Church planters are an exciting breed of cat. They are filled with enthusiasm and drive. They overflow with visions of the church finally done right and whole cities renewed. In most cases this lasts until they actually start, then the slow, grinding begins to take its toll.
As with the state lottery, there are a few out there that hit the jackpot. These are the names you know, the authors of the books you can find on Amazon that will tell you how you can do it too. They speak at conferences. They set the pace. They are ones on billboards that feed the imaginations of the masses that maybe this time, in this pace, some will say it thundered.
I met a guy who supports the computer systems that control the Vegas gambling compounds. He told me that they up the odds for jackpots for when the shows let out. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but given the testimonies of gaming winners on billboards it would seem like a sensible marketing move. The stories of the one in a million winners induce the 999 thousand to pony up their cash.
The gold standard is of course the early church. Miracles done, thousands believing in one day. This stuff is crack for our pastoral imaginations.
This view of the early church, however, can only be maintained with a fairly selective reading of the text. In Acts 15:36 to 16:5 even the early church heroes are exhibited in ghastly banality. The versification of the Bible politely applies a chapter break in between so as not to induce withdrawal shock for ministry success junkies.
The First Missionary Break-up
Paul and Barnabas have been heroes. Barnabas, the son of encouragement seems to be loved and admired by all. Paul, that superstar church persecutor has become a superstar evangelist, doing miracles, preaching to sold-out synagogues, following in Stephen’s footsteps by being assaulted and stoned by angry mobs. These two are the genuine article.
After their first successful tour, Paul would like a repeat performance and so suggests to Barnabas that they double back and see how the vineyard they tended is growing. Barnabas is down for it but wants to take Mark, who flaked on them in trip number one. High octane Paul seems to not have been in a forgiving mood and “a sharp disagreement” ensues.
We have very little information from Luke on this matter. Some read evidence from Galatians into the mix but truth be told we don’t know. The result, however is clear. Paul now teams up with Silas and hits the road. Barnabas takes Mark and goes to Cyprus.
We Christians like to try to keep up appearances, especially when it comes to our Bible heroes so lots of justifications are concocted to paper over this little mess and I can’t say that all of them are invalid. Now there are two teams doing missionary work, not just one. We have later epistolary evidence that Paul and Mark made up and that Mark became a great asset for the church in his own right. We can see Paul as a hard charging take-no-prisoners-missionary who doesn’t have time to wait for Mark to grow up, while Barnabas is a gentle pastor who patiently mentors and cares.
All of this sounds good but the bottom line is that there is good reason to believe that there was a serious breakdown between these two A-list Christian leaders. Was it ego? Why couldn’t these two work it out? Why wasn’t the community around them sufficient to work reconciliation?
It is hard to me to see anything here besides failure and I respect Luke for putting it here for the excellent Theophilus and us to read. Contrary to churchified revisionism the Bible seems to have little shame about its dirty laundry. Abraham was full of doubt. Jacob was a jerk. Joseph had ego issues. David was a womanizer, and Peter looked like anything but a rock to build an institution upon.
But wait, it gets worse.
Soft on anti-Circumcision
After the chapter break we find Paul taking on a new apprentice, Timothy. It seems Paul is willing to mentor someone, just not Mark. Timothy has a fine reputation and shows promise but seems to have some skeletons in his own closet, or rather, a bit of extra skin on his penis.
Timothy’s father was a “Greek”, and his mother a Jew who with her mother became a Christian. She was perhaps, not a very good Jew because one of the expectations on a Jewish woman at that time would have been to have her son circumcised. For whatever reason the deed was never done.
Talking about circumcision in church is always fun. There are so many funny comments and innuendos available to a clever preacher. Too bad too few take advantage of the opportunity. We need more laughter in church.
Somehow Paul was made aware of this. I would love to know how people talked about circumcision. Was checking out each other’s equipment was just a regular part of church life in those days? Maybe they had symbols on the “Hello, my name is” name tags to indicate those men with and without foreskins. In any case Paul knows about it and decides (talk about pastors having a lot of influence) to take matters into his own hands. Paul circumcises Timothy.
I do wonder if Timothy in that great cloud of witnesses is aware of how much scholarly ink has been shed concerning his lost foreskin. In Chapter 15 we have the account of the truly momentous decision of the Jerusalem council to not require Gentile male believers to be circumcised. Paul apparently led the charge in this fight. I would assume his argumentation looked a lot like what we find in the book of Galatians. After all of this why would Paul circumcise Timothy?
I think a lot of the scholarship on this question sound reasonable to me. Timothy was a Jew and so Paul is simply equipping him (or the inverse) to operate as a cultural Jew in that setting.
This makes sense, but again, it seems that it is hard to not see some level of compromise and pragmatism in this story. Paul is a shrewd operator in a very complex multi-cultural environment and for the sake of moving the ministry along Timothy’s foreskin simply has to go.
Real Ministry is Sometimes Banal, Just like Creation
Religions love pure ideology. we want compromise and pragmatism banished from the kingdom. Critics of religion stalk the religious looking to expose banality. After thousands of years of this game religious critics still get a rise out of exposing those feet of clay. I would have thought this game of peek-a-boo would have gotten old by now.
It is often the banality of church work that grinds down the church planter, burns out the pastor, discourages the office bearer, and prompts the members to think about taking up water skiing on the weekends. Church work involves taking care of buildings, paying bills, failing to settle disputes, appeasing influential constituencies, reading minutes of meetings. It can at time seem very dull and very un-spiritual.
Part of the reason church staffs have expanded in affluent America is because church volunteers wish to serve in exciting and fulfilling ways. We staff out the dull stuff if we can.
God made Adam and Eve to be gardeners and gardening can be an incredibly banal exercise. The same weeks keep coming back. Watering can be an endless chore. My most faithful watering volunteer is a schizophrenic who seems to have a thing for hoses.
If we followed the creator around as he tended his billion galaxy garden we might be a bit surprised how banal a lot of what he does can be. The earth keeps going round the sun, pretty much like last year. The moon does its thing. It’s all very predictable.
We’d also be surprised how banal we all are. We sin the same way again and again. We fail to learn from the obvious. We fight all the same old fights even though it looks like sheer madness to others. Somehow in the banality providence pushes the kingdom ahead when no one is paying attention.
Real Ministry with Real People
One of the biggest differences between the way people are “supposed to be” and they way they really are is the commonness of human conflict. People really just don’t get along well. This of course it at the core of our fallenness but we cover it up with nice in order to look better to our selves and to others. If there is any segment of ministry that is a constant it is this.
What pastoring means is often simply working with people who have differences, complaints, conflicts and criticisms of others. These are within churches, within politics, within neighborhoods, within families, within marriages. Much ministry time is simply offering a non-anxious presence as people complain about each other. Much ministry is trying to help people live in the midst of this conflictive environment and make progress with the grumbler inside. This is slow, tedious work, not unlike weeding. Pluck a weed, it grows back. Tending a weedy garden is probably the largest discourager of ministry. People come in expecting glowy success, and they wind up trying to create a shalomic space for the grumbling semi-emancipated.
A Ministry Picture for the Rest of Us
Perhaps Luke keeps these stories in his account to keep it real for those of us who will never win the lottery. We are the rule, not the exception. We pastors churches that struggle to survive. We’re the ones in the middle of the spiritual bell curve that can’t get along, that compromise, that do things we later regret but often repeat. We are the 99%.
Every church in the New Testament that we hear about seems to be a mess. All of our Bible heroes are flawed. For every angelic rescue like Peter’s there are dozens of Jameses that were not spared. We are muddlers on a cruciform path.
Our muddling is usually costly and unfortunate, but God seems to have a way of making even our messes into glories of one sort or another. Did Paul’s obstinacy open the way for Timothy? Perhaps. I’m not entirely sure how the removal of Timothy’s foreskin helped the kingdom but I’m not in a position to know.
These kinds of questions are seldom answerable for us, just like weeds in a garden. We simply muddle in the mundane until our part is played and then we’ll see what we can figure out after that.
I hope to meet Luke one day and thank him for these places in Acts that we skip over. For remembering that ministry is hard, and slow, and God’s servants are too predictably mediocre and flawed. It makes me think that perhaps God may in fact be at work in my messes and help me to imagine his kingdom comes in the small, weak and ordinary, just like he says it does. The meek truly will inherit the earth.