And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left
their nets and followed him.
--Matthew 4:19 NRSV
I’ve had two encounters with healthcare recently that seem like an apt metaphor for the spiritual life. The first has been the medical marvel of the COVID vaccination—two shots and that’s it! The second is my health coach, a part of my new health insurance plan, who provides accountability for me in order to eat better and exercise more. I so badly wish there was a vaccination to help me lose weight, lower my cholesterol and improve my cardiovascular system. Unfortunately, no quick fix exists for this stuff, only a lifestyle change will do. I’d much rather have the quick fix.
When I was a pastor in St. Joseph, MO, I served a mainline Protestant (Disciples of Christ) church whose glory days of crowds and big budgets took place 50-70 years earlier. The booming churches were of the non-denominational megachurch variety. I will admit to “church envy” over their numbers which gave the impression of vitality, but over the course of my time there I discovered those numbers were deceptive. About every year or so, a different one of those non-denominational churches became the “hot” church and a crowd would vacate what quickly became the “previously hot” church for it. A new pastor, a better band, an improved A/V spectacle or a shiny new convenience like a barista in the lobby would draw the not-so-faithful. The “hot” church was not much different than the “hot” new restaurant in town; it drew a crowd until it ceased to be hot or new anymore. St. Joseph was small enough to see this shifting of church memberships. In a larger metropolitan area like Kansas City, however, this kind of church-hopping remains hidden.
When everything in our society is consumer-oriented, people can’t be blamed from viewing their church or even their religion as consumers. We are a society that loves a quick fix in everything from our stock market returns to our weight loss plans. In a society where everything competes to be the best and the newest our attention spans are short. If something doesn’t work, ten more new products are available that promise to do the same thing only better. A church and even Christianity itself is none of these things. It is a lifestyle change not a vaccination.
I grew up viewing the Christian life as a sort of spiritual vaccination: say the right prayer, feel the right feelings and poof, I was a Christian. The type of worship I experienced and the Christianity I was taught was about chasing that initial feeling of vaccination when one gave their life to Christ. I should have known from the language that implored you “to give your life to Christ” that “life” wasn’t a one-time thing but a life-long journey.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him on a journey that lasted their entire lives and asked them to change everything. He didn’t offer a vaccination, a quick fix or a new gizmo to make one’s life easier. I’ve spent my life in the church, yet I still struggle to let go of the concept that my relationship with God is compatible with something I earn or buy. Instead, following Jesus seems more akin to a recovery group for addicts—only the addiction isn’t to drugs or alcohol but self-centered consumerism. Or perhaps following Jesus is closer to undergoing deprogramming from a cult only the cult isn’t a would-be messiah living on a compound somewhere but our cultural values that prize convenience, indulgence and instant stimulation above everything else.
Jesus calls us to a lifestyle change, a complete overhaul that we are never done working on. A Jesus-centered church and a Jesus-centered Christianity is not centered on a minister who operates a cult of personality, a congregation offering to stimulate your appetite for entertainment or a set of beliefs that make you feel like you passed a semester course on God. Instead, the lifestyle involves a commitment to community, relationships of integrity, and spiritual practices which help us to find our security in God alone.
The things that matter in life are not things you buy or one-time experiences but rather life-long commitments to relationships with family, friends and most of all, God. There is no single or even double-dose vaccination for them.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.