As a rule, I do not tell jokes that involve God and his ways. Just doesn’t seem right. But this old joke makes a point.
A man was trapped in a flood on top of a barn. He prayed, calling out to God and a voice came from heaven saying, “I will save you, my son.” With that confidence, he relaxed on the roof and awaited his rescue. Soon, a man in a canoe came by and told him there was room in the front. The man said no because he was waiting for God to save him. As the waters continued to rise, a motorboat came by and offered him a ride. Again, he turned it down and awaited divine rescue. Finally, as the waters neared the top of the roof a helicopter flew by, dropped a basket and yelled down for him to crawl in. He waved them off and sat there anticipating the divine deliverance. It never came. He went up to heaven and asked Saint Peter a question. “What happened? The voice told me I would be rescued, but it never came.” Peter looked at him and said, “What are you talking about? We sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.”
Remember, I’m from Iowa and corn is our main crop! (Well, that and floods right now). But as I said, I think this groaner makes a point. Sometimes, we look for solutions even after God has provided them.
I think just about everyone knows that there is a problem with the church in America today. Something ain’t what it ought to be. Even the top lawyers would have a hard time defending the thesis that our churches are all that they can be. At the convention this year there was much hand wringing about the disturbing statistics for the SBC. We are beginning to long for the good old days when we were simply plateaued.
Not only do we all seem to recognize the problem, but we seem to all have a solution. To some, the problems would all be cleared up if we could only force the Calvinists back in the closet. For some, the problem is the abandonment of our cherished culture and tradition, so if we could only get preachers off their stools and back behind pulpits, get their ties and suits back on and get the organ fired up again, all would be well. For others, we need to be more culturally relevant. I know, I’m oversimplified and offended most of my readers at this point.
I am trying to make a simple point. We all recognize that there is a problem and we tend to blame “them” and the solution is for “us” to prevail. Traditionalists, trendy contemporarians, Calvinists, non-Calvinists, megachurches, smaller churches. They are the problem and we are the solution.
But what if God already has a solution, one that he sent to us 2000 years ago and has been available ever since. What if when we develop our new strategies and programs, rename and reorganize our institutions, point fingers and spit-ball solutions, he is simply waiting for us to make use of the gift that was given to us 40 days after Jesus left the earth.
I would like to introduce you to two groups of men.
The Twelve Disciples
If a corporate analyst have presented a report on Jesus’ “organization” in the early days, it would have included a scathing section on the leadership selection and training process. Jesus selected twelve men to live with him, walk with him, learn from him and lead when he was gone, and for the entire time he was with them, there is no evidence that any of them ever got much of anything right. They were low-class fishermen, tax collectors and political radicals.
And they were the spiritual equivalent of the Keystone Cops, or perhaps the Twelve Stooges – good-hearted and sincere, but incompetent. They bumbled and stumbled their way through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Their de facto leader, Peter, spent most of those days with his size 12 sandal firmly in his mouth.
Read the gospel stories. I love Matthew 16:5-7. Jesus warns the disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Saduccees, and they get in a discussion about the fact that they had forgotten bread. They never got it. Jesus clearly predicted his death and resurrection, but it took them by surprise. Peter actually tried to stop the crucifixion by taking up a sword and lopping off a servant’s ear.
Jesus surrounded himself with a bunch of losers, bozos who never understood what he was saying and who always seemed to do the wrong thing. The only thing they did right was to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.
The Twelve Apostles
Then, there is a second group of men. They, like the first group of men, were unlearned and ignorant, but committed to Jesus. But this group of men, called Apostles, turned the world upside down in a generation. They were men of wisdom and insight, who understood the message of Christ and proclaimed it clearly. Within about 35 years, they took the gospel throughout most of the Roman Empire. They wrote letters that are still devoured today for their spiritual truth.
Their leader stood before a crowd of people and proclaimed the mysteries of Christ and 3000 souls entered the Kingdom. A sermon like no other.
Two groups of men who were nothing alike. I would make two observations about them.
1) They were the same men. Well, Judas checked out and was replaced, but by and large these were the same men. Peter was still Peter but he was a completely different man. John and James had not been replaced, but they had been unalterably altered.
2) Only one thing changed. As best I can tell, only one thing happened to turn the disciples into apostles. One. They did not go to seminary and get an advanced degree in systematic theology. They did not get a box with a new video curriculum from Lifeway that was going to revolutionize their ministry. They had no clue about the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. They were neither traditionalists nor on the cultural cutting edge. They had no buildings and few resources. They didn’t know what a deacon was and were completely in the dark about church organization and structure.
And they turned the world upside down.
Why? Because Jesus baptized them in the Holy Spirit and fire, just as John had predicted. That was the only discernible difference between the two groups. The fullness of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told them to wait until they were endued with power from on high. The Holy Spirit came on them, they were filled with the Spirit and power and nothing was ever the same again.
The disciples never understood anything. The apostles understood the deep things of God. The disciples were confused about the purposes of God. The apostles understood God’s agenda and served it. The disciples struggled for supremacy and greatness. The apostles laid down their lives for Christ and for others in Christ’s name. The disciples were timid and afraid. The apostles were bold and powerful. The disciples failed in much of what they did. The Apostles succeeded in doing God’s work.
Could It Be?
Could it be that the joke I opened this with is not a joke, but a sad commentary. “God, why won’t you show us the new strategy we need to reach the community? Our church is plateaued and our denomination is declining, where is your rescue, Lord? Why won’t you show us the way.”
And God from heaven says, “I showed you the way 1980 years ago, when I took 12 bozos and used them to change the world. I sent the power of the Holy Spirit on them and they went places they never thought they would go, said things they never thought they would say and did things they never thought they would do.
I was baptized in the Spirit of God at the moment I was saved. God’s Spirit dwells in me. As I die daily, deny myself and seek God, the Spirit of God fills me and uses me. Perhaps I need to stop asking myself what I can do for God and ask what God’s Spirit can do through me. Perhaps our churches need to stop trusting in strategies, programs and cultural focus and simply seek the power of God’s Spirit.
I’m not saying a new strategy will never help. There are things that each church can do to become more faithful and powerful. No question. But we need to be careful to remember that the power comes from God’s Spirit and not from any human agency. I know some will dismiss this as cliché, but I am convinced that is part of the problem! I am glad our denomination is trying to reorganize for greater effectiveness. I am doing the same at my church.
But as my hero Henry Blackaby used to say:
Programs don’t work; God works.
Maybe the solution we’ve been searching for and arguing about has been indwelling us all the time.
NOTE: This article orginally appeared at sbcIMPACT.