For some time now, I have been impressed by this created world that is filled with infinite variety. No snowflake, sunset, or fingerprint is exactly the same. Uniqueness and variety are even more typical of the living world. We have learned that each creature’s make-up is determined by DNA, and that the creature’s DNA not only distinguishes it from any other kind of creature but from every creature of its own kind. DNA is often compared to a set of encyclopedias, though those are less familiar in this age of computers, or perhaps a library. Sexual reproduction takes half of the mother’s library and half of the father’s library to make the library for an entirely new and unique person. Even twins, who have very similar libraries, are not the same.
Indeed, even if I were to be cloned to produce an exact biological duplicate, my clone would quickly develop into a unique individual because he would not grow up in the same environment as I did. Instead of my parents, he’s have me, living in a different house in a different town in a different state. He’d have no mother and no siblings, and none of his extended family would be the same. If I became a loving father and did all the right things, he might embrace many of my values and attitudes. One little but significant mistake or misunderstanding, and he might begin to react against my qualities good and bad. Move on to schooling and friends and a myriad of other life experiences, he would surely become a unique individual however much he might continue to look like me or a fun-house version of me due to his eating habits, physical activities, clothes preferences, body art, piercings, hair cuts and color, and who knows what else by the time 20 years or so have passed.
All of this rests on yet another marvel of complexity, the human brain. Despite all the amazing technological inventions, nothing yet comes anywhere close to the biological organ that manages all the body’s myriad functions and keeps them running relatively flawlessly for as many as 80, 90, 100 or more years! It stores memories of all those years, and more, it learns, allowing a human to gain both skills and knowledge to fuel another wonder of the brain, it’s talents, abilities, and learned skills and habits. We blithely talk of a gift for drawing, pleased with those who have it, but what is it anyway? It is a part of those myriad differences among us, but how do we begin to explain exactly from what, how, or where those areas of giftedness arise?
The world of death is different. Leave a dead bird or an apple for a few months, and much of their uniqueness will have broken down into the same muck. Created from the sameness of dirt, we return to that earthy sameness, all too quickly. The world system is much the same. It prefers all to conform to sameness. That’s why efforts to impose equality inevitably lead to trying to force everyone to be the same, have the same things, earn the same income, have the same choice in foods, and even come to think the same thoughts. Unfortunately, many fail to see the rather creepy influences in the many different programs from our own schools, institutions, and government to say nothing of the developing “mind control” via the Internet and social media.
The Church is not exempt from this stifling influence of conformity. Is it as simple as not understanding the being Christ-like is not being the same? Perhaps, to some extent, it is. However, I strongly suspect that the darkness of the old nature, the old way of thinking, as well as the influence of this fallen world system, are far greater influences than we realize. I find Romans 12:1,2 to be worded in a precisely important way: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” God’s will is to be transformed, not conformed to this world pattern. God’s plan is open-ended; his design is a magnificently diverse Body of originals who each contribute a unique piece to a glorious mosaic. The world’s pattern is lifeless, dull, repetitive, which is exactly what we see where the strongest conforming influences rule.
Even the aspirations of many have been distorted to this world’s pattern, worshiping the external superficiality of celebrity; some, wanting so much to look like their idol, using plastic surgery to change their features. Yet, at the same time, such people are sad, lonely, isolated, and lost. They don’t really fit in, anywhere, because in this world system one piece is as good as another for all are the same. Here again, neither the Church nor the Christian individual are exempt from such thinking. I cringe a bit to remember a church with an internship program where all the interns seemed to look and act like carbon copies of the senior pastor. Yuck!! It is the most natural thing in the world…in this fallen world…for each of us to strive to make others in our image, rather than to promote the freedom for each to find his or her own image, giftedness, and calling. Too many church programs confine the Body to a single vision, perhaps the pastor’s, and thereby crowd out the visions God has given to each individual. A typical response is to say we cannot all go our own ways for that would be chaos; the alternative, however, directed by the will of the Father, would grow into the beauty of his divine master plan
The way of conformity and small vision tends to leave many Christians on the sidelines. We have a quarterback and a team, and the rest must be spectators. Oh, many would gladly plug them into teaching Sunday School, being greeters, or other predefined roles with little creative originality. And, yes, be sure to put your money in the offering. Why just one team, one sport, or one kind of ministry? Well, for one reason, the pastor cannot control much more than one team; and, to be sure, most pastors are control freaks! Why is that? Churches demand so much from pastors that only control freaks have any chance of getting it all done! The troubling questions are whether they’re really doing what needs to be done, whether workaholics are the best choices for ministry, whether God needs leaders to impose their flawed judgments on the work, or whether the remarkable gifts he has given each of us require the supervision or control of someone besides the Lord himself.
Ironically, congregations run by control freaks with one small team of workers accomplish far less than the organic body created by God. The Church established by God on the blood of His Son empowers every member with gifts for ministry. Forget ministerial careers in the Church; after all Paul was a tent-maker, and Jesus was a carpenter, along with fishermen and so on. Employment doesn’t matter as long as we stop separating God’s people into laity and clergy—second class versus first class—and as long as a career is not allowed to crowd out Jesus and his people (and I include careers in ministry!). What would a congregation look like that give each person permission to follow their individual interests into a service calling? How might such an activated people make connections with similarly interested and gifted folks outside the Body yearning for a fulfillment that desire but have never found?
Some would have us look back to the early Church for our pattern, instead of more recent traditions. Why? We’ve already “been there, done that!” The early Church may well have suited those times, but we live in very different times now. A house church may have worked in those primitive times, and church buildings at the center of communities worked in later times. I think the Church for today has yet to be fully realized, but I suspect it will be a multimedia Church, keeping God’s people connected online as well as in person. Instead of a church for one entire community, perhaps it will a church of community clusters. Is there any need for a thousand people in a single, costly building any longer? Do such facilities enhance our outreach? How about a Church that really emphasized “love your neighbor as yourself,” encouraged by neighborhood fellowships, guided by a body of elders, who work together as a team? I love to preach, but is that the ideal method for edifying the Church today?
It seems to me that the American Church that once featured so much dynamic individuality has morphed into something with a tepid sameness. Why are we all singing the same music, for the most part? Have we finally discovered the music of angels, come to earth? I don’t think so. Youth culture of a sort has been creeping into the Church since my troubled generation began questioning everything. Did they have a valid reason for their discontent? I believe they may have, but they didn’t find a solution but rather something equally dissatisfying. In seeking to escape the stifling conformity of the previous generation(s), they created a brand new kind of stifling conformity. Hymns, choirs, and organ music are not bad, but neither are they sanctified, any more than guitars, drums, and worship teams.
Part of the challenge is trying to fit all of our spiritual education, exhortation, and expression into a single hour or so, every Sunday. Does that have any connection whatever to the Fourth Commandment? Is it more closely related to first day celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection? How can our current traditions satisfy the Body concept of the Church. A body is physically connected, not as a distant metaphor, but as a dynamic reality. How much connecting can we accomplish in that one hour where we barely even get the chance to say a few words? Our ties together in Christ should provide us the model for our family and relational ties, but sadly many of our relationships and families are falling apart for lack of that example. Paul tells us, “in honor prefer one another,” which would seem to define a closeness one step greater than “love your neighbor as yourself.” How can we possibly experience this in our highly structured, largely passive hour per week?
Permit me to take a brief side track. Churches of growing spiritual relationships perhaps should be models for families, but that also works in reverse. The Bible uses the family as a metaphor for the Church; Jesus is the head of the family of brothers and sisters. That said, much of the understanding of human uniqueness applies to human family relationships as well. Mothers and fathers are blessed with children who may be similar but not identical to Mom or Dad or Uncle Joe! (I’ve often chuckled to hear “grandma” say of her newborn grandchild, “He looks just like his father!” [most likely her son]. Really? Looks like a baby to me!) I’m aware of at least two problems that can arise from such assumption of likeness. On the negative side, your son is not “just like” your ex, the child’s perhaps notorious father. What a horrible curse to pronounce over your child! Familial similarities including faults may need to be worked on, but this is not the way. In fact, this is a recipe for encouraging the very issue or behavior that is undesired. On the other side, not positive really, your child is not just like you. I’ve seen parents trying to live out their dreams in a child, imposing their lost hopes onto a son or daughter who needs to find their own vision for the future. I knew one case where a daughter was struggling with mental health issues whose mother, who had struggled with her own problems, said, “I know exactly how you feel.” As you might guess, it didn’t help. All of us need to be wary of assuming what we have experienced is truth for someone else instead of actually listening to learn and understand their feelings and experiences. Indeed well developed listening skills and a commitment to listening is essential to relating in a world of unique individuals, whether they’re your children, your co-workers, your friends, your fellow believers, your “significant other,” or your spouse of many years. In this crucial area, what is needed in churches is also needed in communities, workplaces, and families, and what is needed in families is needed in churches. Furthermore, any group of individuals like a family will be unique compared to any other, as they combine the many unique qualities of individuals into a hopefully cohesive, loving whole, whether a marriage, a family, or a congregation.
Not surprisingly, different family systems can make life difficult for newlyweds and for in-laws. At first, each new spouse is something of an outsider in their wife’s or husband’s family of origin. Some adjust or adapt better than others. Similarly, joining a new church can also be an adjustment or an excuse for complaint or worse. Please, don’t misunderstand. Despite my concerns expressed above, I can fit into most congregations, and I’m not a trouble-maker. I am committed to “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and I won’t set myself against that in any way. However, two problems seem rather clear to me. One problem is that most people aren’t hearing a message from the Church that attracts them; somehow it fails to relate to a need they perceive in their own lives and hearts, even though most know that something is missing. The other problem is that most people in the Church also know that something is missing, and sadly many are trying to fill it with this world’s false promises—sex, money, pleasure, happiness. Something similar may explain some divorce and the growth of family disintegration.
Where is the good news of the Gospel? Why isn’t it generally perceived as “good news”? Why doesn’t “Get saved and come to church” grab people? Why doesn’t “Come to church and get saved?” make people hungry for God? The glorious Creator wants to reconnect to his most wondrous creature made in his own image and to restore the wonder in the lives of those lost creatures, but we have buried that message in a stifling tradition of anything but wonder. Jesus said he came that we might have life, “and have it more abundantly!” What do you suppose that means in the light of our unique, individual personalities and giftedness? Personally, I like listening to and singing choral music because it stirs that sense of wonder and mystery in my soul, but I don’t expect that to be the same for everyone. If we crowd out choral music, then the Church will miss those folks like me. However, with the varieties of personalities, temperaments, and gifts, a church of only choral music would miss a lot of other folks, as would any other single focus (This is why immigrant churches either integrate into the local language and community within a generation or so or slowly die).
Can all that variety from individual preferences and interests exist in one local body? I doubt it, but then why do we need one congregation? We already have numerous congregations. Why not simply let them develop around the gifts and tastes of each group, each remaining flexible as new people become connected. Let’s stop demanding a one-size-fits-all sort of ministry or emphasis, and let’s give up our pretensions of having all the truth and all the answers. Let’s cease our competing for the existing flock and begin birthing new lambs to join us. Let’s rejoice in the group that finds mystery in chants and liturgy, and let’s celebrate the group that revels in the closeness of campfire style songs on Sunday morning. Let’s call each other brother, and help lost people find their place of worship and service, not where they’re expected to “fit in,” but where they may help expand that vitality and creativity of the group.
I hope you’ve noticed that I haven’t offered all the answers. In fact, I haven’t even begun to ask all the questions. I don’t even know what they all may be. I also hope you’ve noticed that I’m not questioning the Word of God. Truth is truth, and I believe the framework of diversity and variety I’ve sketched out are true. The methods and practical applications, however, are as wide open as they are when we cross borders or oceans to another culture. Saying that, I need to add one more word of caution. We must stop being so rigid and inflexible; this means we must stop placing our security in the environment or the style of church we do. I remember the grumpy oldster who complained when I used a new hymn in a service instead of the old familiars, when that “new hymn” had been penned centuries earlier. When we demand that “church” stay the way “we like it,” we guarantee that few new people will ever become a part of it. That’s the real challenge we face and why we must restore the sense of varied and diverse giftedness to a Church of a multitude of expressions for a world that is trapped in the curse of sameness. In such a Church, lost people will find the truth that will set them free.
I issue a similar challenge to couples, parents, and families. Life and life circumstances impose enough inflexibility upon us without adding rigidity and control to our various relationships. I could go on for paragraphs, but I’ll summarize with this: learn to enjoy, appreciate, and celebrate the uniqueness, gifts, skills, original thinking, and creativity of those you love. Don’t try to control or change them. Don’t forget they are not your property; you don’t own them. Find security and contentment in being your own unique self and enjoying the unique selves of those you love and even those you may not necessary even like. That is what love is, after all.