It often happens that the conversations I have with other brethren before (to say nothing of after) services has a strong connection with the sorts of material and approach that come in a message. Very often people are thinking about the same subjects, and what is said in the pulpit can be closely connected to that which comes from the peanut gallery. It so happened that this was the case with the two split sermons from the General Conference of Elders this year, but not in a straightforward way. And to explain that I will briefly discuss some of the material from two conversations I had with older brethren before services, as they related to the way that I thought about the message. On the drive to services, I chatted with my roommate (as I often do) and he commented that there was a great deal of instruction about mindfulness that was teaching children to become susceptible to malign spiritual influence via Buddhist meditation and that someone should speak on that from the pulpit, and I agreed with him, having read often about mindfulness in my reading about anxiety and the worldly attitude towards treating it through shady Eastern religious practices. Shortly before services began I was speaking with an elderly lady in our congregation who was a former neighbor of mine when I lived near Washington Square Mall, and she was talking about the way that one of her daughters had found a new congregation and fellowship she is now attending far friendlier and more loving and encouraging to her Bible study than the congregation she previously attended in Denver. We lamented the division within the Church of God and the sort of rivalries that various leaders have that has led to a proliferation of rival organizations that preach very similar doctrines but that focus on twiggy matters to differentiate themselves from others.
Intriguingly enough, one of the speakers of the split sermons today discussed the lack of unity among the Church of God as a whole in the context of explaining Ephesians 4 and he blamed the lack of unity on brethren seeking unusual doctrines that differentiate themselves from others. I found this to be rather amusing, since Ephesians 4 considers the legitimacy of various offices within the church like teacher and evangelist and so on to be related to the building up of brethren (edification and all that) so that they would no longer be vulnerable to the shifting winds of false doctrine. Or, to put it more bluntly, if ministers were doing a better job at teaching God’s ways and strongly contrasting it with the world’s ways, people would be less vulnerable to the many false doctrines that are around us. To be sure, it is a hard task to be aware of false doctrines as well as true doctrines and to make sure that brethren are getting all of the solid doctrinal instruction that is necessary, but that is the job of these ministers who made up the most conspicuous part of today’s audience. Why not light a fire under them and remind them of the importance of their job and of the reality that they may not be doing as a good a job at it as they think they are?
After all, the speakers showed no hesitation about trying to light a fire under the members. Indeed, in listening to the message (as I was furiously typing out a reasonable transcript of the message for our deaf member), I got the distinct feeling that the speakers, especially the second one, viewed the membership that was listening to the message as some recalcitrant cow that was stuck in the middle of the road that needed to be moved to another path. There was plenty of tough love being offered to remind members not to follow their emotions and that the gap between head knowledge and practice when it came to godly living was unacceptable. And indeed it is, among members as well as the ministry. Indeed, in listening to the message I got the distinct feeling that a message like this would be far easier to take if it was shown by example rather than preached in words. Admittedly I am a person for whom the acquisition of head knowledge is quite easy, and so I tend to be more sensitive than most people are to the mocking or trivialization of head knowledge. More to the point, my own personal experience and the struggles of my own life have demonstrated to me at least that there are some gaps that exist between head knowledge and successful application, and that requires a great deal of practical knowledge about how to go about practicing God’s way. It is one thing to preach that we should speak the truth with love, but it is entirely another to know how to do that successfully.
And I would argue that the speakers did not do a conspicuously good job of this. It is hard to give tough love, though it is very popular to want to give it. If one wants to successfully deliver tough love, though, one must pay a great deal of attention to the recipient. If someone does not feel loved, they will find what is labeled as tough love to be abusive and will not respond particularly helpfully to it. We may want to motivate someone to change so that they behave in ways that match with God’s laws and with their own professions of their character, but urging people to change and nagging and needling people to change may only lead them to seek the company and approval of those who make fewer demands on them. I must admit that I did not know the speakers today particularly well, and I could tell that they were trying to urge members to hold on to the truth and to practice it better and to take more responsibility for knowing and living God’s way than has been done in the past, but I did not feel particularly loved by the messages given. I felt irritated and a bit put upon, which is common enough in such messages, but I did not feel loved.
Mind you, I do not feel it is necessary to feel loved to recognize when one has changes and improvements to make in life, and God knows we all have enough things in our life that need improvement and growth so that we can become more like our heavenly Father and elder brother. I did feel that these messages were a bit of a missed opportunity though, in that they were directed an audience that did not know them and therefore did not necessarily feel the love that the speakers purported to have in urging and motivating the members. It would have been far more profitable, in my own not-so-humble-opinion, for the ministers to focus on motivating the ministers who were there in person (and watching from their home congregations), who know them better, to be better examples of godly living and to build up the members of their own congregations. As I mentioned earlier, message that sought to light a fire under the ministers and pointed to ways that ministers can and should do better would have had a most encouraging result on the morale of the member watching a message like this, without serving to embarrass anyone personally. As is often the case, though, my own thoughts about such messages are shots fired from the peanut gallery. Hopefully they may be taken as a refusal to be complacent in a state of widespread malaise.