Every so often, a television show will surprise me and touch on church life in a thought-provoking way — like a recent episode of Last Man Standing, which portrayed some typical church settings and situations that get at contemporary issues facing Christians.
The half-hour sitcom centers on Mike Baxter (Tim Allen), his relationships with his wife and three adult daughters and his work-life as senior executive and marketing director at Outdoor Man, an outdoor sporting goods store.
In “The Passion of Paul,” Reverend Paul (Bill Engvall) asks Mike to fill in as a Sunday school teacher. Mike quickly pawns the job off on his son-in-law Kyle (Christoph Sanders), a good-natured young man who also works at Outdoor Man.
Nervous about teaching adults, Kyle initially goes along with brother-in-law Ryan’s suggestion to entertain the class using sound effects. When it predictably goes awry, Kyle tells Ryan to cool the effects.
“Maybe the story of Noah’s ark doesn’t need to have anything to make it bigger,” he tells the class, going on to pull out of the story the idea that our mistakes and bad choices can be washed away and we can make a fresh start.
But when Reverend Paul overhears Kyle’s teaching, he takes it as a sought-after sign to leave the ministry. In conversations with Mike and Kyle afterward, the pastor reveals that he’s burned out by days filled with business meetings, budget reports and staff reviews.
There’s a lot written about ministry burnout these days, and some of those voices suggest that business and corporate church models and the professionalization of ministry (not to mention the pressure on worship services to be entertaining) are root causes of that. And those concerns are definitely worth contemplating.
But what resonates most with me is the conversation between Kyle and Reverend Paul at the end of the episode. Sitting in Mike’s ice-fishing hut, Kyle tells Reverend Paul that the pastor has missed the whole point of the lesson, which is the opportunity for renewal.
When the pastor hedges and tries to explain how his ministry has turned into a job that feels stale, Kyle gets to the point.
“My job at the store is to tell people how great it is to do stuff out in nature. And if I don’t do that stuff myself, then what I tell people might start to feel . . . stale.”
And that is something that can happen to all of us, whether we are in a megachurch or a house church, whether we are in professional ministry or not.
God invites us into a relationship and to experience a life we would never know without Jesus Christ. For whatever reason — be it making bad choices, getting distracted by day-to-day life, compartmentalizing church to Sundays, getting caught in religious trappings, or intellectualizing faith by reducing it to doctrines or ideas — we stop living that life. And that leaves a stale taste.
If that’s where we are, we can start again. In the words of another Paul, we can be transformed by the renewing of our mind — “changed from the inside out,” as The Message says (Rom. 12:2).
God invites us to renew, recenter and rebuild our lives around that love-fueled relationship.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.