By Mike Coyner
Acts Chapter 20 records that Paul gathered the leaders of the church at Ephesus to say farewell before he left, knowing he would go to Rome and his likely death. In his farewell to them, he reminds them that he gave everything for the Gospel and for the churches. He says he did not shrink from sharing totally with them, he did not “hold back” or “shrink” or “reduce” the Gospel – rather, he gave his “all” for the church and the Gospel.
He concludes by warning them to hold fast to the Gospel, because he warns that other leaders and other forces may come along like wolves among the sheep, so these leaders must be strong in the faith, after Paul’s own example.
As I read those words, I think of all those movies, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and its sequels. And I realize that we don’t want to say, “Honey, I shrunk the Gospel” or “Honey, I shrunk the church.”
We shrink the Gospel when we preach only our favorite passages, when we use scripture to support our preconceived notions or prejudices, when we avoid the hard demands of the Gospel in favor of keeping people happy, etc. Early in my ministry I was advised to keep track of which scriptures I was using in my preaching, to make sure I was not avoiding other scriptures and just preaching my favorites … or even worse, just preaching the “easy” ones. So I started keeping a card index file of all my sermons, and now that file is on an Excel spreadsheet. I review it regularly to check and see if I am “shrinking” the Gospel in my preaching. It is a good discipline.
We shrink the church when we reduce our ministry to simply taking care of those already inside the church, when we become what one writer has called “tenders of the aquarium” rather than fishers of people, and when we remold the church in our image rather than helping the church to be the Body of Christ. Part of my whole vision for the “New Points of Light” was to challenge us to start new worship services and ministries to reach new people. Of course we will continue to minister to our current members, but we must also challenge our current members to see themselves in ministry. We should never shrink from that challenge.
We also shrink the Gospel when we look for easy answers. One thing I love about the our Wesleyan tradition and our United Methodist Church is that we are the church of the both/and. We believe in law and grace, we believe in justice and mercy, we believe in evangelism and social action. We are the church of the both/and – not just wishy-washy or middle of the road – but a church which invites people to struggle with the Wesley Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. That is not easy. There is always the desire for a quick, bumper-sticker answer to avoid having to think, pray, wrestle, conference and discern God’s will. But we are called not to shrink to those easy answers.
Years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a classic book called Your God is Too Small. His message reverberates today, when we tend to become consumer-oriented, comfortable, avoiding the challenges of the Gospel, and spending our ministry shrinking the Gospel and the church. The Apostle Paul reminds us not to shrink our Gospel, our message or our church down to our human categories and capacities.
May God continue to stretch us out of our comfort zones.
Mike Coyner is bishop of the Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church. Reprinted from INUMC.org. Image: Pixabay.