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We Are the Messengers, Not the Message

British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was an agnostic through most of his life and highly adored (and criticized) for his quick wit and satire. During W.W. II, Muggeridge served as a British spy under the employment of MI6 (James Bond anyone?). After becoming a Christian, Muggeridge converted his quick wit, satire, and operative intelligence to the cause of Jesus Christ. What does a quick-witted, satirical spy look like when he becomes a Christian? A quick–witted, satirical Christian who becomes an agent for the Lord. One of Muggeridge’s famous sayings is, “Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.” Against the stream was Malcolm’s modus operandi, whether it was against the Nazis in W.W. II or against the ideals of secular humanism.

After becoming a Christian, Muggeridge wrote a book titled, Jesus Rediscovered (1969). I just saw that title today, and I found it especially refreshing in light of our sermon series at E91 called [Re]Discovering Jesus. Ah, there is truly nothing new under the sun! As Muggeridge put it, “All new news is old news happening to new people.”

One of the great lessons we learn from Muggeridge, which is why I write about him today, is how to engage our culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ while not taking ourselves too seriously. What I mean is that we should always take the Gospel of Jesus seriously. This is a matter of eternal life and death. But we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. We are the messengers, not the message. The problem is when we reverse the priority and take ourselves too seriously and the Gospel too lightly.

Muggeridge, in a similar way to G. K. Chesteron, was a master of sarcasm, not the sarcasm of late night talk shows, but the sarcasm that helps us laugh at ourselves. Muggeridge understood how ridiculous we appear in our self-importance, grandiose ideas and self-confident illusions.

For us to “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15a), we have to know the Gospel, the culture, and how to communicate “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15b). Translation: Let’s be strong in our defense and respectful in our communication. Be full of truth but not full of yourself. Take the Gospel seriously and yourself lightly.

I fear we are headed further behind enemy lines in the culture wars over truth (What is truth?), meaning (What is meaning?), and morality (What is morality, and who gets to decide?). We’re losing ground, not because we don’t have truth, but because people can’t get past the messengers in order to discover it.

We are educating and equipping the next generation with the latest in technology, science, and epistemology, but who are devoid of a moral compass. President Teddy Roosevelt once said that “to educate a man in the mind and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.” We are reaping what we have sown—both in our culture and churches. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Unfortunately, many are still in bondage. Some people won’t listen to truth, because we won’t get out of the way.

To put it in the words of Muggeridge:

So the final conclusion would surely be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions, and then providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense. Thus did Western Man decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down, and having convinced himself that he was too numerous, labored with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer. Until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keeled over--a weary, battered old brontosaurus--and became extinct.

May we fight against this extinction with truth, meaning and morality through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we take this charge—but not ourselves—seriously as we make a defense for our faith with gentleness and respect.

What Makes the Church Go?

I pulled a book off my bookshelf the other day titled, Fifty-two Ways to Make the Church Go, published by F. M. Barton (Cleveland, OH) in 1917. I thought, why not? Surely one of those 52 ways would help in my ministry. So which one would it be? Here is just a sampling of the prodigious ways to make the church go: Home-coming rally, How to use motion pictures, Making the Sunday evening service go, How to use the “stereopticon” (which I discovered is an old-time slide projector), How to make Christmas last a year, How to answer arguments of liquor men (as opposed to liquor women?), How to use automobiles, How to use a Win-One-Week, How to raise $28,000 on a budget.                                                                                            

If the book were written today, I wonder if some of the chapter titles would look like this: How to use social media, How to make Sunday mornings awesome, How to raise $1 million in a day, Student ministries that rock the world, Finding a cool name for your church, Finding the right location for your church (in a growing, suburban neighborhood with a median income level of $100,000 per year per household), How to answer arguments of liquor men AND women. (See, we are making progress.)

Do I want to find better ways to make the church go? Absolutely. But what this little historical exercise in church methodology has done for me is help me see that there is nothing new under the sun. Sure, methods change, as they should. We’re not using stereopticons anymore, and hopefully we have the automobile-thing figured out by now. I was interested in discovering, however, that the approach to making a church go hasn’t changed all that much in almost 100 years—at least not from this book.

As far as I know, the 1917 edition of this book is the only edition, and for good reason. Churches can only ride on the fuel of methods and programs for so long before they find their tanks empty. We need something else. Something deeper. Something that endures the test of time. And in case you think I’m becoming an old fogey, let me assure you that we do need methods, strategies and programs. They are the scaffolding that supports the message, and that scaffolding will look differently throughout time and culture. The scaffolding has a purpose, which is to point to the deeper purpose of abiding in Jesus Christ and sharing Him with others.

In my twenty-eight years of church work, I’ve been guilty of replacing the purpose of the church with the purpose of the scaffolding. When I prioritize programs over people or methods over ministry, my soul begins to dry up. Yes, those programs and methods might even make the church go…at least for a while. A few years? A generation? But if the church isn’t going and growing on the deeper power of the Holy Spirit indwelling God’s people as they live out the Kingdom of Heaven, then the going and growing is a house of cards. Organizationally we can look complex, sophisticated, relevant, and powerful. Large crowds can gather and people will cheer. But the winds of heaven can blow the house down.

So how do we make the church go? I don’t think it takes fifty-two ways. I think it takes three. First, it takes hearts and lives completely humbled and surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Second, it takes a community of those surrendered lives committed to love one another through thick and thin. And, third, it takes that community of surrendered lives to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to go and make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. We’ll need some methods along the way. But more than that we need to encounter Jesus and live authentic lives for Him.

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