Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Avoiding the deadly Worm In A Jar of Horseradish Syndrome

"To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish". This Yiddish proverb paints us a very vivid picture of a major predicament, a sort of "ignorant bliss" people and many Christians find themselves living in.  The worm has limited horizons because all it knows is a jar of horseradish and doesn't realize that there is another world outside of the jar. So it is with many Christians who live in their own small world isolated from the surrounding culture.  And this condition leads to a significant portion of believers failing to understand and interact with the dominant culture around them. Just like the worm, many Christians don't even realize it because they are content with living in the jar.  And when a large proportion of believers are not interacting with the world around them, being the "salt and light" of the world, then Christianity begins to decline and has less and less of an impact on the world.
All humans are susceptible to the worm in a horseradish predictament, some by choice, others because of circumstance. Christians seem prone to this as much or more than others because we think we are called to be separate from the world. But Jesus instructed us just the opposite, to be the salt and light to the world, to be in the world but not of it.  He instructed us to be an influence not only in our own neighborhood (Jerusalem) but to neighboring areas (Judea), and to cultures that are very different than ours (Samaria) and even to other countries (the ends of the earth) Acts 1:8.

I recently was reminded that I was the worm in that horseradish jar. During one of my early visits to a high tech company in Austin for which I'm a chaplain, I sat at a table in the break room getting to know a group of the young employees. One of the employees turned to his fellow worker next to him and said, "I'm so sorry they kicked your friend out of the clan. I guess he wasn't ready for war". They proceeded to talk about wars and stuff that I had no clue about. It was as if they were speaking another language. Then one of them turned and looked at my perplexed expression. He chuckled and explained, "we are talking about a video game". I admitted I was very confused and was afraid to even ask what they were talking about. We all had a good laugh. Then they began another discussion about role playing games and some movies I'd never heard of. I quickly recognized how far from their world I was. I don't have plans to take up playing Warcraft but It may serve me well in this culture to at least become familiar with their world. 

My point is the world is changing rapididly and we all can begin to wall off ourselves from the people we are called to serve, if we allow it.  Pastors are even more susceptible to this because they spend so much of their time tending to all of the demands of their members. Their whole world is their church and most of their time and energy goes to the church.  So a pastor can easily become that worm and their church, the jar of horseradish, losing touch with the world around him. Ministry can become stale and lose its relevancy. The church can easily turn inward and isolated from their own neighborhood. The church then loses any potency to be salt and light to a world in need.

I saw this first hand while on staff at a large church. Once a vibrant church that reached out to the community and wasn't afraid of doing innovative ministry, the church slowly turned inward and began to isolate itself from its own neighborhood. It's members seemed to live in a church bubble thinking that they had a patent on ministry and their way was the right and only way to worship. They would dismiss anyone who spoke about a different way or changing anything to minister better to the changing culture.  As the world and ministry methods changed, the members dug their heals in and created an "us vs them" mentality and soon became the worm in the jar of horseradish. Over the years it has lost half of it's membership and its potency and impact on the surrounding community.

To avoid the worm in the jar dilemma, here are 7 suggestions:
1.  Take a mission trip every year.  You don't have to go oversees every year, but go some place that you are unfamiliar with (a Samaria). A mission trip, especially one that works closely with the indigenous people, will give you a totally different perspective on life and culture. You can receive some benefit by just vacationing somewhere different, but doing a mission will give you a much deeper experience with the people and culture.  My pastor, Will Davis Jr. said it well, "no one gets a better view of God doing the same thing over and over again from the same place." 

2.  Read historical, cultural and educational books 
I've had pastors and other Christians say they don't have time to read. Then there are others who refuse to read anything that is counter to their values or theological and political beliefs. Yes, most of what we read will be books that we are aligned with, however, if this is all we read, we will never walk in the shoes of the non-believer and understand his or her thinking and belief system.  Just reading alone is critically important for leaders as Michael Hyatt's blog points out so well, but we all need to throw in a book now and then that stretches our thinking. 

3.  Office in a Starbucks 
You'll find most pastors of church plants hanging out in coffee shops every day because they have no office. But even when they get an office, many will still set up shop in a Starbucks because they know the value of being in a public space and meeting people.  Find a place that gets you into the world where you can meet non-believers. 

4. Occasionally visit a church that is different than yours
Pastor, when you take a vacation or go on a sabbatical do you take the opportunity to go to other churches beside yours?  I don't mean speak at another church, just go and be an attender and feel what it is like to visit a church. If you visit one that is somewhat different than yours, you'll be able to learn a lot about this church and your own as well. 

5. Mentor a young person
Find someone that is at least one or two generations younger than yourself and mentor them. Discover their values and aspirations. Learn how they see the world differently from you. Talk about your differences.

6. Get to know your neighbors
Even if you live in a gated community, your lifestyle and worldview will probably be different from many of those living around you. Our neighbors in San Antonio included an Iranian family living on one side, a family from Mexico across the street and a black family on the other side of us. We didn't have to travel but a few feet to get out of our jar of horseradish. I've had pastors admit that their home is a sanctuary from the world and they don't want to engage with their neighbors. I wonder about someone's calling to pastor if they have no desire to reach those who are closest to them. 
7. Befriend a non-believer
Intentionally build a relationship with someone who doesn't know Jesus. Ask a lot of questions and do more listening than talking. Resist the urge to judge or argue about your differences. Look for opportunities to share your story and in no time you'll have long discussions about faith and will understand more about those who don't believe.  Being the salt and light to the world is not conforming to the world. The apostle Paul is a great example to follow in that he knew the value of understanding culture to address it and win people to Christ.  We too must avoid the "Christian bubble" to be salt and light to our world. 

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