I once was the guest speaker at a church with a fairly large congregation. It had an expansive cemetery next door, where generations of church members were buried. The pastor was a nice enough guy, but I thought him a little odd. Tall, thin, soft-spoken, he walked with a peculiar, hunched-over posture that made me think of an undertaker. I kept expecting him to rub his hands together and ask which funeral package I thought would best serve my family.
Following the worship service, my host led me through the main hallway of the church toward the room where lunch was to be served. Halfway down, on the most prominent wall in the building, I saw a map of the cemetery. I noticed how each grave was carefully marked with the names of who was buried where as well as which graves were available for future use. The more I thought about the display the more astonished I was. Here was the main publicity venue for the congregation, and it was devoted not to pictures of new members or to upcoming events in the children’s department, not even to a men’s breakfast next Saturday where you could bring a friend. Instead, it was as clear and definitive a statement of death as I had ever witnessed.
This congregation’s identity was well formed and definitive and their vision was unmistakable. Like a terminal cancer victim getting his affairs in order, this church was preparing for its approaching death. That the congregation would hire as their minister an undertaker was no surprise.
The minister had one viable course of action: to subvert the established order. His single chance of an effective ministry was to devote his energy, time and resources to subverting the old order. His divine calling was to speak life into the place of death. If he failed at that task, the church would die and take him with it.
He didn’t have it in him. He couldn’t bring himself to challenge the religious system that surrounded him. He couldn’t remove the cemetery map from the hallway wall. So the church did to him what everyone knew they would do as soon as he walked into the place two years before. They fired him and hired another undertaker. A new minister came on board to do what the system required and ministered death to the dying congregation. During his tenure the congregation was very happy as the empty graves on the cemetery map were one by one filled up.
Subversion is the last thing in the world ministers think about. Subversives are Molotov-cocktail throwing young people wearing scarves over their faces. Chanting crowds of anarchists. Subversives are scary, threatening, crazy and bent on destruction. Ministers, on the other hand, are models of respectability. We dress in suits, defend the status quo and in general believe it our responsibility to urge people to abstain from most of the behaviors that make life interesting. We promote instead the stable, predictable conduct that keeps our churches the safe, comfortable and non-threatening places we think we want them to be. When H.L. Mencken defines Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy,” we believe he was really talking about American ministers. We think our task is to urge conformity to the religious system in our churches—not overthrow it.
But the Bible speaks often of challenging the religious institutionalism and systems that so often become a substitute for a genuine relationship with Jesus. In fact, much of what God’s Word challenges us to do is to actually confront the systems of sin, bondage and institutionalism that keep people from God. The best word to describe that essential action is subversion.
The prophet Jeremiah, for instance, giving voice to divine judgment, subverts the religious status quo of his day when condemns Israel’s professional priests and prophets for twisting genuine worship to their own ends:
“My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome with wine, because of the LORD and his holy words. The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the desert are withered. The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:9-11)
Jesus does the same thing. In the gospel of Matthew, as he approaches Calvary, the Lord’s judgment is directed toward the religious system that led to his crucifixion. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, he says,
…tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
Jesus goes on then to condemn the group of religious leaders and the structure they created with seven specific judgments. Woe to you, he repeats seven times—the biblical number for fullness and completion—as he demonstrates once and for all God’s rejection of all human systems that keep people from faith.
It’s dangerously naïve to assume our ministries are conducted in a trusting, cooperative environment where everybody is seeking the same thing. The truth is that we live and minister in the middle of schemes of religious control and cultural entanglement where genuine churches can only be built through subverting the old order so that a new one can come into focus.
I saw first-hand what needs to happen in the second congregation I served as pastor. The church had been located on its downtown corner for over a hundred years and was well known as a traditional congregation committed to remaining that way. Unfortunately, the church had also lost a sense of purpose and vision, a reality evident in declining attendance and congregational conflict. The three pastors prior to my arrival were fired.
Within a couple of years, though, the Lord began to move in a powerful way and I realized we had to make some changes. The biggest change I saw was the need for a more contemporary worship service for the many young families living in our community. But for that to happen, a serious act of subversion needed to take place first. The status quo was so ingrained and the congregation as a whole so comfortable in its traditional approach, that a contemporary service was a serious threat.
Everything came to a head a congregational meeting where I presented my proposal for the new service. There was great opposition to it, centered on a common complaint: “If we start a contemporary worship service, those people will come.” Over and over, in different variations, that concern was voiced. I was beside myself listening to this self-centered nonsense. “Those people”? I asked the entire meeting. “What do you mean, ‘those people.’?” Do you mean those people in our community who don’t know Christ? Those people who are lost and broken and hurting and need the gospel? Those people like your neighbors and children?”
But my attempts at shaming didn’t work because the system was so entrenched. So when I saw that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I lost my cool and before stalking out of the building told the people, “I want to say one thing to you. If we bring snakes into the contemporary service, I assure you they will be traditional snakes.”
Later on, cooler heads prevailed and the congregation did in fact approve the new service. It took off like a rocket and became the defining feature of the church in the community. Life came out of death and the Spirit of God flowed through our congregation like a river. Within a few years we relocated the church. A few years after that the church’s ministry became so vibrant and large that it impacted not just the surrounding community but many other areas as well. But if the old order had not been undermined and a new order put into place, none of that would have happened.
Not that I’m a fan of violence, but H.L. Mencken’s gloriously witty call to piracy in our risk-averse church culture brings a smile to my face: Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
– H. L. Mencken
Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
– H. L. Mencken