The Americanization of the congregation

"The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it. I was astonished to learn in one of the best-selling books that the size of my church parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching. I was being lied to and I knew it.

This is the Americanization of the congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesial business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.

But this was worse. The pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity violated everything—scriptural, theological, experiential—that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me as far worse than the earlier erotic and crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life to which the church had ordained me—something on the order of a vocational abomination of desolation."

-Eugene Peterson
The Pastor: A Memoir pp 112-3

Blessed are the Merciful

image1. Where does mercy come from?

The first three beatitudes in verses 3–5 describe the emptiness of the blessed person: poverty-stricken in spirit (v3), grieving over the sin and misery of his condition (v4), and accepting the hardships and accusations of life in meekness without defensiveness (5)..

This condition of blessed emptiness is followed in verse 6 by a hunger and thirst for the fullness of righteousness. Then come three descriptions of how righteousness shows itself in the life of the hungry. Mercy (v7), purity (8), and peace-making (v9).

So the answer to the first question is that mercy comes from a life that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses us with is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is vital that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

2. What Is Mercy?

Or: what is a merciful person like? I have tried to find where mercy is contrasted with its opposite. First let’s look at Matthew 9:10–13.

And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

Mercy Contrasted to Sacrifice

This is a quote from Hosea 6:6 where God accuses the people that their love is like the dew on the grass. It is there for a brief morning hour, and then is gone, and all that is left is the empty form of burnt offerings.

The point is that God wants his people to be alive in their hearts. He wants them to have feelings of affection toward him and mercy toward each other. He does not want a people who do their religious duties in a perfunctory or merely formal way.

Jesus saw sinners as sick and miserable people in need of a physician, even though they were the rich money movers of the day, the tax collectors. They were sick. He had medicine.

But all that the Pharisees saw was a ceremonial problem with becoming contaminated by eating with sinners. Their life seemed to be a mechanical implementation of rules. Something huge was at stake here. But they could not see it or feel it. They were enslaved to the trivial issues of ceremonial cleanness when eternal sickness was about to be healed.

The opposite of mercy is bondage to religious trivia.

Mercy Contrasted to Straining Out Gnats

Matthew 23:23–24:.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

What is the opposite of mercy? The opposite of mercy is the straining out of gnats.

The lesson we learn is that a great obstacle and enemy to mercy is the preoccupation with trifles in life.

The bondage to triviality is the curse of the unmerciful.

Mercy in the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another illustration of the opposite of mercy is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37.

And behold a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbour as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."

Jesus answers that the persons who will receive the mercy of eternal life are those who have loved God with all their hearts and their neighbour as themselves. In other words, "Blessed are those who are merciful now to their neighbour, for they shall receive the mercy of eternal life in the future."

Here we have a very sharp photograph of mercy and its opposite. Mercy has four dimensions in this story.

First, it sees distress (verse 33: "A Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and he saw him").

Second, it responds internally with a heart of compassion or pity toward a person in distress (verse 33: "When he saw him, he had compassion on him").

Third, it responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress (verse 33: "He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him").

And the fourth dimension of mercy is that it happens even when the person in distress is by religion and race an enemy (verse 33: "But a Samaritan . . . "). A half-breed Jew with a warped religious tradition stops to help the Jew who hates him.

3. Should a Merciful Person Always Show Mercy?

Real life is very complex for Christian people who seriously want live out their faith in a sinful world. What would you answer to these questions?

Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a parent who punishes a child for disobedience instead of turning the other cheek to the child’s insolence?

Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be an employer who pays good wages for excellent work but dismisses irresponsible employees who do shoddy work?

Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a legislator who enacts laws that give stiff penalties for drunk driving and child abuse?

Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be church leader who follow the biblical mandate for church discipline and challenge a member for a public sin?

Each of these four questions corresponds to a sphere of life: the sphere of the family, the sphere of business and economics, the sphere of government and law enforcement, and the sphere of the church. And my answer to the questions is that it is God’s will that as long as this age lasts there be a mingling of mercy and justice in all these spheres.

A Mingling of Both Justice and Mercy in This Age

God’s will is that sometimes we recompense people with what they deserve, whether punishment or reward (call that justice). And God’s will is that sometimes we recompense people with better than what they deserve (call that mercy). In upholding the claims of justice, we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of justice. And in showing mercy we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of mercy.

A biblical parent will usually follow the wisdom that sparing the rod spoils the child (Proverbs 13:24; Ephesians 6:4). But there will be times when a child’s fault will be forgiven without punishment to teach the meaning of mercy and woo the child to Christ.

A biblical judge will usually be scrupulously just by impartially sentencing criminals according to the grievousness of their crimes (Romans 13:4). But there will be times when he will dispense clemency for some greater good.

A biblical employer will usually pay a fair wage and insist on good workmanship (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But there will be times when he will pay more than a person’s work deserves, and go an extra mile, with a sick or aging or distressed or inadequately trained employee.

And a biblical Deacon will call public sin in the church to account and exercise discipline and even exclusion from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:1–13), but will also remember the parable of the wheat and the tares that teaches patience with the imperfection of the church till the end of the age (Matthew 13:24–30).

How Can We Know When to Show One or the Other?

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, "Blessed are the merciful," not, "Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances." We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice. That is, we must be

poor in spirit,

sorrowful for our own sin,

meekly free from defensiveness and self-exaltation,

hungering and thirsting for all that is right to be done,

perceptive of a person’s distress and misery,

feeling pity for his pain,

and making every effort to see the greatest good done for the greatest number.

4. Why will only merciful people find mercy from God in the judgment day, if salvation is by grace through faith?

The text (Matthew 5:7) says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In other words, in the age to come when we meet God face to face, the people who will receive mercy from him are people who have been merciful.

Is this a salvation by works? Do we earn his mercy by our mercy? No, because an "earned mercy" would be a contradiction in terms. If mercy is earned, it is not mercy; it’s a wage. Be assured, if we get anything good at the judgment, it will be mercy, 100% mercy!

When God asks for a record of your mercy at the judgment day, he will not be asking for a punched time card. You won’t say, "Here it is. Eight hours of mercy. Now where’s my wage?"

Instead, God will be asking for your medical charts. You will hand them to him in all lowliness and meekness, and there he will read the evidences of how you trusted him as your divine Physician, and how the medicine of his Word and the therapy of his Spirit took effect in your life because you relied on them to heal you of your unmerciful disposition. And when he sees the evidence of your faith and his healing, he will complete your healing and welcome you into the kingdom forever. Therefore, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

The Table in the Neighbourhood

David Fitch posted this fascinating description of how his family use Friday evening meals to develop community.  Many of our church’s reflections last Easter also picked up the same themes:

David’s approach would work well for a missional community but also for any small group wanting to bring fresh life to their time together. It is interesting to see how they engage children by meeting early enough for them to able to participate and still be home for bedtime!

"One important pathway to mission in the neighbourhood is “the meal.” It all starts by someone inviting a few Christians who live in close geographical proximity (neighbourhood) to share a meal at the same time every week.

This may take some doing.

People are reticent to commit to such a thing. You must be persistent to overcome the inertia of isolation. There will be a natural ferreting through people who have no intention of coming out of their isolation. We must be ok with that. We must find the ones who are as hungry as we are.  We must together come to see a vision of life together over time and the richness of the Kingdom that can bring. So I suggest probe as to people’s longings for friendship and connection. Paint pictures of an earlier time when people lived alongside life-long friendships that provided a depth of life that has been lost in the modern landscape.

An extension of the Table.

When we gather to eat, we must make sure to invite people to share this meal as an extension of the forgiveness and renewal in Christ.  As we each bring something to share – a salad, a main dish, a desert – we receive a full meal in return, the blessing of fellowship and the Kingdom. This meal in the neighbourhood is an extension of the Table at the Sunday gathering. This is in stark contrast to eating as individuals sitting and watching television. At the gathering at our house, we have a rule. Everyone must sit around one table (and this can be both a humorous and creative endeavour when the group approaches 20).

And so we pray, invoking Christ’s “special” presence here as we eat. Just as we received of the body and the blood around the Table on Sunday, so now we are opened once again to His forgiveness of sins, the renewal in His Spirit in the New Covenant, the reconciliation between us, the bonding of this way of life in Christ. Christ is present in this space. He has conferred on us a kingdom, not as “the Gentiles” lord it over one another, but as servants living in the overflow of his forgiveness and new life (Luke 22:29). This is shared life in God’s presence.

A rich social dynamic is set into motion.

As we sit around this table, we try to practice a “relaxation,” a ceasing of striving, and letting things be as God is using us in each others lives. Let us listen to each other, be “with” one another. We talk and have wonderful conversation tending to each other’s lives. There is much empathy, affirmation, reflection. There’s nothing programmed here. It’s just people talking. At all costs, we sit around one table, no matter how many of us there are. We are present for one another. There is an awareness that God can use our words to minister, speak truth, share grace and healing. We are reminded as we eat that this meal is an extension of the Table of our Lord.

There comes a time, somewhere around desert and coffee, when the leader proposes a puzzling question. God uses conversation to help us grow and sort out our lives. This puzzling question can focus on our vertical individual life with God, our communal life with one another, or our life with others in the neighbourhood. What is your biggest struggle with God? Why do you come here every Friday night (when our house gathering meets)? How do you spend time “with” the least of these during your week? Often the questions come from the proclamation on Sunday. Often we read a small text from Sunday.  We hear about what’s going on in neighbourhoods so we can pray, help and participate.  There are seasons here. For many months we might have to talk about our life together, our struggles so as to gain a sense of trust, community and friendship. Reaching out to the lost ones in our neighbourhoods may have to wait until we get ourselves “together.”

About 8:30 pm, we call the children together (who usually went off and started playing somewhere else) to pray. They know by now that we end the evening with prayer as one family. We pray for all the things we have heard, that His Kingdom come into our lives as we submit to His reign. At our house it’s Friday night, yet even so, children still need to get home to bed.

All of this has been made possible in the death and resurrection of Christ that we shared on Sunday around the Table. And it is from this Table that the new life can be shared together in Christ for God’s mission in the world. It is from here, that mission springs naturally out of our everyday lives in the neighbourhoods. It is nothing more or nothing less than the practice of living life together in the Kingdom.

What happens here does not stay here.

I have realised that this meal that starts on Sunday, that extends to Friday evening at our home, also extends every time I gather to eat a meal with someone hurting, or lost or struggling in the neighbourhood. Indeed, even to those living outside (or in rebellion to) the grace of God in Christ. When I have that 13th breakfast sandwich at McD’s (with no sauce, no cheese, and on an English muffin – because food must be life giving not life killing!! J ) with someone, I share something special, a space where God is at work to extend grace, forgiveness, renewal of the Holy Spirit between us. Through Jesus Christ. I tell you I have seen it happen over and over again with only me cooperating.

The Table of our Lord was never meant to be sequestered into a maintenance function of the church. It is the start of a subversive relation that undercuts the world’s violence, sin and rebellion. Can we teach this as a missional practice?


I must tell you, I consider what happens at my house on Friday evenings as precious, as central to my life, as the Sunday gathering. It is not possible however without the breaking of the bread/wine (ground zero for God’s mission) that we share there on Sunday! This Table is threefold, it begins at the worship gathering, extends into the home and then the neighbourhood. It offers life that is so rich. Through this “social sacrament” God works to bleed his forgiveness and new life in and through his people to the world. This is not a program to be implemented. This is a practice to be cultivated … of living life together in Christ for His Mission in the world."

Why “go to church”?

We can get into some bad habits for “going to church”.’ David Fitch sets out six bad reasons to “go to church”

Don’t go to church …

Spiritual disciplines are good if they are openings for God to work and shape out lives into Jesus’ life and mission.  When a discipline becomes a  duty, it becomes devoid of life.

If you think being a Christian is what happens in this hour-hour and half  – stop going to church and ask what it means to follow Christ when you don’t go

If you think some problem in your life will be solved or some need met by “going to church” – don’t go! You’ll probably be disappointed. Sometimes needs, physical and otherwise, get met in instantaneous fashion and I heard amazing testimony to that last Sunday. More often there’s some suffering that needs to walked through in the death and resurrection of Christ.

If I get addicted to a certain “feeling good” worship experience – my relationship with God starts to look like just that – an addiction.

We can get a buzz from performing. Something subtle occurs. I can feel better about myself after doing something for God. All our service should be an offering to God out of the gifts he keeps giving.

The preacher is most likely gifted to proclaim but the real spiritual formation happens in the response and the working out of that proclamation.

However, do go to church to SUBMIT TO SOMETHING 
To “go to church” is to submit to something, something bigger than me, something that demands my attention: God and what he is doing in and around me in a people and my community. When I “go to church” I submit to the proclamation of the Word, the fellowship of the Lord’s Table, and praise in sung worship. What I come away with is not more things “to do” but a redirection towards the work of the Spirit and where now I am in a better position to cooperate with God

language, literalists and lemmings

Eugene Peterson in conversation, see video from 13:58ff..  Context is “translation is betrayal“:

  • EP: “..the worst translations are those that try to be literal”
  • Interviewer: “Wasn’t it Luther who said, “Literalists are lemmings’“?
  • EP: “That’s right… We’re translating all the time. Preachers translate Scripture every time they preach. Reading is a type of translating. I have come to believe that people who call for “literal” translations prefer unthinking to thinking. “




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