In 1 Samuel chapter eight we read a story recalling the evolution of the Israelites’ movement from a theocracy–where a god or gods are seen as the ultimate civil authorities and priests claim to speak for those gods–and they were moving to a monarchy, where powerful kings were the ultimate human authorities, and priests would sometimes serve as their spiritual directors and theological advisors (until they upset the kings, that is; then things could go downhill rather quickly for those advisors). Some scholars place the writing of this story around 700 B.C.E. when this community was already divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. By this time both kingdoms had already experienced both healthy and unhealthy leadership, and things weren’t going so well for either kingdom. So perhaps this story was their way of looking back and trying to make sense of their situations by basically saying, “Well, Samuel told our ancestors this would happen if we had kings.”
According to this passage the people wanted a king to rule over them so they would be like all the other nations; and they wanted a king who would lead them and fight their battles for them. Perhaps the Israelites looked around at the nations around them and saw wealth, military power, strong administration and security. And they saw a powerful, charismatic leader at the head of it all–a leader, by the way, who you could actually see and hear for yourself; not a leader who spoke through an old man with sons who were already corrupting your weak governing and religious system. Perhaps they observed these things and thought to themselves: “THAT is what we’re missing–a charismatic leader who will lead us and fight our battles for us! Combine that man with the God of all creation being on our side and we can’t lose!”
Yet lose they did–big time. First the northern kingdom fell; and by 580 or so B.C.E. Judah fell, and the best and brightest of these communities were taken into Babylonian captivity. What happened? Some people believe since the Israelites rejected God by demanding a human king, God was punishing them by allowing them to be conquered. This belief is somewhat like people today saying the challenges the United States faces reflect our rejection of God. At the same time, it could simply be that Israel and Judah fell because that was the way life often worked in that particular time and place. Kings, kingdoms, gods and their religions rose to prominence and then crashed and burned. It was all part of the evolutionary process.
My focus, however, is on the reasons–the motivations–for their insistence on having a king in the first place. Basically the Israelites wanted to be like everyone else, and they wanted a leader who would fight their battles for them. We can apply these motivations to many areas of our lives today, too–including church.
First, I think the Israelites were demonstrating a very basic concern for survival–and that’s normal. Samuel was old and his sons were corrupt. They needed a new way of governance and leadership, and witnessing the success of the nations around them, they decided that was the model to copy. Samuel would appoint a strong leader who, in turn, would lead them and fight their battles for them. And we can’t really blame them for wanting to survive, can we? Of course not! What we can question, however, is how that survival seemed to be all about them and no one else. Beyond that question, too, is the idea of wanting someone else to fight their battles for them.
So here’s my question: “What are our motivations for having these communities we call “church”?
That is, why do we say things like, “We just HAVE to have children and young people!” “We absolutely MUST update our music and the words used in our worship services!” “We need to get back to basics and make sure we’re preaching the ONE , true message that Jesus is the only way to heaven!” “We need more programming for the 20-30 somethings!” “We need to welcome LGBTQIA people!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!” “We need a stronger, entertaining presence in the pulpit who isn’t too intellectual!”
Depending on your particular church, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves; still, the question is WHY do we want them? I think if we’re honest we will admit that concern for the survival of our churches is at least part of the reason. After all, no one likes to preside over the funeral of a church–especially if you’ve put your heart and soul into that community (like Samuel may have put his heart and soul into serving the Israelites). And these feelings are often as strong for committed laity as they are for clergy–sometimes even stronger, since even committed clergy tend to leave churches after a period of time while committed laity tend to stay in those churches for longer periods of time.
Yet, if our primary reason for wanting children and young people, catchy music and programming and entertaining preachers is to put bodies in the building who will pay the bills and guarantee the survival of our churches, aren’t we just using people to fight our battles for us, rather than examining our real reasons for existing as a community of faith? And what happens when people start feeling used? They leave. Sometimes they leave organized religion altogether, too. And who can blame them?
Here’s a thought: What if, rather than looking around at what everyone else has and deciding we need what they have in order to be successful and complete, we allow our churches to evolve as they will–trying new things to be sure, and not being afraid to fail and try again? And what if, rather than focusing on our survival, we focus on making the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place–even if that means “losing our lives” in one form of community in order to gain those lives once again in other more healthy ways of being with one another in community and in the world?
Just remember, be careful what you ask for. For what you receive may be more challenging–and in the long run, more fabulous–than you could ever imagine.