From the Publisher
Praise for What Matters Most
“Len Sweet has really done it this time! In true midrash form, Len exposes the beauty of a relationship with our Creator. He asks all the hard questions and leads us to a place of grace beyond the formulaic answers. Throw all your selfhelp books in the trash and immerse yourself in a book that will help you see your faith journey in a whole new way.”
—CHRIS SEAY, author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano
“No charts, no boxes, no to-do lists. Just everything we thought we knew about faith but didn’t. This is the book we should be reading in our small groups.”
—SALLY MORGENTHALER, author of Worship Evangelism, founder of Sacramentis.com and Digital Glass Videos
“Way back in the 1970s, some thoughtful Christian leaders began talking about a relational theology. The term held intrigue and promise. Now, Leonard Sweet has given us a great gift. Here is a panoramic view of what a relational theology can mean for Christians today. Whether you’re a spiritual seeker trying to get the lay of the land, or a seasoned traveler trying to make sense of what you’ve experienced, or even a disillusioned leader who feels it’s all gone stale—this book will help you see in a fresh, inspiring, profound, and invigorating way.”
—BRIAN MCLAREN, author of A New Kind of Christian and The Church on the Other Side
Read an Excerpt
WHERE DID WE MISS THE PERSON AND GET THE POINT INSTEAD?
We know how to save the world. We just don’t realize that we know what we know.
The way to save the world is not through more rules to live by, but through right relationships to live for. People are fast losing the art of being with one another. So it’s not surprising that the number one problem in the world is people’s living disconnected lives. They are detached from God, from others, and from creation. People are losing the art of living with one another. Relationship is the soul of the universe. And the soul is sick.
How sick? So sick that the worlds of business and finance are proclaiming a biblical truth that the church has lost: “The Right Relationship Is Everything.” 1We have entered a relationship economy where high-quality customer relationships are the key competitive advantage. When you purchase a cell phone, the cell-phone company takes a loss. Why? Because they aren’t selling cell phones, they’re seducing you into a long-term relationship. (Ever try to get out of one of these “committed relationships”?)
Real estate developers no longer sell houses, they sell relationships.2 In more and more cities and suburbs, new houses are designed with a retro look—the most prominent feature being a large front porch. And in more and more new subdivisions, houses are grouped together in a friendly arrangement that caters to neighbors getting to know one another. Walking trails and community greenbelts, neighborhood playgrounds and even community garden plots, all underscore the importance of spending time with other people. You might need a house, but you want a relationship.
When I consider that I’m more intimately involved with two of my credit cards—American Express and Starbucks—than I am with the family that lives three doors down the street, then it’s time to rethink relationship. Did you know that American Express keeps a detailed transcript of every conversation they have with their customers? I found this out when the check I used to pay my bill bounced. As soon as I received the overdraft notice from my bank, I called American Express, explained what had happened, and asked what I should do. They told me not to worry; they would simply resubmit the check. I asked if they would freeze my American Express account until the check cleared the bank. Not at all, they said. As long as I was talking to them, my credit card would work just fine.
A week later my checking account still showed no payment made to my credit card company. So I again called American Express and, once again, they weren’t worried about it. They had a record of every call I had made to them, and just to relieve my anxiety, they said they would update my account as if the bill were paid. What mattered, the American Express representative said, was that “we’re talking, and as long as that relationship is still strong, we’ll work with you and make it as easy as we can.”
At the same time I was talking to American Express about my bounced check, I was also dealing with an unpaid monthly bill to the Christian school two of my kids attend. The school provides my children with as good an education as I can imagine anyone’s receiving. We have been part of this school from its inception, and to help get it off the ground, we had been making significant donations above and beyond the tuition fees. Since money was tight at home just then due to a two-times-the-estimate construction project, I called the school and alerted them that I’d be late making the current tuition payment, but that I’d get back on track the following month.
They were not happy. If my bill was not paid in full, they informed me, they would not release my kids’ report cards. I apologized for adding to their cash-flow problems but reminded them that they knew I was good for the money. I even offered to pay interest on the overdue fees. Penalize me, I said, but not my kids. Their response was polite but principled: Rules are rules. No payment in full, no report cards.
I have to agree with Chase Bank: “The right relationship is everything.” But it’s not with a bank. Or even with Starbucks or American Express, as much as I rely on them in my everyday life. It’s time for individual Christians and the church to become as relationship driven as some of the leading multinational corporations.
The Tail That Wags the World
To save the world we need something more biblical than higher standards. We need higher relationships. We need less to be “true to our principles” and much more to be true to our relationships. To save the world we don’t need the courage of our convictions. We need the courage of our relationships…especially the courage of a right relationship with the Creator, the creation, and our fellow creatures. Our problem in reaching the world is that we’ve made rules more important than relationship.
The inherent tension that exists between rules and relationship is not of interest only when we’re talking about Christian witness. This same tension lies at the heart of the church’s struggle for identity in an increasingly hostile culture. And a misguided allegiance to rules over relationship also has impoverished the pursuit of the life of faith for every one of us. This book is a first attempt at a corrective. We need to rediscover Christianity’s “trimtab factor”—the small but crucial element that orients the course of the entire church, as well as the lives of individual Christians. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this trimtab factor orients all of life. The trimtab we’re seeking is the truth of relationship and its power to save. Philosopher/inventor Buckminster Fuller asked his students to imagine they are on the deck of an ocean liner with one thousand people. Rocks are looming ahead and the passengers must find a way to steer the ship to safety. One person stands on the bow, pointing out the rocks, and the crowd of passengers tries to guide the ship by shifting their weight. They run from one side of the deck to the other in response to the guide’s instructions.
But Fuller, a fulcrum figure in science and philosophy, suggested that there’s a much better way to guide the ship to safety. In the steering mechanism of an ocean liner is a piece of metal six inches square, called a trimtab.3 One person moving the trimtab can steer a great ship more effectively than even ten thousand people running back and forth on the deck. The trimtab is the place to position yourself to take action that will maximize your impact on the course of human history.
The more complex our world becomes, the more important it is to find that small trimtab simplicity—to concentrate on the one strategic thing that will steer the world to safety. When things aren’t going well, every coach will tell you it’s time to return to the basics.
When a history of Christianity can be written in which Jesus is largely absent,4 any coach with his eyes open will tell you, “It’s time to work on blocking and tackling.”
When studies of the gospels can be written without the name of Jesus appearing even once in the index, it’s dribbling, passing, and screening time.5 Vice versa, when one reviewer can criticize a textbook on philosophy because “space is given to people whom one might not expect to see considered in any detail,” and he lists as his first complaint the inclusion of Jesus, 6 it’s keep-your-head-down and follow-through-with-the-swing time. When an average of twelve to fifteen churches in the United States are closing their doors every day, it’s time to find the trimtab.
When atheist Michael Martin can evangelize people into atheism by asking, “Who wants to be like them?” (meaning Christians) and claiming that following Christ involves being “punitive, unforgiving, violent, mean-spirited, hypocritical and inconsistent; and [if we followed Christ] we would tacitly approve of slavery, forsake reason, and have no opinions on the central issues of the day,”7 it’s definitely trimtab time.
When half of all high school kids are sexually active, and there’s only a 7 percent difference (43 percent) between the sexual habits of non-Christians and conservative Christian teenagers who are involved in a church youth group, it’s time for the trimtab.8
When the special millennium edition of The Economist begins its treatment of the last thousand years by observing: “Already Christianity, the faith once almost synonymous with Europe, is decaying in its homelands—as its rival, Islam, is not,”9 it may be trimtab time.
When a Baptist Internet entrepreneur can advise from experience: “Never do business with someone with a fish on his business card,” and when the loudest horns and meanest swerves come from cars with fish on their bumpers, it’s time for the trimtab.
How Did We Get Here?
How did we arrive at the place where Christians are providing some of the best arguments against knowing Christ? In the words of one Christian leader, “because Christians are largely irrelevant…if there’s a life-changing message to present, we’ll make it boring and put it in a context you’re not involved in.”10
Over a two-thousand-year period, but especially in the last two hundred years, we have jerked and tugged the Christian faith out of its original soil, its life-giving source, which is an honest relationship with God through Jesus the
Christ. After uprooting the faith, we have entombed it in a declaration of adherence to a set of beliefs. The shift has left us with casual doctrinal assent that exists independent of a changed life. We have made the Cross into a crossword puzzle, spending our time diagramming byzantine theories of atonement. How did the beauty of Jesus’s atoning work get isolated from the wonder of restoring an authentic relationship between God and humanity? It’s time to replant the Christian faith back into the ground from whence it first grew. Henry David Thoreau once warned that words, when derived properly, come with the earth still clinging to their roots. In the case of Christian faith, the soil has been scrubbed off the roots until much of the fruit of the Christian life has lost its juice—leaving it dry and sour and distasteful.
What else would explain why the broader culture now understands Christianity to be tacky and tactless? How else to explain the Christian faith becoming so graceless, artless, joyless, intellectually impoverished, and fearful of the future? Why are Christians the ones who like to hover around the Tree of Knowledge, as pastor and theologian John Baker-Batsel puts it, baiting the serpent and battling each other, rather than being the people who like to play in the garden?11
The church may clutch Jesus to its side, but it no longer clutches Jesus to its insides. For the Jews, the unique place where God encountered humans was the temple and (before that) the tent or tabernacle. For Jesus, the unique place where God encounters humans is the human heart. But the church has embalmed Jesus in rules, codes, canonicities, and traditions that have everything to do with the church’s saving itself and nothing to do with the church’s saving the world. Sometimes it seems as if the Buddha has more authority for Buddhists than Jesus has for Christians. In fact, Jesus has been so far removed from Christianity that non-Christians are starting to co-opt Jesus as a guide for life. Even some members of the Jesus Seminar are now starting to realize that “Jesus is missing and we miss Jesus.”13
When much of the church has devolved into an arrogant, clubby institution that looms so large it obscures a person’s view of Christ, it may be time to return to the Jesus trimtab. No, it is time to return.