Luke 9:51-62 New International Version (NIV)
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village.
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
My mother-in-law has gone to a doctor for regular checkups every six months for the last 5-6 years, ever since she underwent treatment for breast cancer. The good news is that she continues to show no signs of cancer and she will be able to reduce the frequency of her visits to once every year.
That’s the good news, here is the even better news I received this week: I’m going to be a brother-in-law again!
At my mother-in-law’s doctor visit she was asked a question that she had not been asked in some time. The nurse spoke directly to her and asked, “Are you pregnant?”
I have heard that it is pretty embarrassing and frustrating for a non-pregnant person to be asked if they are with child. Mostly because it seems to suggest that your middle region is sticking out a bit more than it should.
So why would my mother-in-law, a 61-year-old grandmother of two, be asked if she was pregnant? Because she told them that she was.
Apparently when she went into the doctor’s office she was handed a number of forms, the kind that everyone has to fill out when they visit a doctor, sharing important things like allergies and medical history. One of the questions was, “Are you, or have you been pregnant in the last six months.” Check! I think that she missed the “in the last six months” part.
Perhaps we don’t always read the fine print as well as we should before signing on the bottom line.
It seems to me that over the last number of years churches have been counting on people missing the fine print. Promises are made, but then the product is not what people had expected. As a result, churches in the United States are on the decline. Less people fill the pews, more people sleep in and make pancakes for breakfast on Sunday morning.
Today I want to look at a couple of models of doing church and compare these models to our scripture for today. Because I do not believe that Jesus is any less important today than he was 20, 50, 100, or 1,000 years ago. It isn’t Jesus that has failed, it is the church that could use an overhaul.
Every church goes about being the church in its own, unique way. And I do not mean to be overly critical of any specific church or church leader. Each, I am sure, has something good to offer. But I think that we have learned that certain expressions of the church, while successful in some ways, are failing to be the church that Jesus has called us to be.
We can better understand some of the models of church by looking at a graph with four quadrants (see Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture). In one corner we find a church that is highly invitational, but low in the area of challenge. This is what some, like Allan Hirsch, have called the “Attractional Church Model.” This is a way of doing church that really grew in the 1980’s and into the 2000’s, but has come under a considerable amount of criticism as of late.
The attractional church tends to be the first to adopt cutting edge technology. They use professional musicians to lead worship. They have professional counselors on their pastoral staff. There tends to be a coffee shop and bookstore inside the church building, which tends to look less like a traditional church building and more like a shopping mall. These churches tend to have the best children’s programming and offer worship services on Saturday evening as well as Sunday morning and evening. The idea is to make coming to church as simple, pleasant, unintimidating, and pleasurable as possible. And many of these things are indeed good.
One of the goals of an attractional church is to make the sermon easy to understand so as to appeal to newcomers. This is often called a “seeker sensitive” service. Often, however, they are not just easy to understand, they are easy to swallow. There is really no challenge involved. Sometimes these messages even make it seem like Jesus just wants to bless whatever ideas, ideology, and life you are already living. You can be living a consumeristic lifestyle, deep in debt and ignoring the needy around you, and all you need to do is pray and Jesus will bless you in that consumeristic lifestyle. Amen.
The critique of the attractional church model is two-fold. One: it simply encourages our noncommittal society by competing with other local congregations. There is an unspoken “If you don’t like your church, come to ours,” that lingers in the halls of these churches. Sometimes it isn’t even unspoken, as a church in Ohio recently put up billboards with the saying, “Church shouldn’t be boring.” This advertising seems to suggest that if you are bored with your church, come to ours.
It has been said that the reason that the attractional church thrived in the 1980-2000’s is not because more and more people were coming to know, follow, and serve Jesus but instead these churches were stealing away people who were not committed to being in community with their specific congregation. If someone liked the music better at the Pentecostal church, they left their Baptist church. If they like the pastor better at the Methodist church, they would leave the Presbyterian church. No problem. And the attractional church was happy to receive them.
The second critique I have of the attractional church model is that it often presents a watered down version of Christianity. There is a strong invitation to follow Jesus without really explaining what that might mean. It seems kind of like when my mother-in-law forgot to read the part about being pregnant in the last six months. The church leaders missed Jesus telling how difficult and costly it is going to be to follow him.
Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Let the dead bury the dead. Nobody that puts hand to the plow and turns around is fit for the kingdom of God. You aren’t going to hear these kinds of teachings in attractional churches.
In another quadrant we would find the “low invitation, low challenge” congregations. These churches have little vision for what they could be or should be doing. The people of these congregations know each other, but they really don’t know what’s going on in one another’s lives. There is no accountability to one another and people are not invested in one another’s lives. This kind of church often looks back at the “good old days” and wishes that they could just get back to the way things were done in the 50’s and 60’s. The low invitation, low challenge church seems to believe that all they need to do is open their doors on a Sunday morning and non-Christians will come inside.
This is a dying church. The desire to go back to the old days is understandable, but things will never be as these people wish for them to be. People aren’t just going to come off the street.
Even more nostalgic for the good old days is the “low invitation, high challenge” congregation. These congregations have a strong, authoritarian approach to doing church. There is often a few key leaders that make all of the calls on what is appropriate for everything from dress, to music (played both in church and in the homes), and theology.
The accountability in a low invitation, high challenge church is great, but the invitation to become a part of this worshipping body is packed full of expectations. This is where you can hear implied, “You are welcome and wanted here, but you must look like us, think like us, talk like us, and believe like us to belong.”
Now I do not mean to say that all three of these options are wrong in every way. There are good things going on in all kinds of churches. Anywhere God’s reconciling work is being taught and lived out is a good church. I also don’t think that every church fits nice and neatly into one of the four quadrants. But what I want to do today is to challenge us to be this fourth and final quadrant as a church: the high invitation, high challenge church.
The high invitation, high challenge church recognizes that we are all broken individuals in need of healing and hope; some of us more broken than others. Because of this, we are all at different points along the journey toward reconciliation and the high invitation, high challenge church recognizes that not everyone will be at the same place theologically. But the high, invitation, high challenge church doesn’t stop there, like the attractional church would. In recognizing our brokenness, we must submit to the Holy Spirit to be transformed into the image of Christ. And we can best do that when we open up our hearts and welcome others into our lives.
This requires those fun things like mutual accountability and communal discernment. This means that our actions don’t just affect us as individuals, but the entire congregation. This is why when we receive new members we pledge to give and receive counsel, knowing that there are times when neither is easy. This is why at baby dedications we ask for the congregation’s help in raising our children.
No, it isn’t easy to be both invitational and challenging. Many people will choose not to participate in this kind of group. But many people turned away from Jesus when he asked difficult things of them and we shouldn’t expect anything different for the church.
Our text begins with Jesus walking through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. This was a shortcut that many Jews chose not to take because Samaritans and Jews did not always get along. And Luke simply tells us that Jesus was not welcome there.
So James and John, the sons of thunder, ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
Jesus, asks, “Were you absent the day we learned about loving your enemy?” and they went on to another village.
It is clear that James and John didn’t quite get what Jesus was doing. In fact, it would seem that none of the disciples really got it, and perhaps we all still have a lot to learn. But just look at the diverse group of people that Jesus took into his inner circle of disciples. There was a tax collector and a zealot, which are on the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. We have Peter, who was always shooting off at the mouth, and there was Bartholomew, who just tends to lay low and we don’t hear much about him.
Jesus invites all these people who are at different points on the journey to follow him. There is no theology test to get into his church of disciples. He simply invites them to submit to his teachings and learn from him.
But notice, even that is a process. Here these disciples, James and John, have been following Jesus for close to three years. And they are asking about calling down fire from heaven! Clearly, this takes time. But these guys were still with Jesus, learning a little more every day. All because they were willing to make sacrifices to follow him.
In verses 59-60 we find a would-be disciple of Jesus receive a direct invitation to follow him. And look at his response: “[Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’
But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”
It has been said that Jesus is more than a bit of a jerk in this passage. Why in the world wouldn’t Jesus let the guy go home and bury his father? Why couldn’t the other guy go home and say goodbye to his family first? And what’s the deal with the foxes and their dens and the birds and their nests? The guy didn’t say anything about leaving the comfort of his home.
Many people have tried to make these words of Jesus more palatable by explaining them away. But I think the point of this passage is that following Jesus is costly. Jesus makes a clear invitation to these men to be his disciples and they are not willing to pay the price.
Following Jesus isn’t going to be easy. But nothing worth having ever is.
Getting married was one of the best decisions of my life. But it hasn’t always been easy. Having children was one of the best decisions of our lives together. But that hasn’t been easy, either. The other day our three-year-old filled a CD player with hand sanitizer. I don’t know what that was about. This family of mine frustrates me to no end at times!
But it has all…been…worth it.
And so is following Jesus.
This is why I believe that the high invitation, high challenge church best represents what we are called to as modern-day followers of Jesus. Jesus invites us to follow him, regardless of where we are in our struggles, regardless of how broken are lives are, regardless of how screwed up we might be. We don’t need to have it all figured out the moment we take that first step of discipleship, and Jesus doesn’t expect us to. There might be times when we have been following Jesus for years that we think the most faithful thing to do is to call down fire from heaven to consume our enemies. And just as Jesus rebuked James and John, we too may need correction from other people who are in our lives, in our communities, seeking to follow Jesus. What he wants and expects of us is that we keep taking those steps, following him every day. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth having ever is.