[Originally teaching for a cell leader training]
Ever since I was dropped off at Sunday School when I was a child, I have been very moved by this parable.
A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.”
But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.” Still another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”
The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
The servant said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.”
Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” Luke 14:16-24
I heard the man, who in Matthew’s version is a King, say, “Come, everything is ready.” And I went — like any kid would go to dinner. I honestly felt honored to be invited to the banquet, because my socioeconomic ilk did not have banquets. Another reason I went is because I was being Sunday Schooled by some good Baptists; and they made sure we five-year-olds not only saw ourselves as people outside of town in the bushes, but also as the servants of the king, who was talking to us! “Go out and bring in the poor, crippled, blind and lame.” I often took that literally. I compelled those people to come in. I may have been the best Sunday school person ever.
It never dawned on me until I began inviting that so many people would be so well fed, physically, that an actual banquet would be a yawn of a metaphor. What’s more, it only occurred to me much later that people would feel well-fed spiritually! (We had no spirituality to eat at my house). They would feel so full of something that they would actually put themselves in the place of those refusing to come! They would stay preoccupied with whatever they were refusing-because-of for their whole lives! Personally, I got the idea that no excuse was good enough — and why would you have one, except you were afraid or crazy? And how could you be afraid of God or so crazy? I am still relatively naïve, just like that.
Not long ago, the Cell Leaders got together and considered the people we know who have problems eating the kingdom feast. They are in our cells. And, chances are, we each have some feast-avoidance in us, too. We humbly started our process by confessing our own abiding excuses. We had many. Everybody has a problem. God loves us.
Right now, I think Circle of Hope has a problem. We are a physical and spiritual banquet. People come in and we usually don’t even have to compel them. But sometimes they won’t sit down at the table. Sometimes they sit down but they won’t eat what is served. Sometimes they are full of “post-banquet” philosophy and disdain the whole idea of eating. There is a title for these extra-grace-required people that has been sticking in my mind. I call them “gourmet” Christians. Some people won’t eat at Mui Chung or Crown Chicken (or anything going north from here until they hit Walnut); they won’t waste their calories on marginal food. They are gourmets. And some people are like that with Jesus and His people.
Gourmet Christians have a problem with what the church serves. They won’t waste their discerning souls on regular, greasy spiritual food, Betty Crocker Bible cookbook food, served by real people. They are spiritual foodies. They’ve heard about the best on TV or in a book or in their refined imagination and they only want that. These people go from cell to cell, congregation to congregation, looking for a good meal. They come once a month to the PM, but go to Catholic mass in the morning; they wonder why we don’t have icons or they want guest speakers on Honduran social work. Quite a few of these friends went to Eastern or Messiah, or Taylor or Lancaster Mennonite or some Christian wherever, or got home schooled, and somehow became too cool for regular church. Now they think of themselves as bigger than regular church. I think of them as hovering above the church like Jon Stewart commenting on everyone but never actually being someone. Such a gourmet goes to your cell and looks down on your youth, quotes a great sermon they heard and refers to the last conference they attended.
I think it only dawned on me recently that we could reach the tipping point and be overrun with gourmets. We may have been discovered by Christians looking for an interesting spiritual dining experience. Maybe it is easy to fall into the trap. We are a banquet, after all. We do indiscriminately compel people to come in. It is not surprising that we end up with entitled gourmets who get comfy at our table and just sit there nibbling. They are at the table waiting. They never eat what is served, but they are there waiting for something they can really drool over to show up on the smorgasbord. And they are disappointed when it doesn’t show up. They reserve a seat and don’t show up, or they show up and turn up their noses at what is served, or they just criticize what you cook up as if they deserved a banquet in the first place. Are you relating to this?
I think I can find one of these people in every cell. I have a couple in my cell right now. One sees a spiritual director (which might not be that useful in your twenties) but can’t get along enough to be in a PM. Another is all into a parachurch mission and can’t decide if Circle of Hope should get cut from their busy Christian schedule — their plate is so full. More and more people are kind of like Danae from a recent issue of the Inquirer. They wear a sacred robe of holy superiority and are too good or too important or too busy to come to the banquet, really.
This presents a problem for us Cell Leaders and others in the mission. We are the incarnation of Jesus, so we take gourmet Christians seriously as long as they are walking with us. I love them just like God loves them, even though I think they weaken our community and they make faith look like you don’t have to be this or that, you can just do faith like Americans go out to eat. In 2006 Americans were said to eat one out of four meals out, using half their food budget. They like choice. I think that is reflected in how they consume the Lord’s banquet, too — with discriminating taste, or at least a hankering for whatever they don’t have served up fast. But even though I don’t appreciate their attitude, they are my people. What to do?
So I want to name these folks among us so we can love them better. The first thing is noticing them and honoring them as who they really are. Then we can learn to care for them more realistically and effectively. I have three variations to help us ponder for a while.
Holy Hiders are Gourmet Christians who want a little food but they don’t want anyone to know they are eating it. A hipster Christian might find a Christian spiritual restaurant they like but they wouldn’t tell anyone about it because then it would get popular and so less unique and they might end up needing a reservation because it got shared with so many people.
I think we have been colonized, to some degree, by holy hiders. They grew up in the church but are too cool for church now. Or they went to a Christian school and now they think they are too smart for regular church and need to convert Tanzania. They are kind of part of us, but they would never tell anyone about us, or even claim to be part of us, unless it was to some mission agency they wanted to hire them which required a home church on the application.
These colonizers sit in our cells or public meetings eating whatever seems like a delicacy to them until they decide to graze elsewhere. They never become contributors to the mission; they never share money. They consume food but they do not expend energy. They have a spot, but they don’t use it. If you get too many of them, it tilts your cell their direction and everyone just sits around being ambivalent.
I really don’t mind if a person is slow to engage…for years, even! What do I know of their timetable in the Lord? But when there is no movement with what’s moving — or if there is an actual pull against the momentum, if I end up with a dead weight that insists on being carried, we’re in trouble. We had a small crew of people who came from a conservative college who ended up in our church and in the Philly bar scene at the same time. No one came from the bar scene to the church. The crew eventually chose the bar. It left a hole in our love.
What to do? Complain? Condemn? I think if you are a leader who loves these kind of gourmet Christians, you need to give them hope. They need a taste of something real, not just a demand to be in or out. Don’t just talk about it — a lot of our cells are just blab. I think we often let these people sit too long blabbing. We are trying to be nice, letting them move as they can move, which is good. But they are used to hiding out. No one notices what they are doing. No one helps them imagine being their full selves fully engaged. You might ask them, “Did you notice that you have money, you have talent, you have gifts and you aren’t sharing them with the cell or with the church?” You might say, “You are a serious person I take seriously who is not being a serious person.” That might work. But it would probably be better to go out and bring hope to someone and ask them to go with you. Help them come out as a Christian, or as a covenant member. Show them what they mean to you, and what they could mean to Philly.
Holy hauteurs (hauteur = “a condescender, a person who is superior”)
Holy Hauteurs are Gourmet Christians who somehow got the idea that churches can be compared like they are cruising the restaurants on Chestnut St. in Old City. They are spiritual foodies who have eaten everywhere and can give you a rating. No churches live up to their standards; they all have some tragic flaw.
Circle of Hope gets criticized, or just judged silently by holy hauteurs who have seen it all and are jaded. I suppose we asked for the criticism by doing stuff and putting ourselves out there — leading a cell, having a website, writing a book, sticking our heads above the usual. They check it all out for flaws. We’re the shark, they are like pilot fish biting on us, along for a ride they seem to disapprove of. If you try to do anything, if you lead, unconscious critics supply the punishment.
These critics sit in our cells and public meetings with a look that says “I’m waiting for you to do something displeasing.” They stay on the fringes lest they be identified with your less-than perfect behavior, theology, outreach, whatever. Last night in our discernment meeting they were represented telling Joseph’s cell that they did not study the Bible. You might not even find out what a mess they think you are until they talk about you to someone else and you meet that someone else after the talker is long gone.
I think healthy dialogue is crucial. And I invite people to say untested, dumb, even critical things, just like I want the freedom to talk. In a trust system, being oneself is a gift; expecting a loving response is a joy. But when a person keeps criticizing you to see if you will “hear” them before they decide to bless you with their trust, that just gets tiresome. One of the reasons churches end up autocratic is because the leaders get worn out by people who offer criticisms that are not mission tested. If you have a great idea, it should come from your great success at practicing it, not mere imagination or scrutiny of what someone else does.
For instance, in our discerning process we always get criticized for not being diverse enough and our Egyptian, African American and female pastors have to defend us. Meanwhile one wonders how we are supposed to be diverse if the critics won’t include people because we aren’t diverse enough, and if people coming in who are supposedly different experience our criticism? It is easy to criticize what someone else is doing.
What to do? Complain? Condemn? If you are a leader who loves gourmet Christians, you must teach them love. Compel them to come in, don’t just manage their bad behavior and bad feelings. I generally think that everyone is pretty hurt, when it comes down to it, so I don’t need to judge their behavior too strongly — I have no idea what they are facing. But I do deserve to be loved. I am a child of God. I am worth understanding, forgiving, encouraging. I mean something, I have value. So if someone is against me all day, I suspect they need to learn how to love. I would never leave them in their old behavior that’s killing me; I’m not going along with something that is against the Lord. People have folks in their cells that they just hate, they go home and tell their husband or wife how horrible it was to be with the person, how they wrecked the cell again, how they called and complained for an hour about how they had not been loved well. I think you should take that personally and say something like — “You are lying, You are abusing me. You are a drag.” What’s going to happen if we speak the truth in love? Are they going to criticize you for being critical? But what might happen if they find a person who won’t dance their steps with them? Won’t they learn new steps? Teach them to love.
Holy haters are gourmet Christians who have gone beyond liking food. They are like the burned out professional restaurant critic who lost interest in restaurants long ago but retained a love of the power to wreck them.
Holy haters corrupt churches. They don’t really want to be in the mission and don’t really want to be in the body and you’ve got to wonder how they got to be a spiritual food critic at all, since they don’t appear to really want the food, yet. They just like being ornery. We invite them to come to the table and they question why we have a table…while they are sitting at it! We show them love and they resent being pressured. We offer opportunities to serve and they resent how the church sucks up their time. We do the best we can and they think we are holding out on them.
In Circle of Hope, our main delivery system for deepening our discipleship comes through our cells and PMs. It is a simple system. The corrupters don’t use the system and ask for what they won’t receive delivered in an alternative way. Now you might be thinking of this person as the ultimate outsider, but quite often they are the ones with whom you are dipping the bread. No one can hate you as well as a loved one. They know what gets you and when they harden their hearts, it is trouble. They’ll have a fight and not forgive — but they will come to the cell. They’ll have an affair and not repent — but show up at the party. They’ll say yes to a mutual mission — and not show up. They’ll make a promise of community — and not do their part: forget to return a call, not read email, not say hi when you walk in.
I think these people make me doubt the most of all. I set the table for them and they won’t even eat. And I am the type, by nature, to doggedly keep setting the table expectantly, trying new dishes, trying dinner theatre until I’m exhausted and they sneer at my lack of strength. I’m trying to be serious and they aren’t serious, and if that is pointed out, they don’t mind starting a big political battle as if they are a victim. They don’t provide food or want to eat it, but they do want to have a food fight.
If you get one of these people in your cell, it is going to feel cold and you might not know why. Because it is hard to believe someone would come to the meeting and not want to go to the meeting.
What to do? Complain? Condemn? If you are a leader who loves them, you need to convert them. Call them to faith, don’t get so scared or disgusted you just kick them out. They need to come in (or connect with what we are doing). Convert them, don’t normalize them. The cell needs to have structure for just these people: if they can conform to what the group is doing, they might open up to conform to Jesus. They need to bump up against hard things and feel the hardness of reality. Have the argument. The main work of the cell leader is evangelism. Assume that until a person is evangelizing, or helping you do it, they need to be evangelized. Faith is not running them, something else is. Don’t make that something else normal so you don’t have relationship or social problems. We exist for those problems. Pray for strength and do what you can. This was reaffirmed a couple of weeks ago when my old friend from college looked me up when he was at a conference in Philly. He told me how mad I made him and how that was instrumental in getting him to think about having real faith, which has sustained him over his hard life.
People need hope, love, faith or they might end up as or stay gourmet Christians, always eating but never full or worse, contracting spiritual bulimia or anorexia. It is no surprise that Jesus named the kingdom a banquet. We have spiritual food disorders. But cell leaders and anyone who loves a gourmet Christian are the patient party-throwers who help people get over their excuses and eat.