Jonah and the Church: Will There Be Any Change?

God is not in the business of keeping churches afloat. I know that might be hard to understand for some but it’s the truth. God is in the business of redeeming his fallen creation in Christ. That’s the mission of God and his desire is for churches to join him as participants in this mission. Sadly though, there are some churches who would unknowingly rather die than do just that.

The Business of God Is…

In the fourth chapter of Jonah, this prophet of God is quite angry. He’s angry because after preaching against the city of Nineveh, the people repented of their wicked ways and in response, the Lord showed mercy rather than exercising his promised wrath. In fact, Jonah is so angry that he wishes for death (vv. 1, 4). 

The Lord confronts Jonah and in doing so he also provides a plant that will grow and then wither. This angers Jonah all the more. So in v. 9 the Lord confronts Jonah, asking him if he has any right to be so concerned for the plant. In the same verse, Jonah defends his right to be concerned with the withered plant and then says, “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” 

Little does Jonah know but he has just indicted himself and justified the Lord’s concern for Nineveh. For if Jonah believes he is within his right to be concerned over a plant, then surely God is within his right to be concerned about the people of Nineveh. Here is how God expresses this verdict in vv. 10-11:

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

This is the main point of this story told in this Old Testament writing: The business of God is his concern for people “who do not know their right hand from their left.” This is the business of God, his mission, and it’s aimed at such people as these. So now you understand what the concern of God is. But is this the concern of your church?

An Opportunity for Change!

The irony here is that even though the main point of Jonah is expressed in vv. 10-11, this isn’t the lesson most children learn from Jonah children in their Sunday School classes. Maybe that’s why talk about change is so contentious in some churches.

Jonah is concerned with his own interests and that’s why he is so angry (vv. 1, 4, 9). God, however, isn’t concerned with the interests of Jonah. It’s an opportunity for Jonah to repent (=change) and take up the concern of God. However, the story of Jonah never says whether or not the prophet does this. What the end of Jonah leaves is an open question. It’s a question for your church! My church too! Will the church take up the concern of God, participating on mission with God?

That’s a big question awaiting an answer. In many churches, it’s going to requires change—probably a lot of change—if the question is answered with a “yes!” But such talk about change seems so contentious in many churches, evoking anger and other testy emotions (remember why Jonah was so angry!). I’ve been around long enough to know that most of these reactions are fueled by a concern for the church (that’s often code for someone’s personal preferences for their church). Yet such a response really shows how badly the mission of God is misunderstood in some churches. God is concerned with the people who cannot tell their right hand form the left, not with our preferences on what we want our church to look like. So perhaps the real question awaiting an answer is: Would the church rather die over an aversion to change or would the church rather learn again what it is to live as participants in the mission of God?

Ask The Right Question First!

This shouldn’t come as a surprise but North American culture has and continues to undergo major shifts. The questions people once asked have been replaced with different questions, different problems, different paradigms, etc… You might have also noticed that people are not necessarily as interested in knocking down the doors of where your church gathers! Churches can complain about these culture shifts but that won’t change anything… except maybe sink the church into further isolation until it dies. So instead of complaining, it’s time to start having a serious conversation about what it means to live as participants in the mission of God. 

However, the issue isn’t simply a matter of new and improved pragmatics. I’m all for practical thinking but efforts to remain practical shouldn’t become utilitarianism as though the goal is simply to draw people in. Churches must still live as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ and therefore must first exist as a living expression of Jesus Christ. This will always attract some and be detractive to others. Understanding this witness requires a deeper missiology and ecclesiology. Having said, at the end of the day, taking up this challenge will still require change. 

The caveat is that the church must ask the right question first. The conversation about change must begin with the question of how might the church participate in the mission of God as a people bearing the name of Jesus Christ? If the primary concern is the question of what is best for the church rather than how might the church participate in the mission of God, then you have already started down the wrong path. It’s not that the church is unimportant; it’s just a matter of where the concern is and whether the primary concern is aligned with the concern of God. Besides, any church that is living as participants in the mission of God will be ok anyways.

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