Form Versus Reality

Last week, as we had the opportunity to serve over 600 leaders in Cuba in a conference on “prayer and the ministry of the word”, an interesting discussion surfaced. During a breakout session with the Sr. Pastors, a question was asked about “dress code” for worship services. After many opinions were shared, I was able to weigh in with some thoughts I trust will be helpful to you in your own context.

Jesus Delivers Reality

I have concluded that wise leaders focus on reality over form. Even in Jesus’ day, many wanted to argue about issues of “form.” Jesus was always a reality advocate, pointing people to the essential issues of the heart and eternal significance. The Pharisees were consistently trying to entrap Jesus with arguments related to superficial matters, whether it was technicalities about the Sabbath rules, the legalities of healing someone, or other nuances of their law.

Jesus said many harsh things to these religious “gnat-strainers.” For one, He noted that they did not even live up to the “false standards” they had imposed on others (Matthew 23:2-4). They upheld these standards in order to be viewed as “holy” by others, not to truly serve others (23:5-12). While they focused on minute details of religious performance, they actually neglected the realities of “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (23:23-24). Their standards made them appear very religious on the outside, but inside they were full of hypocrisy (23:27-28). As one mentor of mine stated, “False standards of spirituality can never restrain the flesh.”

In summary, He said to them, “For the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6). He declared that they worshiped God with their lips but their hearts were far away from Him. They had turned man-made standards into actual core doctrines. Religious form had eclipsed spiritual reality.

Exposing Examples of Form

It is easy for us to make rules around issues of faith. It is simple to codify some standard that everyone must salute. It is more difficult, but certainly more profitable, to teach people to pursue spiritual reality first, then to see all of our forms in service of those realities.

In my journey as a believer, starting in childhood, rules have been made in the church about what one wears, what one listens to, what kind of worship approaches are acceptable, what version of the Bible is exclusively inspired, what social engagements were allowable – and the list goes on. I have watched believers argue and separate from one another over worship styles, song choices, the look of the platform at church, and a whole array of other secondary matters. The spirit of the Pharisees lives on. The schisms of Paul’s day over eating meat offered to idols continue in different packaging today.

Teaching with Reality as Paramount

For those who lead the church, spiritual reality must be the primary pursuit of our teaching and example. I remember when I was called to a wonderful church following the retirement of a faithful 40-year predecessor. The church had been on a plateau for many years. The “forms” of ministry had become outdated. However, before changing the forms, I felt the Lord prompting me to address spiritual and relational realities. For one, we were able to initiate many experiences of transforming prayer via multiple 3-day Prayer Summits per year, and numerous weekly prayer opportunities.

In addition, I spent almost every Sunday evening for two years meeting with smaller groups of long-term members to build relationships as I listened to their histories at the church, their love for the ministry, and their hopes for the future. We took notes and remembered what mattered to them. As has been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We also employed some key groups to reaffirm our ministry purpose and core values.

All of these realities paved the way for changes in the “forms” of ministry. A heart transformed in prayer does not react to adjustments in worship style. A life that feels valued and relationally connected seldom becomes a critic of superficial changes. A mind convinced of the biblical mission seldom argues about modified methods of ministry. The more people are changed by the Lord around core spiritual realities, the less stressed they are about changes in form. Conversely, for a leader to focus on tweaking ministry forms without extraordinary experiences of spiritual reality amounts to “sticking beans up noses” and creating more irritation than engagement.

Serving with Reality in Mind

Sadly, sometimes a spiritual leader can choose to feature (even force) nuances of form in such a way that it distracts church members from spiritual reality. To change the elements of the Sunday experiences before teaching on the reality of passionate, biblical worship can be confusing. To tweak the organizational structure before teaching on the core biblical qualifications and marks of godly leadership can ring hollow. To push certain edgy nuances of dress or appearance in the services before teaching on the importance of the heart might simply muddy the waters. To upend learning structures (like Sunday School or small groups) without cultivating a passion for biblical learning and gospel discipleship can leave people perplexed and disconnected.

Going for the Heart of the Matter

If I’ve learned anything about church function it is that people tend to divide over issues of opinion and personality, as they did in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-9). Paul pointed them to the greater reality of the person and plans of God. He reminded them of the essentials of who they really were in Christ, beyond surface labels and loyalties.

As believers, we can embrace a similar path. God looks on the heart. He changes us from the inside out, by giving us a new (and renewed) heart that helps change our thinking. He softens our loyalties to man-made opinions and gives us a love for spiritual reality. When hearts are changed, seldom do we argue about secondary issues. We celebrate reality and learn the wisdom of holding our treasured forms loosely in love for Christ and His people.

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.