I’ve always been struck by the phrase from Luke 9: 51, 53 which describes Jesus as “turning his face toward Jerusalem”. It implies a resoluteness of intent and a high degree of commitment to a divine agenda. Nothing is going to dissuade him from his divine appointment. Verse 53 implies that people did not receive him because they could tell that he was determined to go to Jerusalem.
To “turn one’s face” toward something is to give yourself to it without reservation. It is to lock in on a goal or a behavior or a habit and refuse to waver from that commitment.
I recently had a healthy discussion with a group of church leaders gathered to talk about the future of their church and the church at large. One of their deep and abiding concerns was the decline in commitment they sensed in their church members and throughout culture.
The pastor described how often it seemed that the things of God, and especially the activities of the local church, took a back seat to a multitude of other commitments. Every minister can recount a litany of conversations with parishioners who opt out of congregational commitments for reasons that seem exceptionally flimsy. Athletic practices, games, concerts, geometry projects, sunny weather, dance recitals, and about anything else all seem to rank ahead of commitments to one’s local congregation.
When we analyzed the issue, we had to admit that shallow commitment is not only true in congregational life. Everyone agreed it is pervasive in our culture. Commitment seems to be a lost art.
The pastor noted that the recent signing period for high school football players by colleges offered a glimpse of this societal issue. High schoolers “commit” to a college verbally, and then eventually sign a binding commitment in February of their senior year. Recent years have seen these young men commit with great fanfare, and then “de-commit” in record numbers. A new word, “flip”, has emerged to describe the back-and-forth actions of these young athletes. Some “flip” numerous times, as their “commitment” wavers in the face of intense pressure, or simply out of fickleness. Fans and coaches are learning to be highly skeptical of the promises made by these young men.
Other examples related to marriage, job security, politicians, and the like were offered as further proof of the devaluation of commitment in our culture. It seems clear that to commit to someone or something in our culture means something very different than “turning your face” toward it.
His suggestion was that we stop using the word commitment to describe what we believe Jesus practiced and expects from us. He said he has begun to use the word “surrender” in place of the word commitment. Surrender implies a sacrificial decision to abandon other options for the one option that matters most. He suggested that, given the incessant demands upon us for our attention and commitment, surrender might be the most accurate word to describe what Christ had in mind for his followers.
The act of surrender is at the heart of Jesus’ declaration a few verses earlier in v. 24 that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”. Could it be that he is embodying an example of the “surrender principle” for all to see? Is “turning your face” by giving yourself unreservedly to a divine agenda something that is to describe our walk as Christ–followers?
As we considered the issue of shallow commitment in the 21st century church, we agreed there were some basic agreements we needed to reach as we approached this troubling trend.
First, we must beware of equating commitment to activity at our church with commitment to Christ. They are not always the same. Many who resist committing to the agenda of a church do so because they see so little of Jesus’ agenda at work in the life of the church.
Second, in the face of increasing competition for people’s time and attention, churches are often tempted to water down their expectations of those who make up their congregation. Too often, these lower expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Third, our discussion led us to consider the radical idea that, rather than water down our invitation toward commitment or surrender, we might instead expect more.
Fourth, we recognized that higher expectations must be accompanied by an equally high commitment to quality and a resolve to take seriously our responsibility to provide exceptional events and experiences.
The Lenten season is a time to invite self-reflection around the question of our commitments and priorities. Healthy churches make such a conversation a regular part of congregational life, as we wrestle with how to live faithfully in the midst of a multitude of choices.