EFFECTIVE. EFFICIENT. PRACTICAL. It is remarkable how often one hears these words in the world of Church, Inc. Their frequency may reflect our desire to be wise stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us, or they may reflect the influence of a culture that strives for control and values ROI (return on investment) above all else. I suspect both motivations are at play.
Scripture rightly warns us to be careful with money. It is a tempting master broadcasting a siren promise of omnipotence—the power to control one’s life and circumstances. We have all heard the heartbreaking stories of pastors lured into wealth’s maelstrom. We have also heard the stories of ministries that simply mismanaged their finances and slowly, quietly disappeared beneath a tide of debt. Regularly telling these tales of woe keeps church leaders vigilant. They provoke us to be effective, efficient, and practical. But might these values carry a hidden danger, perhaps even more perilous than wealth?
When efficiency becomes an unquestioned value within Church, Inc., we risk embracing the ungodly ethic of utilitarianism. Rather than seeing people as inherently valuable regardless of their usefulness, we begin to wonder how we might extract more money, volunteer energy, missional output, or influence from them. Our goal as pastors shifts from serving and equipping to extracting and using. Rather than asking how we might love someone, we wonder how we might leverage them, and we can hide these ungodly motivations from others (and even from ourselves) by appealing to the universally celebrated virtue of stewardship. After all, isn’t it poor stewardship to have a CEO sitting in the pews every week and not utilize his wealth and leadership capacity for the church? And would a good steward invest the church’s resources into young adults who are too transient to become leaders and too poor to give back?
We condemn our culture for devaluing human life it deems useless—the unborn, the elderly, the mentally disabled, the immigrant, the poor, etc.—yet the same utilitarian values of efficiency and practicality that fuel these societal sins are no less common within the church. As ministers of the gospel of Christ, we must stand boldly against the popular belief that everything and everyone exists to be useful. We must remember that in His grace God has created some things not to be used, but simply to behold. After all, the Lord not only created a garden for the man and woman with every tree that was useful for food, but also every tree that was beautiful to the eye (Gen. 2:9). Sometimes we are the most like God when we are being the most impractical.
The graceful, “wasteful” nature of God was revealed shortly before Jesus’ death. While reclining at a table, a woman poured a very expensive ask of oil upon His feet. When His disciples saw this, they were appalled. Like many church leaders today, they could only see through the lens of practicality. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor,” said Judas, and the disciples rebuked the woman.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus shot back. “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
For those who believe that the beautiful must submit to the practical, it is impossible to view the woman’s action as anything but wasteful. The disciples saw the spilled oil as a lost opportunity. To them the oil was only a commodity to be utilized and exchanged for a measurable outcome. What they interpreted as a waste, however, Jesus saw as priceless. He recognized the spilled oil as beautiful, impractical worship. True worship can never be wasteful because it seeks no return on investment. True worship is never a transaction. It is always a gift—an extravagant, “wasteful” gift.
Perhaps our captivity to efficiency, like that of the disciples, explains the dismissive posture many pastors have toward the arts. Sure, we appreciate beautiful architecture, music, and paintings if they serve the practical goal of communicating a biblical truth or drawing people through the church’s doors. But art for art’s sake? How could that possibly glorify Christ? Why would that be a wise investment?
Artists who cultivate beauty in the world remind us that the most precious things are often the least useful. Artists provoke us to see the world differently—not simply as a bundle of resources to be used, but as a gift to be received. Therefore, the creative arts serve as a model of God’s grace, and how the church affirms and celebrates the vocations of artists is likely to inform its vision of God. As Andy Crouch said, “If we have a utilitarian attitude toward art, if we require it to justify itself in terms of its usefulness to our ends, it is very likely that we will end up with the same attitude toward worship, and ultimately toward God.”
To combat the utilitarianism of our culture, and to foster a right vision of God, perhaps the church needs to learn to be more wasteful rather than less. Maybe there is a time for the voices of practicality to remain silent as the artists prophetically call us back to extravagant worship, to behold God rather than to use Him. And maybe it is good to embrace the impracticality of having young children, the mentally handicapped, and other “useless” people in our worship gatherings as a way of valuing what the world discards, detoxifying such ungodly values from our own souls.
And perhaps the church should spend money on what the world deems impractical and wasteful. When the voices of the world cry out in protest against the church, as they inevitably will, maybe the voice of Jesus will speak in defense of His precious, often useless bride: “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Taken from Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. by Skye Jethani (©2017). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant and ordained pastor. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Phil Vischer Podcast, a weekly show that blends astute cultural and theological insights with comical conversation. Skye has authored three books, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, and Futureville. Skye and his wife Amanda have three children: Zoe, Isaac, and Lucy and reside in Wheaton, IL.