Have you noticed how many crime novel and movie plot characters there are on the inside of an organization helping criminals gain access to the valuables? Every time a bank is robbed, investigators automatically ask employees questions like, “Do you have huge debt?” or “How did you pay for that fancy car?” or “Can you really afford to live in such an upscale neighborhood?” You get the idea. Investigators know how difficult robbing a bank is without someone on the inside providing key information and helping crooks gain access to the money.
I saw this formula play out in a 2015 movie Joan and I watched recently—Heist. The lead character Luke Vaughn’s daughter is very ill and needs surgery. Hospital bills are mounting; she will be discharged if past due bills aren’t paid immediately. Vaughn is desperate to help his child and asks his boss, casino owner Mr. Silva, for a $300,000 loan. “The Pope” has a rule against this practice and without hesitation declines. Vaughn begs the hospital for an extension as he desperately tries to think of a way to find the funds to save his daughter’s life.
With the help of his co-worker Cox, Vaughn makes a plan to rob the casino vault. Vaughn and Cox know how money is handled, what security measures are in place, and they know the best time to strike. It’s an inside job! (Spoiler alert: After multiple harrowing experiences that almost get him killed, Luke Vaughn secures the money, pays the hospital bill, his daughter is rushed to surgery, and she is healed! For Vaughn’s family, Heist has a happy ending.)
Why recount a movie plot about an “inside job” when, most of the time, “inside job” refers to people inside a system who help criminals break the law? Today, I’m going to use the phrase “inside job” to explore what is happening inside many faith communities we love and support.
How often do you hear well-meaning, church-going Christians point to outside forces for what ails the church: media, government, legislation, politicians, etc.? Maybe you’ve heard statements like, “They are taking away our freedoms” or “They denigrate our values and convictions” or “They make us look ignorant for believing the Bible.” Debating who says what and trying to blame “them” are exercises in futility. My conviction is nothing outside the church can destroy the church. Even Jesus said, “The gates of hell won’t prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Plainly stated, what destroys the witness of local congregations is an inside job! What happens inside the church either energizes or destroys the witness of a local body!
Following are some “inside job” concerns for local churches. (Question: How many of the challenges listed have anything to do with outside forces?):
- Choosing to read the Bible to determine who is in and who is out rather than allowing the Bible to read us, shape, and form us in the likeness of Jesus.
- Choosing to invest our best time and energy in maintaining an institution instead of becoming a dynamic movement of God’s Spirit.
- Continuing to say “no” to the direction Spirit is blowing because it makes people uncomfortable.
- Choosing cultural norms over the Jesus Way.
- Choosing judgment and judgmental attitudes over love, grace, and mercy.
- Choosing to exclude people based on our understanding of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.”
- Choosing a legalistic approach to “religion” instead of embracing the call to become beloved community.
- Choosing isolation over becoming a more inclusive body that welcomes and offers radical hospitality to strangers.
- Choosing to align with political parties and ideologies to accomplish kingdom goals (it doesn’t work).
- Embracing certitude over mystery.
- Embracing unfettered consumerism over simple lifestyles.
- Allowing fear to supersede love.
Consider a powerful biblical example. Read Mark 2:23-3:6. You will recognize that both stories happen on Sabbath: Jesus and his disciples picking and eating grain and healing a man with a withered hand. Reflect on the contrasting attitudes and informing theology of the Pharisees and Jesus. Bob Ekblad in A New Christian Manifesto—Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God uses these phrases/words to describe the Pharisees: judging, impersonal, laws more important than people, dishonest, suspicious, accusing, legalistic, not compassionate, uncaring, use the Bible for setting rules, out to get you, and self-righteous. In other words, the Pharisees appeared to value order, control, knowing and following the rules, and compliance.
On the other hand, Ekblad describes Jesus’ approach in this way: forgiving, personal, people more important than laws, transparency, free, defending, loving, compassionate, uses the Bible for defending the weak, feeds and heals, angry at silence, and grieves over hardness of heart. In other words, Jesus values freedom, life, love, meeting people’s needs, food, forgiveness, and confronting injustice.
I hope it goes without saying, Jesus’ theological perspective reflects how God sees the world and people in it. The Pharisees knew the Law backward and forward and supposedly possessed keen insight into what God is like and what God demands. Yet, they chose attitudes and actions in opposition to God’s will and intent. Legalistic understanding was determined to be more important than love. It was an inside job, and the Pharisees could only blame themselves for this exercise in missing the point!
How about a more contemporary example? Look no farther than current political unrest, societal division, and our assumptions “they, out there” are the problem and are causing disunity inside the church. Rather than searching for ways to embody Jesus and love God and neighbor, we seek simplistic answers and mistakenly assume a person or a party is the “problem.” We form political alliances believing we alone possess the truth. We feel strong and courageous when we unite with others who see things our way and are eager to work for our causes….an us vs. them approach. Soon we start rationalizing the end justifies the means and are willing to “sell our souls for a bowl of porridge.” If we aren’t careful, we tether ourselves to ideals opposite kingdom values we say we embrace. We are commanded to “seek first the kingdom…then all these things will be added unto you.” In polarizing times, these words from Jesus must become our life mantra.
No one and no thing can force the church to reject its God-given vision and mission to impact the world. No political party can cause the church to abandon its call to serve the least of these. No outside force can compel the church to turn away from its purpose to build beloved community. Only folks inside the church can reject (or accept) God’s call to unconditional love and the Jesus Way. It truly is an inside job. So, I encourage you to stop looking outside for the sources of your problems and challenges. Search your souls and make the informed and holy decision to live and love like Jesus, then leave the rest to God!