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Inspiration for Today’s Devotional: “The Cart Before the Ponies”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders don’t have a very good day in this episode. When it’s time for the annual Applewood Derby in Ponyville, each of them has their own idea for how to design their carts and what awards to go for. Yet when they recruit their “big sisters” to help them with their respective projects, they find out that the older ponies already have their own pre-conceived ideas for them and, in spite of their best efforts, ignore any attempts to get them to build the carts the way the CMCs want them. In the end, the big sisters they looked to for inspiration monopolized the entire thing and made it all about them racing and what they wanted, and, as a result, not only took over the event from the girls but ruined it for everyone else.

Anyone who’s looked into Christianity, whether they be Christians themselves or not, knows that it comes in a lot of “flavors”. There are, of course, the major denominations with their own belief systems, but I find that what differs even more than that is the amount of different ways Christianity is expressed.

I myself grew up Roman Catholic with occasionally attending Lutheran mass, whereas later in college I joined up with a nondenominational Christian group called Chi Alpha Campus Ministries…so I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve seen a lot of different Church events, outreaches, methods of worship (including song, chant, prayer, and even dance), and a lot of different ways of preaching. I’ve been in places that are pretty much just a gathering of people around a couple guys with instruments, in places where everyone dresses up nice and rises and sits in unison to the tunes of pipe organs, and in places where everyone just surrounds a preacher in a speaker’s circle shouting out about how we’re all sinners going to Hell. While I definitely have ones I prefer to others, I won’t be so bold as to say one is “better” than the other. What ultimately measures the value of preaching and ministry, to me, is how effective it ends up being. (And even if I criticize, I’ll say that with few exceptions the worst preaching I’ve seen beats the best “non-preaching” I regularly practice… :/ )

What gets me is when Churches start to act like the big sisters (Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity) in this episode: when they become so fixed on seeing their own way and methods as perfect that they completely ignore not only other opinions but who they’re doing this for to begin with.

I have a feeling most Christians are acquainted with one (or more) Churches that are spiritually dead. If this was a problem back in the times of the New Testament when there were those still alive who could remember Jesus walking in the flesh, how much more 2,000 years later? You know the kind: Churches that never challenge anyone, never outreach to anyone, never seem to grow, and just seem to say and do the same pat things day in and day out. People may go in and get temporarily enthused or even a brief sense of spiritual empowerment, but it never leads to anything lasting in the community, whether that community be of the Church itself or the greater community around it. They basically do the same things all the time and, to coin a modern proverb, as they keep doing what they’ve always done, they keep getting what they’ve always gotten and stayed where they’ve always been.

I experienced this early on in the same place most Christians I have discovered experienced it first: the Roman Catholic Church. Services are always highly ordered, highly controlled, highly regimented, and so predictable that I’ve been in some masses where the congregation mechanically began to say: “And also with you” when one of the readings read: “The Lord be with you”.

I’ve read arguments in favor of these practices and, to be fair, they have some weight. The idea is that experiences with God are not meant to be ordinary but “holy” in the sense of the root of the word: “set apart”. There is a reverence to certain actions and a way to do things that is not just random or each person doing whatever they feel is best. That you only do these things to begin with because it’s a special time and place. It’s treating the very experience of being with God as something deserving special significance, and therefore they don’t like to endorse any kind of uncontrolled behavior or expression. It’s drawing attention to the Word, because of the belief that the Word itself is living and sacred and is an experience with God.

This is well and good and it would be fine…if it actually had that desired effect. The fact of the matter, however, is that most Roman Catholics I know personally find these services to be repetitive, humdrum, and boring. Far from appreciating the sacredness of the situation, because it’s the “same sacredness” every single week in the exact same way it takes something that should be holy and special and makes it as routine as brushing one’s teeth. The Bible does indeed place special emphasis on the Holy Eucharist, and yet by treating it the exact same way week in and week out the congregation is encouraged to think less and less about how special it is and more like it’s the same empty gesture as saying “peace be with you” during the communal handshake. But this is unlikely to change, because everything in the Roman Catholic Church is handed down from the hierarchy of the Vatican, and that, in turn, while it had made major concessions in the past fifty years (at least masses are no longer in Latin…) wants to stay with tradition.

That’s probably the most extreme example, but the fact is it can happen anywhere and in any Church. Everyone likes to do certain things over others. Everyone is more comfortable trying one thing over trying something else. That’s just human nature and the “comfort zone” that we all possess. Where it becomes a problem is when someone in power decides to use this position to influence others and, as a result, one person’s comfort zone becomes an entire Church’s detriment. In the case of Church leadership, it’s when the congregation either alienates themselves and/or discourages other people from coming in and joining; whether it be in the form of not responding to the needs of the community, engaging in ministries that are continuously ineffective, or even endorsing beliefs that are more about giving the leadership and Church recognition and power rather than the Kingdom of God or are even non-Biblical (Again, Roman Catholicism is a big sinner there). In effect, they are sabotaging the very Mission of the Church to begin with.

Naturally, in the Bible, when one thinks of leaders who preferred to cling to their own way rather than what mattered to God, one looks at the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Yet a good portion of the New Testament is also devoted to being on guard against those who masquerade as Christian leaders. The Apostle Paul reserved strong condemnation for those who went about frustrating Christian principles about the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-34), boasting that they had better “credentials” than him based on his own way of preaching (2 Corinthians 11: 1-15), and especially those who tried to impose the Mosaic Law on new Christians [“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12)]. Whereas Paul seemed to feel sorrow or pity for his persecutors of the Jewish background [“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,” (Romans 9:3)], he had nothing but contempt and condemnation for those who tried to warp the Gospel to suit their own tastes. Even the last book in the Bible, Revelation, starts off with a strong warning about Churches being on guard for false leaders (Revelation 2:8-29).

All of this serves as a warning to us. While I do trust in the Word of God in regards to “submitting to authority” and that some people are gifted to be in authority over others, we also are to be on guard for trees that bear “bad fruit” and against false and ineffective leadership. To me, the best Churches are ones that see the situation they are in and respond to it as best and appropriate as they can, and look for opportunities to be more effective. Ones that simply seek to serve the status quo, and usually their own status quo, while refusing to listen to anything that may make them better or pay attention to the times are ultimately serving their own glory…and the Bible makes it clear the end of all mortal things that serve their own glory. Let that be a cautionary message that we need to seek a different Church.

Suggested Prayer: “Lord God, thank you for the Church, for which you sent your Son, Lord Jesus Christ, as ransom, and thank you also for your Word, which is the cornerstone of our faith. Grant that I may always challenge myself to grow in Christ, and that as I do I pay attention to your Word, learn from it, and see if what is in my life…including my choice in Church and who I choose to listen to as my religious leader…is in accord with it. Help me to know you better so I can discern your will better, and thereby be on guard on all attempts to get me to obey a different will while submitting to ones that reflect yours. Gratefully in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”