Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 4, 2010
Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.
Minimalism is a buzz word that’s frequently tossed about with terms like simplicity, organization, and frugality. In light of the economic downturn so many are experiencing first hand along with the push to achieve more and be more and have more, minimalism can indeed sound pretty appealing. At its best, minimalism is far more than a buzz word; it is a principle that finds expression in art, music, style, architecture, management, lifestyle, and yes, ministry.
In the various definitions of the word, one finds a common thread of simplification and the use of the fewest and barest elements, the essentials. From radical purists who promote an extreme form of minimalism categorized by owning 100 or fewer possessions to those who advocate simplicity yet do not seek to define it in boxy, concrete terms, the movement is finding a willing audience in those who crave a simpler way of living and being in this world.
The gospel lesson for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost has Jesus giving instructions to his disciples that sound a whole lot like a radical minimalist: don’t take money, a bag, or sandals; eat what you are provided; if the people don’t receive you, don’t fret and move on. I don’t think this description fits very much about the way we live our lives and do ministry in 21st century North America.
Try asking a group of adults who they would feel about going out to proclaim “The kingdom of God has come near to you” the way Jesus suggests in this text. I mean, come on, we have trouble asking our neighbors to join us for worship, much less throwing away the keys to our house and car, giving away our stuff, and hitting the road like a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl. Quite the opposite–we tend to add programs, try new approaches, and pay others to do the work because we are pretty attached to our petroleum-guzzling automobiles, memory foam mattresses, Lazy Boy recliners, and HD plasma wall-mount televisions. I know, I’m generalizing way too much here, but we all have our “precious darlings” that we’d be loath to give up, even for the sake of the gospel. I am no exception.
So what are we to make of this text, especially on the heels of last week’s gospel emphasis on commitment, and how are preachers to address hard questions without automatically plugging the ears of the congregation?
Maybe a way to approach this text is to address it at the congregational level. Are we overstuffing our ministry plates with activities and wondering why our people are fatigued and fail to show? Are we trying to do too much with limited resources and personnel? Do we even have a clear vision for ministry, discipleship, outreach, and hospitality, or are we frantically focused on increasing numbers to meet the budget in hopes of keeping the doors open for another year?
Perhaps Jesus’ words can be heard in terms of doing less with more heart and real hope. Maybe we need to let go of the “sandals of fear,” the “purse of program overload,” and the “anxiety of dwindling budgets.” It might be time to embrace a minimalist form of ministry. In his fine book Deliberate Simplicity: How the Church Does More by Doing Less, Dave Browning writes passionately about embracing simplicity in ministry and not overburdening leaders or members with increasing complexity and overbearing demands. He quotes Pastor Wade Hodges saying “If becoming a part of a church places people in an environment that encourages them to lead more frenetic lives than they were living before, then we are going about doing church the wrong way” (36).
The harvest IS plentiful, but our workers are exhausted and overcommitted or scared that we’ll burden them. What if we stepped back, kicked off our sandals, and took a hard look what it would mean for the congregation to focus on Jesus’ minimalist call to ministry? After all, he is the Lord of the Harvest, and he wants our hearts and minds and souls completely, but he also wants us to have enough energy and enthusiasm left to worship and share and serve. If there’s no joy in the journey, how do we expect to want folks to join us? Who’s to say that we can’t do less with less and see more results?
Why not use this text to ignite a conversation about minimalist ministry and what that might mean in your particular context? Who knows, with the Holy Spirit involved, it could take off like fireworks on the fourth of July!