There’s an old song, written by Joseph Brackett in 1848. Brackett was a leader in the Shaker community in Maine in the middle decades of the 19th century. The song goes like this:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come out right.
If you don’t recognize the song, try singing it to the tune that we commonly associate with “Lord of the Dance”. (“Simple Gifts” came first. Brackett wrote the tune for this text.)
Lately, I’ve been thinking more intently about the gift of simplicity.
Let’s face it: life is complicated today. Too complicated, most of us would say. That means that the church is complicated, too. But does it have to be?
Some months ago, I read a book called Simple Church. (You can read my review of it here.) And I’m becoming more convinced than ever that the church needs to regain the simplicity that characterized the first followers of Jesus. Why?
I think the church in general has become so good at being religious, we’ve lost the focus on being the church. Confused? Read on.
Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God (Matthew 4.23), not religion. It was those who were most vocally opposing Jesus who were among the most religious. Even the apostle Paul, in his speech to the philosophers of Athens, offered a backhanded critique of their religiosity (Acts 17.22). Religious activity is human effort. It’s our attempt to have God show up someplace for a prescribed reason.
Being the church is different. Being the church is living as those called out for the purpose of building the kingdom of God. And if the New Testament is any witness, building the kingdom of God comes through serving others. Simply.
Let’s not, though, confuse the church as a serving body with a service club. Service clubs have a place, but it’s not the same place as that of the church. The church serves others in response to the love with which God has filled our hearts by faith.
Sadly, some people – perhaps many people – see their responsibility in the church as occupying a seat each week and “being fed”. While we can’t negate the importance of strong pulpit teaching on Christian development, if we see our sole responsibility in that passive way, we will lose sight of the serving role to which God calls the church.
Fulton Sheen was Archbishop of Canterbury at one time in the Church of England. He was known for saying that “the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” That is, we exist to serve, not to be served – just as Jesus, the Son of Man, “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45, NIV).
But, you may be thinking, doesn’t all this serving just complicate the church even more? It can, but it doesn’t have to.
If your church has a mission, a vision, a purpose – something on which it intentionally hangs its ministries – then serving can be simple. Make that mission the filter through which you strain every ministry opportunity. Engage only in those that make it through the filter; those are the ministries, the serving opportunities, that God has set out for you.
Imagine with me what the world would look like if every church in every place knew its God-given vision, and acted accordingly – with a serving heart instead of a religious bent. It would be a simple way to be the church. And God’s kingdom would grow!