“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
The Pharisees are pretty easy targets for our criticisms these days. Their snobbish legalism, which focused on rule keeping rather than the needs of people, is well documented and very familiar to us from the pages of scripture. They were, in fact, Jesus’ favorite targets, and it seemed He used them as an excellent example of what NOT to do and be in regard to religious devotion. However, I don’t believe that the Pharisees are the only ones in church life who have missed the forest for the trees.
There is much talk of excellence in ministry, and it is a good thing. Anything we do for God should be done with our best effort, and in my mind there is no such things as “wasting” money on Jesus. While we should always be good stewards of God’s resources, I don’t see why we should skimp or apologize for doing things first rate when it comes to Kingdom business. When the woman in Simon’s house poured the costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, she drew sharp criticism, even from the members of Jesus’ own team. However, He honored her act of worship, and it still stands in the scriptures today as a memorial of her sincere humility and love for the Master (see Mark 14:3-9). He is worthy of our best.
Yet, if we’re not careful, there can be a very impersonal, even legalistic side to excellence, where a sterile perfectionism replaces a love for, and interest in, people. While we want to take care of buildings and grounds, they are built to serve people and not the other way around. People can get so protective over the church’s stuff that one would think it was all purchased to be put behind glass and viewed at a distance, rather than to be used in the service of Christ. Suddenly, the sound equipment purchased for the youth can’t be used unless the “right” people are touching the knobs, and God forbid that one of the youth themselves should be entrusted with running sound and discover a love for ministry! After all, something could get broken!
People have funny ideas about church, from who should be able to come, to what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear when they come, to making sure the proper volume levels are not exceeded in children’s church, and on it goes. I’m not saying there should be no standards or structure. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be excellence. But what I am saying is that sometimes we can take ourselves WAY too seriously and forget what it’s all about. Ministry is about people.
After all, Jesus didn’t die for your sound system or your new carpet, and while we’ll set rules to keep the kids from trying to turn everything into a trampoline to jump on, we are going to use the stuff we have to bless people. Whether you use it or not, it’s going to get old and have to be replaced anyway, so you might as well use it to see lives changed and souls won for Christ.
I would like each and every church chair in my sanctuary to have a testimony; that in each of them a sin sick soul once sat and heard the Word of deliverance that broke their bonds and set the captive free. I would like every dented, paint-peeled microphone to be able to say that it was used to preach the gospel or give a young person their very first opportunity to lead worship. I want our carpet stained, not necessarily with coffee, but with the tears of the penitent that fell from their faces as they found their way to the foot of the old rugged cross at the end of a message.
I want our church used. I want it used up in the work of the gospel. Structure is important, but it should be like the skeleton in your body, giving support but staying in the background, under the surface, and certainly not the first thing to be noticed. We don’t want the hurting to feel the cold skeleton of our structure, but the warm touch of a redeemed disciple who knows the importance of extending the hand of welcome to the one who is uncertain of his place among God’s people.
In fact, I think even a little coffee stain on the carpet is worth it, if it comes with the laughter and joy of people fellowshipping around good food and friends, knowing what it is to call their church a home. One of my favorite scriptures these days is Psalm 68:6, which says, “God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.” What could be more valuable than that? To see the once lowly and broken now rejoicing in the midst of a new family in which they know they belong? That is what church is all about. Not the furniture. We can buy new stuff, but there is no price one can pay to see a life saved from sin and restored to an awareness of God’s purpose. That, to me, is excellence of ministry.