I remember a book that came out not long after I finished seminary, Randall Balmer’s Grant Us Courage, which revisited twelve churches that The Christian Century in 1950 designated, “Great churches,” and were featured in articles throughout the year.
These twelve churches were spread across America, and were more or less mainline Protestant congregations: two Methodist, three Lutheran, two Southern Baptist, two Presbyterian, two Congregationalist, and one Evangelical and Reformed. These were the churches that in 1950 seemed to be the movers and shakers on the American religious scene.
What Balmer wanted to do by writing the book was to revisit these churches that had been so culturally significant in 1950 and see how they had fared in the ensuing years. The book is fascinating in how it described the ups and downs of some ecclesiastical powerhouses since the middle of the twentieth century.
But what was more intriguing to me than the premise of Balmer’s book was the idea that The Christian Century thought it advisable to name twelve “great churches.”
“What,” I wondered, “were the criteria used to determine whether or not a church could be deemed ‘great’?” Not that we shouldn’t identify greatness in the church—clearly, I think that we’re always in the business of identifying that which is worthy of imitation. But I was skeptical about the kinds of things I feared we’d be asked to imitate—things that if we could only get or do would qualify our church as “great.”
I’ll bet you can guess what passed for greatness in 1950. And, by and large, it still does.
Big. Important. Wealthy. Visionary.
Ironic, I thought, that none of the “great churches” were ever Small. Insignificant. Poor. Plodding.
These were the poster children for muscular American Christianity. Not much has changed, has it?
One of the churches, Bellevue Baptist Church outside of Memphis, has docents, equipped with fact sheets to be able to quantify the “greatness.”
Gallons of Paint 10,000 Number of doors 1285 Square feet of sheetrock 1,000,000 Public Telephones 87 Kitchens 20 Restrooms 40 Private restrooms 10
Nothing says “greatness” quite like 10 private bathrooms. How a million square feet of sheetrock demonstrates faithfulness to the Gospel isn’t entirely clear—but it is impressive. And what 87 public telephones has to do with embodying the reign of God, I’m still a little fuzzy about, but you know, whatever.
Things haven’t changed, have they? People admire churches where “things are happening,” where blessings can be quantified on fact sheets, by counting the membership roles or looking at the budget or counting the number of toilets.
In our society, it’s widely assumed that one need only look at the number of bodies in the pews each Sunday to know whether or not God is “blessing” a congregation. The way our world is situated, people look at a big church and automatically assume that “they must be doing something right.”
I was in Lancaster, Kentucky at a retreat with some Disciples ministers one time, where one of my old professors, Mac Warford made a comment about a particular megachurch. What he said I found compelling. He suggested that “Given what we know about our consumer, mall-formed culture, about traffic patterns, about the desire for a wide array services under one roof, about the wish to shop in anonymity, about the power of marketing, it’s no mystery that this particular megachurch exists. From a sociological standpoint, one can easily account for the factors that have led to its existence, and contribute to its ultimate success.
But then he went on. “In our current cultural climate, however, the question that’s much more interesting, much more compelling,” he said, “is why anybody goes to any of your churches.”
Okay, so that got my attention.
“Why do small groups of people continue to gather in small, out-of-the-way places, giving their time and money, offering their children to be raised and taught, practicing odd, unexplainable practices, when they could just as easily go to places that offer wider variety, more professional services, Jumbotron video screens and Christian aerobics?”
So much of what’s popularly called the “church growth movement” is predicated on the notion that if we just plan well enough, hire the right experts, provide the flashiest services, we can engineer our own success, we can rule out the uncertainty. If we do it right, we can get really big, and God’s presence is optional.
The way our culture is programmed, success lies in what we can achieve. If we work all the right angles and catch a few breaks, so the thinking goes, we too can be a success, a light to the nations.
Of course, that’s what we find so unutterably odd about this passage from Isaiah. It doesn’t make sense in our world.
Why is that?
Well, think about it for a minute. Isaiah is addressing people who are being held captive in Babylon. These are people who’ve been yanked out of their homelands, and dragged kicking and screaming to a foreign land. They feel like they’ve been abandoned by God, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to rot in exile.
These are people who’ve not only not done the right things—they’ve forgotten what the right things are and who it was that told them to do them in the first place.
Judah has failed in very real and tangible ways to be what God has called it to be. For failing to take the side of the powerless against the powerful, for failing to remain faithful to God, Jerusalem has been devastated. The temple has been destroyed and the cream of Jerusalem’s social and political life has been languishing in Babylonian captivity for almost fifty years.
But now God says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
And how does Israel respond? But, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa. 49:3–4a).
In other words, “We’re awful! Why would you want to use us?”
Can you see the problem?
The way our world sees it Judah is the last one we would think of to do the work of God described in Isaiah. And make no mistake about it, this is big stuff. God has promised to be glorified in these people, that they shall be God’s servants in the work of raising “up the tribes of Jacob” and in restoring “the survivors of Israel.”
These sorry losers, languishing in exile will be God’s “light to the nations” so that God’s “salvation may reach the end of the earth.” That is to say, this little band of perpetual goof-ups are the very people God has chosen to reveal God’s glory.
Oh, it’s going to be big! The children of God, who’ve been despised as nothing more than slaves and sell-outs, are about to become the hope of the world. “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
But what does it mean for Israel to be chosen? Why should the nations take notice of Jerusalem? What is it that Judah’s commitment to justice says about God?
Well, as Walter Breuggemann has pointed out, “The gods of Babylon, characteristically, are allied with the prevailing power structure and give no thought or attention to the disadvantaged or marginalized.”
In other words, while the gods of the rest of the world are busy looking out for the folks in charge, busy making sure that those who make the laws continue to benefit from the laws, busy maintaining the fiction that those who have have because they deserve it and ought to be allowed to keep it, and those who don’t have don’t have because they’re somehow unworthy to share in the abundance … while everywhere else the powerful are recognized as contributors and “job creators” and the powerless are seen merely as shiftless and lazy—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is busy gathering up a people, establishing a community that looks out first for the needs of those who, for whatever reason, find themselves always just trying to tread water in high seas.
According to Isaiah, the nations will finally see God’s light when God’s people refuse to settle for a world where some have and others do not, where some get theirs but others go without.
There are too many people looking around, seeing the good others have, and wondering why it’s been reserved for the few. They see folks with reliable health insurance, folks whose children can walk to school without fear of being bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, folks who don’t fear that anytime their fathers goes out for a drive that they’re in danger of being shot. And they say together with one voice, “You’ve got pretty good lives. That’s good for you, but what about us?”
The church can say all kinds of beautiful things. It can build beautiful buildings, and play beautiful music. It can pack the people into the pews and get itself on radio and T.V., and get invitations to rub elbows with the powerful and the well-off. But let me just say something, if the church can’t answer that question, whatever else it is, it’s not church.
But we follow Jesus. We’ve been given a vocation to live lives that place ourselves between the powerful and the vulnerable. The people of God, not only in Judah, but right now stand as the recipient of that holy call.
But, it might be argued, isn’t that what all these churches nowadays are trying to do? Aren’t big churches more effective at doing what God wants done?
Not necessarily. In seeking above all else to be big, it’s extremely easy to believe that my efforts, my initiative, my ingenuity are what’s important. It’s altogether too tempting in our culture to believe that somehow I am responsible for engineering my own success. If I just make the right choices, operate in the right location, I can attract hoards of people every Sunday, and then we can do stuff that those insignificant little churches can’t manage.
The problem with that thinking, according to Isaiah, is that I’m not the main actor in this drama. What’s at stake here is not whether I’m smart enough, or articulate enough, or relevant enough to be used by God. What’s at stake here is God’s initiative in choosing a people through whom justice will be embodied and God will be glorified.
While we were still estranged, God sought us out to be the tool to spread the good news that God wants all of us enjoy the blessings God has created for us. God desires that the systems that give almost everything to a few, while the rest look on in disappointment be dismantled, and then reordered to make all people whole.
While we were wandering aimlessly in exile, trying to figure out who we were and how we got into the various messes our lives had become, God pursued us and made us the heralds of a new reign in which there are no exiles, no folks who get left behind.
God says that before we figured out how to achieve, before we knew how to be relevant, before our marketing analysts told us what people wanted to hear—God appointed us to do God’s work in lifting up the poor, setting free the captive, welcoming the stranger, and protecting the widow and the orphan.
Before we were ever successful, before we ever impressed anyone with our creativity and cleverness, before we were even born, God chose us to be a light to the nations.
The point, of course, is that there’s no way to engineer the success that God envisions, no fairy-tale endings we can script to suit our notions of what is truly effective.
Because the success God desires doesn’t depend on our having it all together, knowing all the right answers, or glad-handing all the right people; the success God desires doesn’t depend on us at all. That’s why God’s greatest work is almost always done through those whom the world believes are failures.
God always seems to use the last, the least, the lost, and the dying to do God’s work, because they’re the only ones not under the illusion that given enough time, they could have accomplished it on their own anyway.
As difficult as it is to believe, it may not be the “great churches” of this world where God is busy accomplishing God’s purposes. No. God uses ordinary folks like servants and fishermen, like tax-collectors and tent-makers to do the heavy lifting. God uses the overlooked and forgotten in establishing this new reign.
As a matter of fact, I remember the time when God turned over the most important assignment available to a nobody carpenter from the middle of nowhere.
But what do you expect?
God never defines success the way the world does—not even the way the church often does.
Maybe that’s why, given the current cultural climate, a few folks remain determined to show up week after week to a church that seems by the usual standards to be so insignificant, so hopelessly out of step with the powers and principalities.
Maybe God’s got something big in store for us.
Lord knows God’s done it before.
But, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Look around. Sometimes it’s tempting to believe that all the work we do doesn’t even make a dent in the world.
But Isaiah doesn’t leave Israel in despair, does he? It’s easy to believe that failure will consume us, but Isaiah says, “Yet surely … my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
So take heart, the God who made the sun out of nothing can surely make a light to the nations out of a little group of folks in the middle of the Highlands.
You never know. You just never know.