We have a foosball table in the basement of our home. In case the game is unfamiliar to you, let me offer a brief description. A rectangular, wooden box sits on top of a table. The box creates an arena in which lines of plastic players square off to score goals, similar to soccer. The plastic players are attached to long metal rods which protrude from the sides of the table. Foosball participants move their players by twisting the rods. Foosball participants maneuver their players in efforts to place a little ball in their opponent’s goal. The first player to ten goals wins.
I like to play foosball with my kids. The games are always intense as our family tends to be competitive about most things. Two different styles are on display when I play my kids. The kids employ a high-energy technique that requires a lot of motion. They spin their people at a frenetic pace. Their players spin head over heels, or heels over head, faster than a roller coaster. If those little plastic players had stomachs we would need to call for cleanup at the foosball table. The frenzied foosball practiced by my children results in powerful goals and highlight film action (though I confess that I’ve never seen foosball highlights on ESPN).
On the other hand, I play at a more leisurely and intentional pace. I don’t try to crush the ball with every shot, but I work to place the ball purposively every time I touch it. While they strive to speed the game up, I seek to slow it down. I maneuver the ball with slight twists as opposed to exaggerated spins. I try to place the ball strategically in order to score goals and win the game. Do I win all the time? No, but more often than not I do. They score goals and when they score it is powerful. However, I am typically able to come back once I have slowed the game down enough to place the ball between their spinning players. Their method majors on motion but often minimizes precision.
Many churches do ministry at the pace that my children play foosball. These churches subscribe to the philosophy of constant motion. They offer many quality activities and they keep people very busy. At these churches, announcements take twenty minutes and the church bulletin is coated with ink. Church members could potentially attend a church function every day of most weeks. Is the busy church successful in carrying out God’s mission? Or do they major on motion while minimizing precision?
Unfortunately, the busy church typically produces more weary church members than mature disciples. Constant motion contradicts the image that Jesus communicated in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The busy church perverts the message of Jesus and says, “Come to me and I will make you weary and burdened, good luck finding any rest. Take my yoke upon you and you will see that I expect you to be active constantly so that you can find busyness for your souls. For my yoke is challenging and my burden will likely overwhelm you.”
In order to reduce the amount of busyness in our churches, we should consider the cause of this epidemic. Why do churches embrace the methodology of constant motion?
1. Lack of clear purpose – Most church members and many church leaders cannot clearly articulate the reason their church exists. They do not know why they exist or what they are called to accomplish. Lacking a clear sense of purpose, churches assume that they should do good things for God. Therefore, every proposed program is accepted because it could help the church do good things for God. Defining purpose helps the church determine direction. Purpose serves as a gatekeeper. Any program or activity that does not clearly accomplish the church’s purpose should not be accepted.
2. Failure to evaluate – Lacking purpose, (described above), most churches handle evaluation poorly if they engage in evaluation at all. Programs and activities cannot be evaluated because no one can define what the programs are supposed to accomplish. Every program is acceptable if the generic concept of doing good things for God is the only standard. Churches will also establish the program’s goal after the program starts. Rather than defining the purpose of a program or activity in advance, church leaders will wait to see what the program accomplishes and then declare it a success. In this manner, programs that should accomplish evangelistic purposes often morph into social gatherings for believers. In spite of the change in purpose, the program is rated a success because the people enjoy spending time together.
3. Inability to eliminate – Churches save programs and activities like hoarders. Once programs start, churches rarely stop them. The inability to eliminate derives directly from the previous two issues of purpose and evaluation. If a church lacks purpose, then all programs might be beneficial at some point. Thus, no programs are eliminated. Likewise, if a church fails to evaluate or evaluates superficially, then the church has no grounds to eliminate programs. Failure to eliminate also occurs because church members and leaders don’t want to offend anyone. Most programs have a champion that will support the program and carry it when necessary. Rather than eliminating the program and risk offending the program’s champion, most leaders will allow subpar programs that do not accomplish the church’s purpose to continue.
4. Legalism – Perhaps the most frightening reason that churches promote busyness over intentional ministry is the legalism that festers just below the surface in the minds of many believers. Legalism causes church members to believe that they must do a certain number of good things in order to be accepted by God. What better way to do good things, than to participate in church activities? So, like a dog attempting to earn treats from its master, the church member clamors from one activity to the next hoping to earn the favor of God. Church leaders occasionally encourage these legalistic tendencies by concluding an announcement for a new program or activity by saying or implying, “If you are a good Christian, then you will come.”
5. Consumerism – Contemporary culture majors in consumerism. Businesses focus on customer service and work diligently to give the customer what they want. Some churches allow the same philosophy to influence their programming. These churches attempt to offer something for everyone. The danger here is that in some instances attempting to offer something for everyone actually results in watered down programs that turn people off rather than promote attendance. There are inherent dangers in giving people what they want. In my last pastorate, we faced an important decision concerning a change in programming. Some leaders feared that church members would not like the change. They even came to meetings with anonymous statements from church members indicating that they preferred the existing programs. I repeatedly reminded the church leadership that leaders are called to give people what they need, not necessarily what they want.
How are these factors forcing your church into constant motion? Remember, Jesus didn’t call us to spin like acrobats on a trapeze. Think about ways that you can slow the pace of your church to better reflect the image Jesus provided in Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
If you are looking for a resource that might help you slow the pace of your church, take a look at Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger. Simple Church addresses the issue of busyness in the church and offers practical suggestions on how to simplify the pace of your church.
Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.