bags of sugar

October 27, 2004 | 19 Comments

Thank goodness for packaging. It’s not reasonsable for any of us to go to the store and purchase sugar without it’s pretty packinging. It wouldn’t be convenient to transport it. Without the packaging, I can think of any number of rather ridiculous scenarios of what it would be like to purchase a handful of sugar and bring it home.

This is a good way for us to picture Jesus’ use of the parables, and also a good picture of how we should think of preaching, teaching, and even language. We are trying to take the deep truths of God and make them portable for people to take with them. It is almost a shame at times to try to reduce the concept of the Godhead to a word like “the trinity” or an analogy of ice, liquid and steam. Yet, this is a convenient and good way for us to transfer these deep truths to others.

Even more ridiculous, however, than the thought of buying sugar by the handful is the thought of a pantry loaded with sugar in packages that have never been breeched. I fear that much of our teaching in churches does just that. We package the deep truths of God for people to make it easy for them to take away. We use brilliant metaphors, fancy outlines and sharp looking handouts to assist people in taking it with them, and that is good. If, however, they don’t open up into that packaging and consume those truths, it is all lost. I’m not sure if the fault lies on the side of the teachers who aren’t compelling enough to open the packaging later, or on the listeners who are so preoccupied that they just stuff the package away never to be opened.

I have the advantage of being both a teacher and a listener at different times, and perhaps many of you do as well. As teachers, let us be teachers that leave time bombs in the packaging. Let us present the deep truths of God in a way that is so compelling that they aren’t easily dismissed. Let us present the truth in a way that is hauntingly beautiful, like a piece of art that just stays with us. Let us raise more questions than answers so that people are forced to grapple with those truths.

As listeners, let us not become content just to have a notebook full of outlines with every blank filled in. Let us not be happy just because we have yet another gold star of attendance next to our name. Let us ask God to connect the message with our souls no matter how well we connect with the messenger.

Note: Just so you don’t think that I’m far brighter than I am, I should point out that credit for this original analogy goes to NT Wright.

  • Brewster

    I heard another good analogy last week that goes along with this. It was from a pastor named Ed Young who said that many Christians are spiritually bulimic. They gorge themselves on sermons and Bible studies and then when they get home they throw it all up, but never digest it or exercise their spiritual life.

    Good stuff.

  • I’ve often wondered what Christianity would be like if it had taken the same direction that Judaism did after the destruction of the Temple, placing a high emphasis on study. I don’t think Christianity would look anything like it does today. Albeit much more Jewish in nature.

    Our group has lost quite a few people over us not giving them sugar packets to go home with and shelf. We highly encourage study and offer the resources to do so, sometimes to the point that they don’t get anything at all out of coming to the group unless they ‘open the packages’ for themselves.

    Sadly, our culture seems to teach it strongly that we are suppose to just sit and listen, only do what we’re told, when we’re told, and how we’re told. I long for a ‘Church culture’ (for lack of a better term) that encrouages thinking for ourselves, studying things out diligently, and us all learning and growing together.

  • Gary

    That is such a good analogy. I’ve seen some churches use their small group ministries to help unpack the sugar. Discussions are directed around last Sunday’s teaching, or even better, the topic about to be covered the next Sunday. The church provides workbooks with individual study materials and group discussion. It’s pretty effective.

  • I’m afraid though, Gary, that if the Church continues to provide all the resources to release the sugar in the very packets that it gave to its people then we are merely perpetuating the self-serving nature that we so frequently find ourselves trapped in.

    I’ve heard it said in many forms that the true test of a teacher is not whether the students have learned the material at hand, but rather have learned how to analyze, synthesize, and then implement the knowledge in their lives as it pertains to each of them.

    We can still give them opportunities to explore that which was taught from the pulpit during small groups or other times, but we must not allow a dependence to form. Perhaps that is why the Bereans received so much praise. They had learned this very thing.

  • Dean

    Brandon, I hear what you are saying; however, we’ve got to remember that within every one of our communities we have students who range from Kindergarten to Graduate school (in terms of their familiarity with Christ’s teachings). We must hand out sugar packets and teach people to unwrap them and taste the goodness. We must give people the resources to grow and learn!

    Our next responsibility is developing leadership within our community. That is where leaders begin teaching others how to unwrap the packaging. If we continue to encourage and develop leadership (give it away) within our community, we will have a constant flow of those who are still being fed and those who are feeding.

    We can’t push everyone away from the table because they are not ready to feed themselves, nor can we allow stagnancy.

  • Gary

    I agree B. We cannot plan to spoonfeed people for their entire lives. However, the reason the Berean’s were able to go back and examine Paul’s teachings was because they already had a knowledge of the Scripture. Like Dean said in most church situations we’re dealing with all ranges of knowledge and learning abilities. Our eventual goal is to produce people who can unpack the sugar themselves, but asking someone to open the sugar before they’ve learned how to fully use their hands can lead to starvation.
    I know of very few people who are skilled enough teachers to inspire conversation and study throughout the rest of the week. The truth of the matter is that it’s far easier to come home from church and get lost in a football game or the Sox winning the World Series (okay, that was last night, but I had to get that one in there). Reality television and bad sitcoms dominate the culture.
    Based on our discussions here, two ways come to mind in which we can combat these distractions and encourage people to spend some time struggling to open the sugar and consuming it. First, as John mentioned originally, creative, beautiful packaging will always draw your attention and make you want to find out what’s inside. (We just need to be sure we don’t spend so much time on the package that we’re putting poor quality sugar inside). Second, whether it’s small groups or whatever, some medium during the week that says, “Hey, remember that bag of sugar? Let’s check that out.”

  • I don’t mean this as disrepect to anybody, but this is striking me in all the wrong ways.

    Via the “bags of sugar” for people to unwrap and even using such a (honestly) weak analogy is doing nothing more but making a game out of very serious spiritual situations. Analogies, programs, learning tools, et cetera, are all part of this “game,” a game that the Christian church is sorely losing. It needs to stop.

    All of the talk so far has been about what humans can create to get people to understand spiritual concepts. Jesus didn’t worry about such things. If people had ears to hear and eyes to see then they did just that. If they didn’t, well sorry, but the Biblical truth is that some just didn’t. We keep trying to sugarcoat all of this and make new “bags of sugar” to help force those who don’t have ears to hear unpack the sugar and then what?–voila?–they magically discover spiritual truth? Talk about giving your pearls to swine…

    What is wrong with giving people a Bible, and then perhaps teaching them on how to pray through it, on meditation of scriptures, divine understanding,–the use of the Holy Spirit most of all. God wants those willing hearts to understand these “bags of sugar”–and the faith and reliance on the Holy Spirit for such understanding is far more powerful then anything we could create.

    I am beginning to see how we get in the way–and I think we’re in the way big time with all of our “ideas,” “programs” and “study tools”. Is anybody else seeing this, or is it just me?

  • First of all, let me say that this is now officially me favorite post of all time on here. Lots of discussion, debate and disagreement…even with me!

    Nash, I have a number of thoughts to respond to you with. Aside from what I’m about to share, let’s get lunch, because I have more thoughts than I choose to share here. I think you know that some of what you say, I agree with…however, I think you’ve hijacked this entry a bit and missed the point of it. I also think that most of the reasoning in your comments reeks of both dualism and Western individualism — and that alone is worth evaluating on your part methinks.

    That being said, I’ll just respond with some questions for you and everyone else to wrestle through. I know some of these may sound ridiculous to even ask, but I think they are simply the result of carrying out some of your reasoning:

    1) “All of the talk so far has been about what humans can create to get people to understand spiritual concepts. Jesus didn’t worry about such things.” If Jesus didn’t care about communicating spiritual concepts through human vehicles, why did he even bother to come to earth as a human? Why did he choose to use parables to help people grasp his teaching?

    2) If it is simply enough to just give people a Bible and teach them to pray through it, what were those seeking to follow Jesus suppose to do for the first 1500 or so years of Christianity prior to the invention of the printing press?

    3) If God primarly intended for us to discover truth through the Holy Spirit, then what is the point of giving some in the body the gift of teaching? To really carry that out to a ridiculous conclusion, why were the apostles and Paul even necessary after the resurrection?

    4) Do humans have any role in conveying spiritual truth? Is there no spiritual element at all to our relationships? Is it not possible to use human language to share a ‘spiritual’ truth with someone?

  • Dean

    Nash, you know I love you, man, but you are way off base on this one. I think it is a wonderful thing to hand someone a Bible and “teach them how to pray” but isn’t that part of teaching them to “unpack” – exactly what you were “bagging” on (sorry for the pun).

    I understand your heart, but you are swinging the pendulum way to far to the other side of the “programming” clock. There is a middle ground.

    When Jesus is rebuking and condemning it is always to the religiously pius that He directs His comments. With the crowds who sought him, he sometimes stayed with them for days (ie. John 4 – Woman at the well) where many people believed because of the words that he spoke. It is the very reason that He sent His disciples out two by two to preach and teach. You cannot separate “teaching” from Christ’s commands to us.

    I know that the modern church has turned “teaching” into a program and we may not like the taste of that, but it doesn’t have to look this way, but we must teach all the same.

    Again, love you, bro!

  • Dean

    John, you barely pre-posted me. (Can we put that in the blog dictionary?) Excellent questions (very socratic of you). I feel like you hit the nail on the head.

  • Nash,
    I few more thoughts as I’ve reflected on this: I think you’ve read this differently than everyone else. The point is not sugarcoating the truth. The point is that the truth is sugar — an analogy I am more than comfortable with (see Psalm 19:10 or 119:103). However, this truth is a deep and mysterious truth. Our challenge is to try to somehow grasp that truth as we dialogue about it. This is where the packaging comes in. The language we use, the metaphor we use, the stories we use — all are our attempts at somehow finding ways to transport this truth from one soul to another.

  • John & Dean,

    First off guys, thank you for the patience to dialouge this with me, as it were. My apologies for sounding so “hijacking” here–I did not realize how intense the comment came across until I reread it a few hours later (my humble apologies again).

    Of your four points (John), I do feel that my quote in Point 1 was taken a bit out of really needs to be paired with the next sentence. But on the comment about Jesus conveying the truth through human vehicles, I think God incarnate as a human and the programs and books created *by* humans are both very different things. Some of these things can be truly God-inspired, and they are extremely effective when they are. However, I believe most humans forget about divine intervention, true discipleship, and leading from the Holy Spirit when they are trying to think of ways to help “unpack the sugar.”

    Your other three comments raise good questions that I would love to talk with you more about over lunch.

    Primarily, the reason I posted what I did is because I feel that such programs, teaching times, and study aides really do leave very little room for the Holy Spirit to work. It’s a control issue it seems to me, and we want to control it. I’ll avoid further ranting and we can discuss this later, as well.

    Dean, I agreed that I swinged the pendulum too far in my last post–and there is a middle ground. Some call it pendulum swinging–some call it the “3 steps forward, two steps backward” analogy. Like our conversation at the wedding, the current post-post modernism movement would not be what it is if it hadn’t been for the extreme post-modern movement swinging the pendulum way the other way. We would never have moved past modernism if it wasn’t for that push.

    Well, like Dave said on here once, my horse is now dead and it’s been kicked a few times.

  • Gary

    If we keep this up, we’re going to easily take over cuddle parties.

    Nash, unfortunately I’ve never met you, but I think I see where you’re coming from, or smell what you’re stepping in. You are absolutely right. It’s very easy for programs to exist merely for the sake of having a program. I’ve seen churches that sell the package rather than the product. It’s all about having a gimmick that will get people in the doors…How can we make church like Sportscenter so we can have families drag their dad/husband in through the doors…(I’ve seen it done).

    Church programs are not inherently evil. The problem arises when we lose focus of what the program is all about. I think that the creative ways of packaging truth become mere gimmicks when we start to forget that we’re dealing with real people on an intimate, spiritual level. Do we do things so people will call us clever or cute, or because we are honestly and deeply concerned about their lives. I believe that part of the reason Jesus’ ministry was so effective was that he saw people “harrassed and helpless” and had compassion on them. His parables weren’t just neat little sayings but were meant to connect with people on a profoundly deep level.

    It should be remembered that anything we do that loses it’s meaning becomes a mere gimmick. Whether it’s our programs, our teachings, singing songs, taking communion, cooking dinner, or washing a car.

  • Cuddle parties are going down!

    Gary, very well put. Your ideas are similiar to where my thoughts were going–thank you for saying it in such a way I couldn’t.

  • Dean

    Let the Cuddle Parties die! (However fun and non-sexual they might be.)

    Gary, I could not agree with you more. Very well put.

  • Dean

    I’m sorry, I had to include one meaningless post here just to put Cuddle Parties out of their misery.

  • Die, cuddle parties, die! 🙂

  • david the rambler

    I have avoided comment thus far in silent protest and lament against the heinous attack on our beloved ‘cuddle party’ string… It is finished. My quiet dirge and tears are over…

    as for this discussion, i think it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit does use gimmicky stuff, and uber-programmed stuff, and cheesy ‘study tools,’ yeah, He frequently uses the dull tools in the shed of man and man’s creation to triumph gloriously… just look at the biblical patriarchs or even john chandler… that being said i think it is worth saying that if the question is how do we express teaching and compassion and relevance and God to anyone, especially to the current driving edge of post-post-whatever culture; the the answer is real disciplship.

    In the same way that the church ought not foist it’s responsibilities and privlidges on the state by investing and relying solely or too largely on legislated or legislatible sins, but be the wonderfully inticing beacon of a family of acceptance, worship, truth, hope, and human wholeness through community… any individual ought not foist responsibilities and privilidges onto a paid minister, a program, a study tool, or a teaching method; but ought to actively seek to find and to be a personal spritual mentor. You and me, starting with one. This is the true power of the familiness and bodiness of the church, where the best worship lays, and how the most compassion and love and teaching will ever happen, ever. Especially now when personal meta-naratives and non-written examples are snowballing in effectiveness; and when that which is gimmicky, pretentious, cold, commercial, and packaged as jeff defined it leaves so many with a bad taste in their mouth.

    I used to try and want to cut out all the bad stuff in my spiritual life, piece by piece. Until i realized that there is little but futility and then guilt and myopia in that. I need reminders everyday to obey the things i know and be who I am, namely seek to be and make better disciples and to live freely in that…

    It seems to me that disciplship was for jesus and is now the thing that ought to have our focus… i need a paul like timothy had, and a timothy like paul had… and y’all can be my collective barney…

    living up to may name

  • Mark

    Fellows, My name is Mark. John invited me to join in on your conversations a while ago. I look in from time to time but have never commented. I’m guessing I might know a couple of you, not sure. For those who comment on this page, many of your thoughts are provoking to me…love that. What I wanted to say has to do with preaching, not as much to do with the conversation about sugar bags.

    I enjoy politics without the spin. This election has increased my strong dislike for what I call savy manipilation. One can say what they want in a round about way in order to say they said what they wanted to say without really saying it (hope thats not to confusing). In politics they speak this political language. Being a pastor myself, and one who cares deeply about preaching, I wonder sometimes if instead of speaking in political language preachers speak spiritual language, another way of taking on this art of savy manipulation. Saying what one wants in such a round about way, as to not provoke, without really just saying it.