Do you have a favorite Super Bowl commercial? I sure do. Do you remember the one from several years ago in which cowboys were herding cats?
I guess this commercial strikes a chord because it reminds me so much of ministry. Leading and guiding people can at times be akin to the futility of trying to direct independently minded felines. This dynamic makes our final two Almost Gospels extremely tempting.
The Gospel of Behavior Modification
The Apostle Paul put it well: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6:1-2 (NASB)
Salvation is by grace and not by our merit or works, but the Gospel of grace provides no blank check for selfish, ungodly behavior. Unfortunately, there are many who don’t fully comprehend (primarily because we don’t teach about it) the transformational power of grace.
When we gather together sinful, imperfect people, doing our best to make them feel welcomed and accepted, it’s no surprise that certain types of undesirable behavior will begin to surface. Some might simply be nuisance-type activities (e.g. double parking), while others can have significant ramifications (e.g. bringing drugs to youth group meetings). By far, the easiest and most effective (in the short-term) means to modify people’s behavior is to make a list of rules. Do NOT double parking. Do NOT bring illegal drugs onto the premises. Do NOT stick gum under the pews. Do NOT carry on annoying conversations during the service…. I think you get the picture.
Don’t get me wrong; there are times when rules are necessary for the immature. I’m always amused when I hear a parent trying to reason with a two-year old. At that age a child needs a rule and not an explanation. But as that little one grows older, he/she needs to develop an understanding behind the behavior. Try to impose a two-year old’s rules on a teenager and I guarantee that problems will result.
For people to properly mature, a healthy internal motivation for desirable behavior must be developed. If we don’t understand how the Gospel does this, or fail to communicate these things in an understanding, loving manner, all that remains to maintain order is to resort to the gospel of behavior modification. Thus, we’ll find our sermons filled with must’s, should’s and need to’s, while our hearts remain constantly frustrated by the ongoing lack of maturity among our people.
The Gospel of Social Service
Another near miss! There are so many needs in our world, and love will not allow us to close a blind eye. Issues of poverty and injustice carry moral ramifications every bit as much as abortion and sexual immorality.
When we do step out to help the poor and marginalized, why something powerful happens! You know that good feeling you get when you do a good deed for somebody? It’s a form of common grace that God provides for all humans. The result can be awesomely intense experiences in our service to God.
The problem is that we can do these things without actually walking with God. Rather than resting in the power of the cross, we find ourselves seeking validation through the magnitude of our sacrifices. Our lives are defined by a self-validating love—if there is such a thing. This, of course, is a trap for anyone involved in ministry or service; it doesn’t take much impurity to corrupt a small flow of pure water.
It’s amazingly easy for well-intentioned Christian leaders to fall into the Almost Gospel traps. Vigilance and persistence are both necessary even though we’ve been given the most powerful message ever to grace this earth! Through my next several posts I will lay out my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope we’re all both encouraged and challenged!