Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Counting what counts

Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they find out that I’m a pastor, there are usually questions that follow. First, they will ask me which church I serve. Then, I brace myself for the next question, because nine times out of ten, I know what’s coming: How many members are there in your church? (If I ever meet someone who finds out that I pastor a church and they ask me how the church I serve is following Jesus, have the paramedics on standby, because I will surely go into shock.)

I know they’re probably just trying to make conversation, and it’s an innocent question to ask. But whether I’ve been serving a big church or a little church at the time, the question bugs the hell out of me. Why does it matter what size congregation I serve? Because size implies something in our culture. The value of a congregation is measured by its size. And, of course, if I take the question personally, and it’s hard not to, my value as a pastor is measured by my congregation’s size. After all, big congregations are for successful pastors and small congregations are for losers.

A passage that cuts through all this head-counting crap is in Luke 14. It starts out like this: “Now large crowds were traveling with him….” Jesus had a really good thing going; a whole lot of people were following him. But most church leaders in the world around us today wouldn’t think a whole lot of Jesus as an evangelist. He doesn’t do what a good evangelist would do with this crowd. He doesn’t take the time to get everyone’s name, address and phone number, so he can follow up with them and get them to join his church. He doesn’t enlist greeters so everyone feels welcome. He doesn’t make sure they sing some songs that would have appealed to the largest group possible. And worst of all is what he doesn’t do with his message.

"Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple....'"

Yikes! What was he thinking? Jesus has an opportunity to deliver an uplifting message that will make everyone feel so good that they’ll want to come back week after week to hear more of what he has to say. But he blows it, big time!

Jesus wasn’t into calling crowds; he was into calling disciples. When Jesus sees the crowds, he doesn’t see it as an opportunity to wow them. He isn’t concerned with being popular; he doesn’t make any wild promises about all the good things that will be theirs if they join up with him. Instead, he takes the opportunity to tell the crowd how difficult it is to really follow him. They may be checking him out because they’re curious. They may be along for the ride because they think there’s something in it for them. And Jesus wants them to know right from the start what it’s all about, so there will be no surprises later on. He tells them that there’s a cost to following him. Unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically --- unless they can detach from their families and from their very lives as they know them, they aren’t ready to follow him.

Well now, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Nobody wants to hear that a certain way of life comes with a cost. Is that the reason why we join churches? Is that the reason why we bring our children to the font to be baptized? Is that the reason why we have Sunday school? Because it will cost us dearly if we do?

Martin Luther once said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” Of course, he got that idea from Jesus who was totally up front with those who were considering discipleship. Before you sign on to follow me, he says, you better know what it’s gonna cost you.

“Now large crowds were traveling with him….” and “….he turned and said to them, ‘If you cannot carry the cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.'” Seeing those two ideas together in one passage is surprising, to say the least. It’s a message for all of us who might have a tendency to count the crowd and not the cost.

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