Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 10, 2016

Wrong Units Of Measurement

One of the things James has been learning lately is the different units of measurement.  Every once and a while I overhear him using the wrong type of measurement. The other day he was measuring different things around the house with a tape measure; however, instead of using inches he was using pounds. The stool in our kitchen is 34 pounds high and the rug is 56 pounds long!

At our annual meeting last week I used this story as an analogy for how we go about measuring the spiritual life.  I reflected on whether we sometimes use the wrong units of measurement.

It is tempting to jump straight to external data to determine how we are doing spiritually.  We might do this on an individual level by looking at how often we go to church or participate in religious activities.  As pastors we often do this on a corporate level.  The unit of measurement is the budget, the attendance records, or the number of programs we offer.

These units of measurement certainly have their place.  In the book of Acts the effect of Pentecost lead to an exponential growth in new disciples.  God has a heart for reaching people of all nations.  Behind numbers are real people that God loves.

Yet, external numbers are not the only unit of measurement we are given in scripture.  While Jesus cares about the breadth of our outreach, he also cares about the depth of our discipleship.   At the beginning of John 6 a large crowd of over 5000 people are following Jesus; yet, by the end of the chapter there are only a few left.  In vs 60, we read, “many of his disciples said, ‘this is a hard teaching, who can accept it.”  Jesus seems to be focused less on crowds and more on disciples who are willing to follow him whole-heartedly.

As the contemporary church struggles to grow and thrive in a post-Christian culture we often go to great lengths to make Christianity easy and convenient.  My friend Ryan offers a helpful assessment about this trend in one of his recent blog posts.  He writes:

Two huge factors in our shaping context are individualism and consumerism. Church is something that people do if and when they feel like it and often on their own terms. Our need of it is much less comprehensive and much more selective. It is something we do if we have time, or if we’re looking for a spiritual boost or a bit of inspiration . . .  We choose churches like we choose products, selecting those that best reflect our own self-understanding and that speak to our own personal hopes and ambitions for ourselves and for the world. I’d like a double-shot of certainty with some political conservatism, please… I’ll have a low-doctrine, eco-friendly, peace and justice church, please. And go light on the evangelism. To go.

It is tempting for us to adapt the Christian message to fit the preferences of our contemporary consumeristic culture.  I suspect Jesus’ approach to marketing would not fair well in this cultural context.  At times it sounds like he is trying to talk people out of following him.   He says that if people want to follow him they are going to have to renounce their will and take up their cross.  I can’t see that working very well on a church billboard or an outreach flyer!

I am currently reading the Institutes of John Cassian.  John Cassian spent a number of years visiting the monks of the Egyptian desert.  The Institutes capture the seriousness by which these early Christians pursue God.  In one chapter he records the way in which a new monk is integrated into the community.  He writes, “One, then, who seeks to be admitted to the monastery is never received before he gives, by lying outside the doors for ten days or even longer, an evidence of his perseverance, as well as of humility and patience.”

I was joking with a friend the other day that we should borrow this model for our new member class.  If you want to join Longview Community Church we’ll make  you sit outside the front door for 10 days and see if you have the perseverance to take up your cross and follow Jesus!

To be sure, the desert fathers sometimes swing to the other extreme by elevating the human will too much in the pursuit of God.  Nevertheless, these startling stories often serve to jolt us out of our contemporary apathy.  Have we really counted the cost of discipleship?  Do we really want to follow Christ? Do we want Jesus on his terms or ours?

This can sound harsh and discouraging; however, at the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him  is his deep love for humanity.  If we only half heartedly follow Jesus we will miss out on the “life of abundance” (John 10:10) that he has in store for us.  Any talk about the “cost of discipleship,” must be balanced with a recognition of the “cost of non-discipleship.”  Dallas Willard writes:

“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, nondisicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.

In other words, we are selling our self short if we place our walk with God on the periphery of life.  The down side to consumer spirituality is that it never brings about the depth that we long for.  By ignoring the call to give up our life we fail to gain the true life that Christ has in store for us.

As we consider how we measure the spiritual life, let’s be sure not to leave out the dimension of depth.  I suspect that when we take this aspect seriously the breadth of our impact on society will take care of itself.

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. How do you measure a healthy spiritual life?
  2. In what ways is Jesus calling you to a deeper commitment to follow him?
  3. What are some of the barriers that need to be removed so that you can follow Christ more fully?
  4. What would help you follow Christ more fully?
  5. How has God promised to be with you on this journey?
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