Let’s begin at the end.
In the final chapter of Skye Jethani’s newest book, IMMEASURABLE, the author recounts a story of himself as a young, twenty-six-year old seminarian. One day, during his chaplain rounds in a hospital, he met Bill, a fifty-four-year-old pastor. Bill had multiple upper body fractures including in his face which now featured a wired jaw. The serious injuries, however, weren’t from the pastor being hurt on the mission field or attempting to crowd surf during the latest Switchfoot concert or rescuing some poor old lady’s purse from a mugger. They were a result of solace. Solace sought from the mounting pressures, internal and external expectations, and steady stresses of pastoral ministry. Solace found in a misuse of alcohol that led to a severe fall that he couldn’t even remember and that was contextualized in the loss of his ministry, marriage, and children.
But this book in review isn’t about alcoholism. It’s about a religious mindset that easily fueled Bill’s devotions in all the wrong ways and can easily push addictive behavior in general, whether it be alcoholism, pornography, or one of a dozen other more culturally acceptable, though equally destructive, vices. IMMEASURABLE is a canon of cautionary tales about CHURCH, INC. and a reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need anything added to it.
From the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
I pray that you will understand the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.
I see a raised hand. Yes? Question in the back?
What is Church, Inc.?
It’s many things. It could be said, in some regards, to be a mindset that dehumanizes people and Christ’s redemption towards them. Simplistically, Church, Inc. is about “systems, efficiencies, and metrics. It sees ministry as an industry on an assembly line of sermons and music and programs… struggles with sin and brokenness are inefficient, they slow down the system, they hinder institutional expansion and the triumphant image that Church, Inc. relies on to attract more members.” You may be thinking this means only large or mega or colossal churches wrestle with Church, Inc. You would be wrong however. Undoubtedly certain environments cultivate Church, Inc. more distinctively, but this is a mentality that most of us in an age of consumerism and counterfeit covenant are tempted to strive for. It is a hollow and deceptive philosophy which tries to hijack faith and make our dependency on something other than Christ Himself.
One of the great things about Skye Jethani is that he is bald. I’m not sure if this is by choice or hereditary. All I know, is that it makes creating a mash-up of him and soul-singer James Brown super helpful.
The book’s sub title is: reflections on the soul of ministry in the age of Church, Inc. There are twenty-four chapters, but only 210 pages proper. Many of the entries come from renewed versions of previous blog-posts and lectures. If you are new to the author, this is a terrific intro class, though by no means low-hanging fruit. Even if you are familiar with some of the stories, they have been converted and offer new insights. The chapters stand on their own, and yet, as all good canonical assembly does, there is an inter-connectivity that reminds you that each portion is part of something larger.
Each section ends with a few points of reflection and applications, prompting those brave enough to not just make this an ethereal journey, but an embodied one. The format feels robustly devotional as Skye always communicates illustriously with thoughts from history and everyday symbols. The book will make for great small group digesting as high-minded observations are communicated in an edifying-for-all style. Chapters range from Ambition to Technology to Vampires, from how the “real meaning of our work is only found when we stop doing it,” to how “preaching is about revealing God’s beauty, not merely teaching his truths.”
While IMMEASURABLE is geared towards ministry leaders, the benefit towards all who care about the health of the Church is easily seen. We are reminded that while God does grace his Church with leaders, we are all, in the end, followers of Christ.
Franciscan friar Richard Rohr once wrote that part of a prophet’s task was to keep people free for God. He goes on to say…
We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem, focusing on our imperfect church attendance and inability to live up to the law’s standard. As if the goal of religion is “attendance” at an occasional ritual instead of constant participation in an Eternal Mystery! Prophets turn our ideas of success and belonging on their head, emphasizing God’s unconditional and unmerited love in response to our shortcomings.
Jethani’s book is prophetic in that it seeks to keep people free to follow God rather than being tied up to a cultural tradition of church. And as we recall the 500 year anniversary of the reformation this year, IMMEASURABLE calls out to re-establish our foundation, cast off the chains that bind, and listen for the ever present impressions of the Spirit.
REMEMBERING WHO WE ARE
Back to the beginning, or rather the end, and the hospital room where Bill awaits us.
After a time of hearing Bill’s story and advice, Skye thanked him and got up to leave, not sure how to respond to the broken man who lost his dignity. But then Skye remembered his own calling, that he was called to intercede and to represent the presence of God, not Church, Inc. or the chaplaincy or even himself.
“Bill, I don’t know how to help you,” I said, “but I’d like to stay here if that’s okay.” He took my hand tightly in his and began to weep. So did I. I don’t know how long we cried, but our weeping was a liturgy without words. The tears were a silent sacrament containing confession and absolution, condemnation and compassion, burial and resurrection. I knew Bill wasn’t clinging to me, he was clinging to God, just as I wasn’t merely crying over Bill’s sin, I was mourning my own. The moment was utterly human and yet mysteriously divine. It was ministry.
In the era of aggressive individualism, we ministers are being distinctly called to look outside of ourselves, into the systems of “church” we thought were helpful but could possibly be the opposite, and contemplate what is the soul of the church.
There is a partnership still to be realized in caring for the church. The bride belongs to the groom, but may we stand with the groom, hearing His voice, being filled with joy at His success, and resounding the truth and beauty spoken of the church as she is designed to be. May we love even stronger when she herself may be in a time of forgetfulness.
For what benefit is there if the church gains the whole world but loses her own soul? Is anything worth more than her soul?
All glory to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us.