It’s more than possible that you’ve heard a statement like this before:
“Can’t see the forest for the trees…”
An old-adage which draws a great distinction about becoming myopic in a view, so much so that it distracts and keeps from experiencing the greater thing(s). What the statement, “Can’t see the forest for the trees…” refers to is an individual that becomes so fixated on one tree that they miss the entire forest of trees around them. They become narrow-sighted, perhaps even blinded by their own ideologies and personal preferences.
This morning while doing devotions with my 13-year old son, Kaedon, we read a passage together that ignited a conversation about people’s focus with regards to encountering Jesus, specifically in the context of local church ministry and worship services.
Tucked securely into the first part of John’s gospel, we read an encounter that John the Baptizer had with a few religious leaders of his day. Word had made it’s way throughout John’s community and into Jerusalem. Jesus’ cousin, John, was an early disciple and a change-agent for what would become known as followers of The Way. He was tasked by God with the responsibility of readying people for an encounter with Christ and had many disciples of his own that were being baptized and growing in their knowledge, understanding, and faith.
It’s here, in the midst of John with his disciples and the community at large, that we see the religious elite of John’s day sending delegates on their behalf to confront John and figure out who he was and what he was all about.
The Testimony of John the Baptist
19 This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” 20 He came right out and said, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 “Well then, who are you?” they asked. “Are you Elijah?” “No,” he replied. “Are you the Prophet we are expecting?” “No.” 22 “Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“I am a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’”
24 Then the Pharisees who had been sent 25 asked him, “If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?” 26 John told them, “I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. 27 Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.” 28 This encounter took place in Bethany, an area east of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.
When I was talking with Kaedon about this passage the question that I asked him was, “What stands out to you, Paly?”. He immediately talked about John’s reflection of the prophetic message from Isaiah 40:3 before him – that this was the authority that John spoke from, not his own ideas, and that there must have been people or things in other’s way that could have been keeping people from encountering Jesus. After all, Jesus was in the crowd among them and went entirely unnoticed. I love his question and line of thinking, which also led to a great discussion about the sanctimonious religion and religious leaders in Jesus’ time and how this translates to the church and our faith today. Kaedon and I talked about how often times it was religion and her leaders that kept people from encountering Jesus. Though Jesus walked among them…they couldn’t see the forest for the trees or in many cases, simply chose not to look past their prejudice.
While I could have gone on and on with my son flexing my little theological muscles and sharing a ton of detail about culture and context and what John the Baptizer and Jesus were walking into; how these few verses would serve as a catalyst for an entire movement of God in their community and in our lives today, our conversation took on a focus of considering what keeps people from encountering Jesus in our churches today.
Here is some food for thought:
What tree are we focused on in our churches that is keeping people from seeing the forest?
In other words, what are we so fixated on in our churches today that may be keeping people from encountering Jesus?
Chairs over pews?
Non-essential theological positions?
History and traditions?
When I think about the church; the Bride of Christ, it’s not hard for me to get as equally excited as I am passionate about being a part of a body of believers that is committed to doing church on purpose, with a purpose, and for a purpose. I have a grin jumping off of my cheeks even now as I am typing! I love the church! And I believe that Bill Hybels, Pastor of Willow Creek Church and Founder of The Global Leadership Summit, said it best a few years ago when he said, “I believe that the local church is the hope of the world today.”
If the church is the hope of the world today…
If our responsibility as leaders in the church is to create intentional opportunities for people to encounter Christ through the church…
If our privilege is to pray for people and to purposefully meet them where they’re at while inviting them to come and encounter Jesus with us through the church…
Why would we, in the church, ever allow ourselves to fixate on one tree, in turn, keeping others from seeing the forest that is Jesus?
Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th-century theologian and educator, made even more famous a quote from Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis, when he quoted these words…
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
And it was under the leadership of pastor, theologian, and author, John Wesley, whom took this statement and sentiment and adapted it to read…
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”
The point of sharing a ladder of the origin of this statement is to hopefully demonstrate the value, importance, and impact of these timeless principles. While it can be easily natural for any of us to take a myopic approach to things that we find a particular affinity and great appreciation for, it’s imperative that we never allow our preferences to keep ourselves, let alone anyone else, from encountering Jesus, and especially within the church.
When it comes to sound doctrine – biblical and eternal issues – these core convictions can never be up for discussion. We must stop at nothing to hold tight to the teachings, mandates, and clear direction of God. However, beyond these core convictions, we must be careful not to divide based on our prejudices.
I once had a friend and seminarian say, “When it comes to our faith, there should be a lot of theological and doctrinal positions that we discuss, some that we debate, but very few that should ever divide us.” In complete agreement with this statement, it pains my heart immensely to hear about, see, and even know far too many churches that have lost their effectiveness and ability to minister to whole communities because of leaders in the church that have decided it was more important to fixate on the non-eternal trees rather than hold tight to what matters most and consider how we might best introduce people to Jesus whom is right here in the midst of our community.
I guess my hope for a quick reflection this morning has morphed into a bit of a rant, but I would really like for it to be seen as an impassioned plea.
My passion and commitment as a person whom is committed to the work of the local church and as a pastor with great responsibility to lead within the church is to be known for my purpose – for my commitment to purpose – for being a part of a movement within the church that does church…
And for His purpose!
I don’t ever want to be the community like in John’s time where Jesus is standing in and amongst us, yet we are unable to recognize His presence given our preconceived ideas and/or faulty and selfish expectations. I fear for the day that any church I have the privilege to be a part of or lead will become so stuck on a tree that we miss the forest entirely.
Instead, it’s my desire to be a part of a movement that is the church; ever-intentional and always strategically creating opportunities for people to encounter Christ devoid unnecessary distractions and fixated religion. I want to be a part of a church so committed to creating opportunities for people to encounter Christ with relevance and excellence that they will stop at nothing to be used as conduit for Christ; a church that faithfully lifts up the name of God and pleads for God alone to draw all people unto Himself!
It’s to this end that I pray and am committed…