I remember watching a documentary some years ago on the life of Paul Wight, a seven foot, four hundred and forty one pound wrestler for the WWE. You might know him better by his stage name, “The Big Show.”
The documentary detailed how, during his sophomore year in college, Wight was diagnosed with acromegaly, a condition that causes abnormally large growth. In Wight’s case, the doctors discovered that he had a tumor on his pituitary gland that produced excess growth hormones, causing him to be much taller, stronger, and just plain bigger than everyone else.
(This is not unlike Andre the Giant, another famous wrestler, who suffered from the same condition and died at forty six from cardiac complications related to it. Andre was listed at over seven feet tall, and weighed well over five hundred pounds when he died.)
In the documentary, Wight shares how the excess growth actually enhanced his athletic ability in High School. He was taller than everyone, so he excelled at basketball. He was bigger than everyone, so he excelled at football. And he was stronger than everyone, so he excelled at essentially any other athletic endeavor he decided to do. He also had an inordinate amount of energy, and so no one could keep up with him. As far as he was concerned, he was an All-American athlete.
This all changed, however, when Wight learned that his athletic abilities were derived from a life-threatening tumor. The news devastated him. And, per doctors orders, he underwent surgery to remove it. Afterwards Wight noticed that even though he retained his large stature, his athletic prowess began to wane.
It was an interesting dilemma, to be sure. The thing that gave Wight supernatural life was the same thing that slowly took it.
I found myself thinking about Paul Wight this past week and, as I did, I began to relate Wight’s tumor to the church. I then came to this conclusion:The church has acromegaly.
What I mean is that we have things in our churches that may look good on the outside, but are vociferously dangerous on the inside. Like Wight’s tumor, the outside looks powerful, but the inside is slowly dying.
In the documentary, Wight described his tumor in a fascinating light. And I think that there are a few things we can learn from his description.
TUMORS CAN BE HIDDEN
Wight originally had no idea that the tumor was there. He only saw the positive effects of it. He saw that he was taller than everyone else. He saw that he was stronger than everyone else. He saw that he was faster than everyone else. And he saw that he was bigger than everyone else, which are all good things for an athlete. He had the energy of a racehorse, and nothing could slow him down.
However, he failed to realize that these were all the result of an underground enemy, slowly leaching away his life. What’s worse, not only was the tumor hidden, but it hid behind the facade of grandeur. It’s normal to go to the doctor if you are feeling tired and worn down, but not if you are feeling energetic and upbeat. Thus, Wight never even considered that he might have a dangerous cyst corroding the infastructure of his life.
I think that something can be said about this in relationship to the church. A church’s success is usually gauged by what’s on the outside, not by what’s going on in the inside. Therefore, nobody bothers to look at the thing causing the large growth. It doesn’t matter why we have 10,000 people on a Sunday morning, only that we do. It doesn’t matter why we had 3,000 baptisms this year, only that we did. And it doesn’t matter why our budget is increasing year by year, only that it is.
But the reality is that, sometimes, growth doesn’t mean success. Growth can sometimes be an indicator of failure, depending on how you define it. For example, Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, but I wouldn’t consider that a success. I consider it a failure of the church. The same is true with hidden tumors. Sometimes a church runs thousands of people because the preacher preaches a universalistic message, meaning that more people feel comfortable attending his services. Sometimes a church has thousands of baptisms because they manufacture an event that emotionally manipulates people into jumping into a swimming pool. And sometimes a church’s budget is increasing because people believe that, if they give, they will be healed of their disease or suddenly win the lottery.
THE EFFECTS OF THE TUMOR CAN BE AWE-INSPIRING
People looked (and still look) at Wight with utter awe. In his heyday, he was a physical specimen. Men wanted to be him and girls wanted to date him. When a person looked at Wight from the outside, everything looked marvelous. But, as we know, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everything was marvelous on the inside.
For example, a new Indiana Jones movie–Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–seemed like a great idea on the onset, until you went into the theater and watched it.
I’m reminded of the parable of the mustard seed Jesus taught in Matthew 13:31-32. Many interpret this parable as a positive description of the kingdom of God, where the mustard seed is small, but grows surprisingly large. This parable, however, is probably a negative description of the church and in how they handle the kingdom of God.
For one, Jesus is talking to a crowd of people that “saw but did not see” (13:13). This is to say that they followed Jesus physically, but not spiritually. They wanted to see him do something in order to believe in him, which is emphasizingly different from the disciples, who are blessed because they see and believe (13:16). According to 12:46-50, Jesus left the company of the disciples in order to speak to the crowds, and he doesn’t begin speaking to them again until 13:36 when he “left the crowds.” Therefore, the last handful of parables experience a change in tone because they are spoken to a believing crowd.
The point is that the unbelieving audience didn’t accept this hometown boy as God’s Son, and therefore wanted him to fit their understanding of a king. And, so, Jesus taught them a handful of parables about how they, and people like them, will manipulate the kingdom to become something for which it was never intended. In this particular parable, the kingdom of God is a small mustard seed, but people inject it with spiritual steroids to make it into a large tree. And then the “birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
Jesus had, a few moments before, described these “birds” as a symbol for “the evil one” in his parable of the sower (13:19). Also, this verse is taken from Daniel where it is used to describe Nebuchadnezzar, a man whom metaphorically grew into a large tree, a tree that God ordered to be chopped down (Dan 4:24).
The lesson is simple: God defines the kingdom of God one way, but the church doesn’t think it’s good enough, and so they redefine it to be bigger, better, faster, and stronger. When we do this, Satan nestles down deep into our fellowships.
A tumor can cause things to look beautiful on the outside, but that doesn’t mean that the body is operating the way God intended. It just means that it’s slowly dying. And with applause.
“You don’t need God to build a big church.” -Mike Courtney
THE TUMOR WILL KILL
Wight learned that his extraordinary abilities were the result of a life-threatening condition. The thing that seemingly gave him life was the very thing stealing it away. It was as if his body had made a deal with the devil, and the devil would soon come for his payment, and the payment was his life.
This is an interesting thought. Although Wight was faster, stronger, bigger, and better than everyone, it was a manipulated and dangerous growth. For every inch he grew and for every pound of muscle he gained, his life was, inch for inch and pound for pound, that much reduced. The thing that appeared to give him life was the very thing taking it away.
The decision to remove the tumor was therefore a no brainer.
Today, Paul Wight doesn’t grow any taller. He doesn’t naturally get any stronger. He isn’t getting any bigger. And his energy level isn’t what it used to be, but his life is steady and healthy. There isn’t a hidden enemy sucking away at it.
Likewise, when we remove the tumors in our churches, they might not look as tall, or be as big or as strong, but they will be healthier. And they–and we!–will live.
The fact is that all of our churches have acromegaly. We all have pituitary gland tumors. For some of us, this tumor is the methods we use to focus on nickels and noses. For some of us the tumor is a certain presence in the church on which many might rely, but if that presence were removed, the church would be free to live, even if the surgical process of removing that tumor is scary. And when I say “presence,” I mean someone who runs the church with the fear of his checkbook, or someone who manipulates people into thinking that the church could not survive without him.
Whatever the tumor is, it’s important to remove it because even if things look good on the outside, it might be a symptom of decay on the inside. This can be a painful process. In fact, it essentially always is. But such a life is, without question, healthier.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” -Jesus (John 10:10)