There are several steady coffee mugs in my life. In our kitchen cabinets at home, we have quite a stable of coffee mugs. Coffee mugs seem to just accumulate over time. Recently, we cleared some of them out because we were running out of room on the shelves. I’m willing to drink coffee out of any of the mugs in our kitchen cabinet, but there are two particular mugs that I almost always use. I have different reasons for liking those two mugs more than the others, and so I tend to reach for one of those two each morning when the coffee maker has finished it work.
At my office it’s the same, though on a bit smaller scale. I have four or five mugs that I have gotten over the years, mostly as gifts. Some have some special sentimental meaning to them, others not so much. But of my office coffee mugs, only one is not used for drinking coffee out of. I use the others to hold pens, to root jade plant cuttings, and occasionally to serve coffee to a guest.
One cup I use exclusively for drinking my own coffee from. I’m fond of that mug for several reasons. It comes from my seminary and has the seminary’s seal and name imprinted on it. But just as important is how the cup is shaped. It has a very wide base. That makes it very stable on my desk and very difficult to knock over. It’s very disheartening to tip over a mug full of coffee onto a desk that is covered with papers and books. I like a stable coffee cup. This cup also had a comfortable handle. It’s easy to pick up and hold securely without burning my knuckles on the hot cup. The lip of the cup conforms nicely to my lips, so that when I drink the coffee it doesn’t dribble or drip. All of those things combine to make me very fond of that coffee cup. I use it almost every day.
But in the end, I have to say that my various coffee cups are not why I drink coffee every day. I drink coffee because I like coffee, and in the end, coffee drinking is about coffee not cups. If you make thin, weak coffee, I will not be drink more than a sip of it, even if you put it in my favorite cup. That’s because, as I have said, coffee drinking is not about cups. It’s about coffee. Coffee drinking is about the content not the container.
Now, why would I spend time writing to you about my preferences in coffee cups? The answer is that this story of coffee and cups is a metaphor to help us understand the relationship between the organization we call “a church” and the personal presence of Jesus. It is a relationship between the container and the precious thing that it contains.
I’ve just finished reading a wonderful and challenging book [The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry] by a Presbyterian pastor from Seattle, David Rohrer, in which he makes this statement: “The church as institution is not an end in itself.”( p.96) He points out, with sympathy, that church people can easily lose sight of the real point of ministry. We can come to think and then act as if the main point of ministry and church life is to build and maintain the church. That is like thinking that drinking coffee is all about mugs.
Here’s how he puts it: “…whenever we make the survival of the institution of the church the primary objective of ministry, we are starting down a road that leads to the very opposite result.” He goes on with to make this bracing statement: “When we decide to make the question of the attractiveness or marketability of the church the primary task of ministry, we begin to construct a contemporary version of what Jesus called ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Mt. 23:27).” (p. 155)
If this kind of thinking seems strange to us, that may be because we have the mistaken idea that our unchurched neighbors are mostly all sitting at home thinking that what they really need to make their lives complete is an organization to join. If we do actually believe that, then we will get busy dressing up our particular organization in order to make them choose our organization (church). But the truth is that very, very few unchurched Americans actually believe that finding an organization to join is what they need or want. That’s why church growth programs and so-called evangelism plans that focus on touting the wonders of an organization (the church) miss the mark.
If that sounds like bad news to you, then you are missing the point. The fact that most of our unchurched neighbors aren’t at all
interested in finding another organization to join is no problem at all for the Church of Jesus Christ, because the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t interested in selling organizational memberships. The primary task of the Church of Jesus Christ is to invite people into a relationship with a living Savior. David Rohrer puts it this way: “…the treasure contained in the earthen vessel of the church is actually more attractive to folks than the container itself.” (p. 157)
Do you believe it? Can meeting Jesus touch a deep hunger in human beings? Or are people really just looking for a cool organization to join?
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.