“I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it.” – 1 Corinthians 3:2
Over the past two years, I have thought a great deal about the twelve models of marketplace ministries I identified in two earlier essays: An Overview of Marketplace Ministry (MPM) Models and Bridge Ministry: The Twelfth MPM Model. As a result of review, I have separated these twelve models into two discipleship categories. One I identify as inward discipleship and the other as outward discipleship, as shown here:
Inward Discipleship Outward Discipleship
Workplace Discipleship Business-as-Mission
Executive / Business Leader Discipleship Tentmaking
Financial Stewardship Advocacy and Mobilization
Enterprise Coaching and Mentoring
Community Development Corporations
There is an obvious 3:1 disparity between the lists, and that is as it should be. Christ-followers should move beyond the Bible studies and small group discussions of theological and ethical issues to begin spending their time, energy, and resources in outward demonstrations of Christ ministering to the world. I would venture to guess, however, that the number of organizations that fall into the first column, and correspondingly the number of participants that fall into the first column, outnumber those in the second easily by a factor of twenty times or more.
My argument is that the first column, where most of us spend the bulk of our religious commitments, represents the milk of the Gospel, to use Paul’s term. The first question then is, why is this milk? It is because sitting under the teaching of another in the Word is for our nurture, the exercise required initially to bring us to maturity in Christ. In these Bible studies, small group discussions, and Sunday sermons, we receive the teaching that helps us grow to the ability to eat meat, or, again as Paul puts it, solid food.
How then does the activity of the second column represent solid food? It does so because it is precisely that: active. The milk of the Gospel, the knowledge of God in Christ, instills strength in us to grow and to begin crawling, then walking, then running, and finally moving out from our rabboni, our teacher, to undertake the implications of the teaching. When we put ourselves into the game of actively ministering to the world (eating the meat), continue to gain strength as the very life force of God, the Holy Spirit, works in us to work through us.
So long as we continue to only intake milk, our bodies will not gain the strength necessary to carry out the Great Commandment, to love one another (in tangible ways, rather than simply by emotional commitment), and the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations (teaching others to move from milk to meat). We will simply continue to return to the source of milk week after week, year after year, to an end of impotent, inwardly-focused ministry.
Unfortunately, this has become the plight of most of the Church in the Western world. We continue in a shallow understanding of what it means to worship God by limiting that calling to Church services or superficial activities within our own church establishment. We do not typically understand the works set before us to glorify God (Matthew 5:16) as a form of worship, but it is by the very nature of obedience.
The solid food of the Gospel replicates the Incarnation of Christ. It moves Christ followers outside the security of the arms of the mother (the Church as the bride of Christ) for each to undertake ministry to others in the world, just as Jesus sent his disciples out, just as Jesus set aside the “comfort zone” of his divinity to come unto humankind, unto the Cross.
Hebrews 5:12-14 repeats Paul’s admonition then goes on to say those mature in Christ should be able to discern good and evil. How do those concepts – good and evil – play into this dichotomy of partaking food versus partaking solid food? The goodness of God always moves outwardly and creates. Evil withdraws into self, and wreaks destruction, perhaps in a withering away of the vital, divine energy manifest in those created in God’s image. Good is not simply a character definition. It is more because character is ultimately defined by one’s action. We know that God is good by the testimony of his actions. We know people are courageous by their strength in the face of adversity. Character always manifests in action and action, as solid food, continues to shape character, reinforcing what has been learned by rote by adding the fibrous layers of experience.
If there is any doubt as to the correlation between moving onto solid food and taking action in the cause of Christ, compelled by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, simply read James 2:14-26. Then read it again and again and again until the truth of faith at work sinks in. Creation itself stands as the first clear biblical assertion that the love of God moves outwardly, in action, creating, especially as provisional allowance for “other” (what we might label “charitable action”). True love cannot be contained by thoughts, words, or heartfelt sentiments. It must act because it is the very central characteristic of love to act. In a sense, love is a form of intelligent energy.
But why is the Church, again, predominantly in the West, so arrested in this development? There are, I think, three main reasons, though to be sure there are many other related causes. The first is isolation. The Church in the United States, for example, is oft accused of operating the most racially-segregated hour of the week every Sunday morning. The vast majority of churches are racially homogenous, or at least nearly so. However, if any institution in the world should be fighting against bigotry and racism and for integration, it should be the institution made up of every tribe and tongue and nation – the Church. Sadly the Church has not embraced the war on racism and the surrounding culture still largely lives in communities of social isolation. Blacks live in black neighborhoods, Hispanics cluster, whites tend toward areas dominated by white population, and so on. To be sure there is more racial blending now than there has ever been but we still have a long way to go.
Why would I turn this discussion to race? Because poverty is an actionable need in the world, one where the Church should be leading in alleviating efforts, and poverty changes dramatically across racial lines. Is it any wonder that our cities have pockets of poverty that often look nearly homogenous racially?
But what motivates the isolation? A friend recently published a graphic with two distinct circles that did not intersect. Inside was written “Your Comfort Zone.” Inside the other was written “Where the Action Is.” Our comfort zones, which include clustering according to financial security (income and wealth distribution), educational achievement (well-educated people tend to live in more upscale neighborhoods, and it is easy to understand why), and race, are just that: comfortable. Birds of a feather flock together. Our comfort zones reduce the stress of being exposed to alternative worldviews and standards of living. But they also hinder the growth we might achieve by facing the challenges of living and communicating across social barriers with neighbors unlike ourselves.
Some of that isolation comes from pure selfishness. Without exposure to those in need, we can limit the sense of obligation or guilt we might face in light of making self-indulgent market choices, like fine dining, expensive entertainment, opulent housing, or expensive luxury automobiles. Hence, I can feel less the sense of my own unrighteousness if I am not in much contact with real need. I believe the Bible would lead us to see this, continuously sinning against the shalom of the whole community, as a searing of the conscience (self-justification, 1 Timothy 4:2).
Our isolation leads us into the second reason, like smoke calming bees, complacency. Most of our acts of charity are conducted as arms length from those in need. Without direct contact to see how little our benevolence actually changes things, we become self-satisfied that we are doing good and must therefore be good. But goodness, in a biblical sense, goes far beyond make small cash sacrifices or handing out sandwiches and bottled water once a month. The Bible, in following the example of Jesus, asks us to lay down our lives for others (John 15:13), that this sacrifice of our time, resources, and energy is the acme of what it means to love in accord with the divine nature, character, and will of God. Real sacrifice, not just making token tithes and offerings, sacrifice that costs us something substantial, causing some real “pain” on some level, is the biblical definition of the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Complacency is self-indulgent but comes as a soothing balm, even seemingly as a blessing from God. But it is ultimately a deceptive strategy of God’s enemy, Satan.
How do we find ourselves in such comfortable places of unchallenged, homogenous churches and complacent lifestyles? This is due in large part to our willingness to accept a superficial reading of the Bible and seek out leaders who will simply feed us milk. It is easiest for us if we do not have to undertake the hard work of leaving our comfort zones. Therefore it makes perfect sense that we would prefer to hear from teachers who will give us enough nourishment to sustain life but without asking us to chew anything that requires effort. Think about it for a moment. Drinking milk is easy. Chewing stringy vegetables or sinewy meat takes time, effort, patience, and energy. This does not coincide with our lifestyles of leisure, time-saving, and convenience. We want paths laid out that are trouble free, that cost us nothing, especially sacrificially.
Poor (shallow, half-truth) teaching which does not point toward the life of the Church outside institutional walls is simply reinforcing what we want to hear. Poor teaching appeals to our fleshly nature but is wrapped in sermonic platitudes that please the ear. And so, we attain unto a form of godliness but without the power of true godliness (2 Timothy 3:5). Real godliness affects change in the world, not just in individual lives but in cultures and institutions, in economies and national governments. The Church has abdicated much of its power to influence the world for Christ, as a living testimony (or witness) participating in the mission of God, by adhering not to necessarily false teachings but to the Word diluted.
To conclude, I want to bring this back around to the discussion of the marketplace ministry models that led into my offering. Every human being has some connection to the marketplace and the marketplace represents the greatest opportunity to put experience, education, and expertise (the “Three E’s” of vocation) to work for the Gospel. There is at least one discipline in the “second column” marketplace ministries listed above where Christians can leverage their Three E’s to make the world a better place, as witness to the glory of God.
To utilize our Three E’s will require creative thinking (chewing the meat, so to speak) and stepping outside the bounds of normalcy (swallowing) to reap the benefit of eating (strength drawn from the nutrients within). It requires greater effort than simply maintaining the status quo. It takes sacrifice but can very well be the Cross we are called to take up, that is, to live graciously for the sake of others in response to the grace of the Cross that has been expended on our behalf.
The meat of the Gospel has been placed before you, the opportunity to be Christ in the world in tangible, meaningful, world-changing ways, by optimizing the Three E’s you have been given vocationally. Is this your calling, to optimize the greatest collection of influence, of time, energy, and productivity of your life? Will you partake?