I don’t know what flashes through your mind when you read, church is messy. My guess is that for many your reply may be a tad sarcastic or even dismissive, something akin to:
“Yeah. Church and any venture that tries to lead people is messy. Tell me something I don’t know.”
That is very true. But I’m talking about messy in a different way.
The thought that Church Is Messy (and that’s a good thing) is birthed from an obscure verse in Proverbs that gripped me a couple of years ago.
“Without oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.” Proverbs 14:4 (NLT)
That simple verse has fundamentally altered and invigorated how I view my responsibility as a leader of Christians and as a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s all about the harvest. For the wise it doesn’t seem to be enough to have a harvest. The wise are invested in a large harvest. Many ache for, dream of and pray for a large harvest. Having a harvest of any size assumes a great deal of hard work and long hours. But having a large harvest requires adopting something that can exponentially amplify the hours and energy invested.
Having a large harvest means I’m going to have to shovel a lot of…eer…Well, you know what I mean.
I love the simplicity and the imagery of this verse. I can imagine a farmer, up before the sun, walking into his once clean stable, greeted by the warm stench of dung. As he reaches for the shovel, he reminds himself,
If I do this, the ox will do what I can’t. If I provide for it, the ox will produce for me.
So the work continues. The next harvest produces more than the last. With greater revenue he eventually buys more land, more oxen and hires more hands. Soon he is no longer shoveling dung. That task falls to young, eager farmers who now work for him, hoping to learn from him.
The time and energy that we have to invest will always be limited; what is produced doesn’t have to be. Having an ox isn’t about working more. It’s about making an investment in something or someone who will make more of what you value most, bringing more people into the kingdom.
I love this verse because it challenges my lean toward comfort and familiarity. I love this verse because it pushes me to ask the question,
“Where can I invest to increase my harvest?”
The answer to that question is almost always going to be people. I love opportunities to invest in emerging leaders and interns. Doing so always means more work, especially in the beginning. It can be great fun, certainly more fun than shoveling ox fodder. Still, it is more hours, more work, more lost energy. So why do it? Because it exponentially increases influence and that always means a larger harvest. I’ve found few joys in ministry that are sweeter than watching the purposes of God unleashed through one of those emerging leaders, as he or she leads others to trust and follow Jesus Christ.
I don’t know what the ox is for you. For me it has meant honest and sometimes excruciating evaluation of ministry programs. It has meant saying goodbye to much-loved ministry activity that didn’t produce a harvest. It has meant retooling or restructuring to invest in the influence of others. It has meant bringing in the perspective and opinions of others into the message crafting process (if you are not currently doing that, it is messy and it is good). It has meant not only financially backing those who care for orphans, but adopting an orphan myself. My wife and I have been surprised by the world of influence and relationships that this act has opened to us. In short, having an ox has meant leaning into messy activities that lead to larger harvests.
These new and messy activities often feel awkward and are counter-intuitive. That is alright. What is never alright is being satisfied with a smaller harvest because you are not comfortable with the mess.
Any hope of a harvest at all rests on the messiest event in human history. There was nothing neat and tidy about the cross. It was a brutal and messy affair. Because of the mess of the cross, we now have the message of reconciliation.
Whatever the ox is for you, there is a good chance that it means making a mess out of some neat and tidy things in your life and in your church. And that mess is a good thing.