm not like that. I'm better than that. If I were there, I would have followed and defended Jesus." No, you wouldn't have. No, we don't. We would have done exactly what they did.

The questions Jesus puts to the crowds in passages like Luke 7:31-35 are questions put to us. They are not merely history, but the Word of God written for us. We stand before Jesus and our expectations are challenged, and by God's grace transformed and redefined so that we are able to receive and follow Jesus as he is, to receive the ministry of Jesus as he in fact works—whether he meets with our bratty, childish expectations or not.


JHG said...

Thanks for that post Jeff.

-James Grant

Jim said...


I think also that a lot of the problem stems from the implicit "or I'm going to leave."

Mutual submission means continuing the relationship even though you don't always get what you want. If we're honest with ourselves, we tend to mature when we bend the knee and submit to another (assuming, of course, that all options are permissible to adopt).

But if everybody knows that when there's commitment to each other, then you can have a discussion (or an argument) without the threat of secession if one's demands aren't met.

I also think that the secession option also affects pastors (even if the secession option is more at a remove for them than for their parishoners):

With secession as an option for every complaint or criticism, many pastors seem to think of complaints as problems to be managed rather than as disagreements that need to be honestly discussed or argued out.

But management approaches only take care of symptons in organizations, and do not solve underlying problems.