It has long been known that the church is often somewhere on a pendulum swing. One generation emphases something so much, from which problems ensue, that the following generation swing the pendulum as far in the opposite direction as possible to correct it. Only, as we know, it tends to lead to over-correction and replacing one set of problems with another. There are some happy moments, on some issues, where the pendulum swing is dead centre and we can all be perfectly content with our collective position. But it rarely, if ever, lasts. Pendulums, by their nature, swing back and forth.
One issue on which there seems to be an ever swinging back and forth is on a subset of antinomianism and legalism, usually dressed up in terms of grace and duty. The generations above mine in the Western church were full of duty. It made them very busy and active and much got done, but it also led to a lot of tired, worn out people who badly damaged their families through neglect.
Well, we thought, we don’t want that do we? Which, of course, we don’t. So we pulled the pendulum back in hopes of some sort of balance. We need a bit more grace and bit less duty. But it is hard to stop a pendulum swinging when you pull on it. We are convinced we can get it halfway, but it has a habit of continuing to swing on past regardless. In this instance, we started pushing grace over duty. Self-care became a thing… a big thing. And, of course, it is right to care for oneself. But it also seemed to lead to a culture of, if we don’t feel like doing a thing or we don’t really feel capable, or it just isn’t much fun, then we can wash our hands of it. I don’t want to just go through the motions, doing stuff out of duty, we’re all about grace now. If I’m not doing it with a full heart that is fully glorifying God as I do it, better not to do it at all. I certainly shouldn’t be leaving my family in order to do that.
And where has that got us? In a place where it can be hard to motivate volunteers to do anything that is anything less than exactly what they desperately want to do because they enjoy it. A place where the hard graft of ordinary ministry just doesn’t get done. A place where, if I’m not feeling it, I just don’t do it. If I haven’t had four nights in with my family, I’m really being pushed too hard. A place where the lost can go to Hell (quite literally) because I’m feeling a bit tired and need my “me time”. Or, I don’t go anywhere or do anything uncomfortable at all because I doubt I’ll be fully glorifying God in my attitude when I find it at all difficult.
Was it great that we had some people running themselves into the ground out of duty in previous generations? Not really, no. Jesus burden is meant to be easy. He has come to free us from the guilt-inducing burden of legalism, which is often dressed up as duty. At the same time, is it great that people now refuse to get their hands dirty at all and don’t seem to want to involve themselves in any of the more difficult aspects of church life and flake out at the slightest discomfort? Not really, no. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and doesn’t seem to suggest that will be a cake walk.
The problem is, it is affecting our ability not only to get things done in our churches, but to see unchurched places reached with the gospel. If me and my comfort is all, I’m not going to go to some pokey little place where few people will listen to me and nobody like me lives. Why would I do that? If I have to give my all and make sure I’m working at 100% to get anything going, that just sounds like a lot of hard work. Dare I say, it sounds like I would just be deeply ineffective because I need at least 3 days off a week to be at my best. Jesus’ commands can get in the bin if they’re going to encroach on family and me time.
As with most pendulum swings, they have a tendency to mirror the culture. I was reading in the paper yesterday an article headed ‘Working at 85 per cent is an act of self-care for my generation’. If you believe what scripture says about how we are to approach our work, doing it as unto the Lord and all that, it is the kind of article that will drive you mad. Full of people lying to their bosses about what they are actually doing, justifying taking time off yet claiming they are working from home, insisting that normal working weeks are just ‘too much’. Much like in the church, Gen Z have seen the overwork of their parents’ generation and want to ensure they don’t face the same problems of burnout, depression and neglected families. They identify the problem well. Yet their solution is to drag the pendulum so far in the other direction as to make a mockery of the very concept of work. It is a do the minimum possible, at the lowest possible intensity, even actively shirking where you can. It is a travesty and I struggle to believe won’t lead to a raft of people being sacked fairly quickly.
The moves we see in the church away from previous generation’s focus on duty seem to have gone the same way. There seems to be a pendulum swing that has swung in exactly the same way as the culture. It doesn’t seem to be a biblical correction but a following of the culture. We have gone from duty-driven pseudo-legalism to a self-care fuelled pseudo-antinomianism. A move away from duty so that there are no duties but those I really want to do. But sometimes, things just need doing. Sometimes, there are greater needs that we have to prioritise. That doesn’t mean neglecting our families and running ourselves into the ground is right, but it feels there has been something of an over-correction so that duty is a dirty word and crosses won’t get taken up at all but we flake out at the first sign of discomfort.
Whilst I am all for making sure we have a right balance between gospel ministry and home life, making sure we are serving our people and area well whilst not failing to care for ourselves, balance seems to be the key. I fear the duty-driven days of the past have led us to almost decry the whole concept of duty, as though Jesus asks nothing of us other than that which we fancy doing as and when we want to do it. I don’t wish to go back to days of shattered families and workers, with burnout and other such things prevalent, because all must be sacrificed on the altar of ministry. At the same time, I don’t want to see us run headlong into days where nothing gets done because we only do whatever we feel like and Jesus’ commands and imperatives are relegated to nothing but suggestions and cross-carrying denied instead of ourselves. I think, for the sake of the gospel, we need to rediscover a bit of duty; but for the long-term sake of the gospel, it must be duty that is manageable.