Monday, August 9, 2010

The Doctrine of Intended Unintended Consequences

I don't know who first said it, but it makes sense: Aim at happiness and you will miss it, but aim at virtue and you will quite possibly have happiness thrown in.

The Christian might say: Aim at happiness and you will miss it, but aim at loving submission to God and others, and you will certainly have joy thrown in. It is an intended unintended consequence. The goal really is joy, but the pathway is not selfish pleasure-seeking, but questing after God and following his way.

Church life is similar. Most every church longs to grow. Growth, we think, means health. Indeed, growth can mean health, but it doesn't always mean health. Some trees grow fast, but are structurally weak, and quick to blow over in a storm. Other trees grow slow, but grow strong. It is no accident that the life-cycle of many mega-churches appears to be one generation.

Far too often, churches think they grow by being attractional: having pretty people and offering every possible service: in short, being a "good" church. It is true: churches do grow that way, at least those that are the best at what they offer. The problem is: there can only be one best, by definition.

Yet , God has purposed that there be many churches. Not every church can be the "best." In fact, aiming to be the best is like aiming at happiness --probably the church will fail, because pride attaches itself to being best, like some voracious lamphrey sucking the life out of its host salmon.

The church should concern itself with "doing good" more than "being good." It should be more concerned about becoming a place that employs the saints with works of kingdom service than a place that exists to meet all their felt needs. If we are doing our job as parents, we are not meeting all our children's felt needs. In fact, the good parent knows that the worst thing he could do for his child is meet all his felt needs. The best thing he can do for his child is to love him, and to train him in the primary virtues --the most primary one being, if Calvin is right, self-denial. It goes without saying that this is done in the warm womb of love, support, encouragement, and loving correction. And, it goes without saying that people will have their needs met, even as they are encouraged to give, as well as receive.

If the church is to become even more a place of joy, then it must be about the way of taking up the cross: a place where the self is denied, and we lose ourselves in service. That sounds glorious, until we realize that service may be cleaning up after floods, or teaching elementary Sunday School. Too many people wait for some grand opportunity of heroic self-sacrifice, when "mundane" kingdom service is right in front of them waiting to be done. In fact, the heroic may be just another opportunity for self-indulgence, when the mundane and seeming unimportant task is the one that requires true self-sacrifice.

What is true for individuals is also true for the church. A church that wants to be noticed is seeking the wrong thing. The church should concern herself with doing good, and leave the results up to God. If the church is busy about kingdom activity --doing good to the least of these, proclaiming the gospel, extending the hand of mercy, and so on-- it may please God to grant her growth, or it may not. That is God's concern, not ours. Yet, there will be a sense of kingdom vitality about a church that does good, whereas the "good church" can all appear rather plastic and shallow.

In fact, the church doing good is just the church being the church. The truth is upheld. Works of mercy ratify the truth of the message. The love that grows in the hearts of the people shows they have been born from above. Their self-denial brings about a satisfaction for which they have sought and longed, but never been able to find in the world, and it pours over the edges of their lives and becomes attractive to others.

That is my prayer for my church.

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