I read the other day (can’t remember where–maybe an audiobook?) that if Jesus had walked the earth in our day, He would have been super busy. The author argued that Jesus was so well-loved and so important, that everyone wanted a piece of Him. He (my author friend) predicted, “If Jesus had lived in the days of mobile phones, His would have been ringing off the hook!”
That didn’t sit well with me then, and when this morning in one of my classes, a much younger fellow M.Div student casually commented that Jesus was all about efficiency. Then he made a comment quite similar to this “Jesus would get a lot of use out of smartphones” comment. And I felt I needed to think this through and comment.
I’m on campus this week taking a class about carefully considering society and culture in the interpretation of Scripture. Among other topics today, we discussed modernism and its effect on North American Evangelicalism. The professor had asked us to think through the theological implications of various elements of the industrial revolution, specifically…
- Measurabililty of productivity — the transition from measuring quality to measuring productive efficiency
- Reproducibility — the interchangeability of parts and workers on an assembly line, as well as the fact that you could build the same identical widget in two factors if you had a process for doing so
- Knowledge of a hierarchy of experts — the specialization of skills, such that instead of crafting something from start to finish, a worker builds (and specializes in) only part of it, and answers to a hierarchy of management to orchestrate the components being built into a coherent whole
- And so on.
A group of 3 fellow students and I were embroiled in a conversation about the first of these (“measurability of productivity”), discussing what the Bible / Christian theology might have to say about the trade-off that has occurred in the last 100 years between the quality of a product and the efficiency with which that product was produced. As we talked, I was thinking through the possible implications of that question on the culture of Jesus’ day. Is our fixation on efficiency a byproduct of our culture only? Did it exist in middle eastern culture at the time of Christ? Is it a tendency that the Bible would speak to (either for or against) in some direct way? So, half wondering aloud, I asked the group if they felt that Jesus was “efficient”.
Almost everyone I’m in seminary with is younger than me, but the 3 folks I was sitting with for this conversation, I would estimate, were all in their mid-20’s … so much younger. Without a moment’s hesitation — clearly, he’d thought this through before –, one of the guys responded, “Absolutely! Jesus had 12 disciples and 3 were his inner circle. And Moses appointed judges to manage the people of Israel after they fled Egypt.”
I was astonished. That was quick and easy. But I wasn’t at all as certain as he seemed to be, so I pressed him. He went on to imply that essentially Jesus had established a ministerial staff to multiply the effect of his ministry. Jesus clearly didn’t have time to do all the work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, ministering to the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. that he wanted to do. So He appointed a two-tiered management team to run the ministry. Peter, James and John in the inner circle (in my terms, maybe the “executive team”), and the other 9 disciples as the next tier of management (again, in my words, maybe “middle management”).
I found that fascinating. And having had two people speak so confidently about this to me in the very recent past, I wanted to weigh in…
Moses Appoints Judges
I thought I’d tackle this reference first. In my mind, it’s the easiest. You can find the story in Exodus 18:13-27. God had just used Moses to lead a few million Jewish slaves out of Egypt and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army (and half of Egypt) in the process. Moses is now the leader of an extremely large, fairly grumpy group of people who (due to their rebellion before God) end up wandering through the wilderness of the Middle East for 40 years before settling in the land God had promised them.
As time went on and the number of people grew, Moses has begun to be occupied day and night with settling disputes between the people. Your ox trampled my petunias! Your goat ate my dinner! You stole my phylacteries! I’m sure it was getting on Moses’ nerves.
So, Moses’ father in law sat him down and advised him to establish a government — to appoint judges to hear the concerns of the people. They could handle small matters themselves, and bring only the most significant issues to Moses, who could then take them before God. (BTW, wouldn’t it be awesome if every government leader took the people’s concerns before God!?)
So in a way, I do see this as an efficiency play. Moses was trying to scale up. He needed to share the burden of leadership. And this does in fact sound to me a little like our concepts of modern production. However, I don’t think it was “efficiency” per se that Moses was after, but rather “scalability”. He needed to build a structure to handle the number of people, but I don’t think he would have related to the idea of quantity over quality. In other words, if Moses had later written about “grading” this new system of government, I don’t think he would have done so in terms of the number of requests handled, or the number of people serviced per hour, or the % drop in requests that came to him in a week. I think he would have asked questions like, “Do the people feel they are getting justice? Is God pleased? Does this system bring Him glory?” I don’t think there would have been any spreadsheets or bar graphs involved.
So, scalability. Is that what Jesus was after too?
Jesus’ Ministry Leadership Team
My seminary colleague is correct that Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry surrounded by and investing pretty exclusively in twelve (12) disciples. He had other friends and undoubtedly met thousands of people, but his focus was on “the twelve”. And of these men, three (3) were his inner circle: Peter, James and John. They were his closest friends, and Jesus poured into them in a very special, exclusive way.
But I do not agree that these men were selected to “scale Jesus up”, as Moses’ judges had been, or that they formed a “management team” of some kind. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. As I read the gospels, it seems that these 12 men spent pretty much every waking moment with Jesus. Sometimes, Jesus would go into the synagogue or stand on the lake shore and teach vast crowds (with the disciples by his side), but much of the time we see Him explaining some spiritual truth to the twelve directly or having a personal interaction with a random person Jesus met on the road while the twelve looked on and tried to understand what Jesus was talking about. It’s true that at one point (see Matthew 10) that Jesus “sends out” the twelve to do ministry without Him, but by chapter 13, they’re back together. And with the exception of that brief three-chapter episode, they pretty much went with Him wherever He went.
I can’t hear Jesus saying, “Peter, come with me and we’ll cover Galilee. Phillip and John, you guys take the Decapolis. I need Thomas down in Perea. And everyone steer clear of Samaria. We’ll meet back here in 90 days. Have your Q2 reports ready at that time for the board meeting.” And if that was the plan, certainly none of the four gospel writers got word of it. If the goal was to have the disciples scale Jesus to give the ministry a broader reach, then it seems like that plan was a dismal failure. Instead, they went together. Looking at the twelve as men to whom Jesus could delegate ministry implies that they were far more equal (to Jesus) than they were and invalidates the entire concept of not sending them out until the Holy Spirit comes upon them that we see in Acts 1-2.
What I do see is Jesus (while His disciples watched and learned) tirelessly focusing His energy on the individual person. By my reading, He spent countless patient hours meeting with one or two (or 12) people. I picture their having His complete attention. I imagine Him looking into their eyes with a mixture of heartfelt compassion and unyielding commitment to God’s glory and truth. And I see Jesus walking wherever He went, not running around getting tasks checked off His busy agenda’s checklist. Where in the gospels do you see Him racing between meetings, delegating tasks, or receiving a status report from a team just back from detached assignment? Where do you see His disciples acting as His secretaries, or shuttling him out of one appointment early to ensure he gets to the next? Even the few times they tried to “handle” Him, He rebuked them. On the contrary, when I read the gospels, I see Jesus 100% of the time deliberately, and I think slowly, being with people … especially the twelve. Walking down the road discussing His Father, reclining at the table with friends and enemies alike, taking the time to bless little children, sitting to talk to a woman at a well, and countless hours of prayer alone on a hill. This does not sound to me like “Chief Executive Jesus”, but it does sound like Good Shepherd Jesus.
If efficiency of production (eclipsing quality of product) is a hallmark of modernization, then Jesus was anything but modern. In no way do I see Him treating His ministry like a business to be run. In fact, I think the picture we’ve drawn is the exact opposite. And I think that leads us back to why Jesus had twelve disciples. Jesus wasn’t creating a tiered ministerial leadership hierarchy, He was investing in a small group of people, knowing that the depth of their transformation (not the size and strength of their numbers) would change the whole world. Jesus wasn’t thinking in terms of production capacity or repeatable process, He was thinking in terms of life-changing power. Not, “go and repeat the 8-step process of discipleship I taught you well”, but “go and be my witnesses and I will still be with you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And beyond that, wait for the Holy Spirit to empower you to do it (Acts 1:4-8). Message, not technique. People, not production. Quality, not quantity. Relationship, not efficiency. And dependence on God, not independent agents.
Jesus Joins the Mobile Age
And that brings us to the whole cell phone thing.
First, I think Jesus very intentionally planned His time on earth to be in an age of no iPhones, no cameras, no video blogs, no CNN, no Internet, and no selfies. I don’t think He had the slightest interest a YouTube video of His raising Lazarus from the dead going viral. Where would be the need for faith in that?
And on top of that, the theology of God’s sovereignty is at stake. God doesn’t arbitrarily do things. He has a plan. He is for sure a God of order. So, whatever the reason, God didn’t get lost in the space-time continuum somewhere, take a wrong turn, and accidentally get Himself incarnated in the wrong century. Whether we can “figure it out” or not, He walked the earth precisely when He planned to.
Second, if Jesus had chosen to live bodily in our day, I seriously doubt He would have owned a cell phone. Why would He? What other “tools” and “technology” did Jesus invest in to multiply the effect of His ministry (or for any other reason)? Other than sandals, I’m not sure I can think of any. No horse. No weapon. No farming tools. No quill and scroll.
And how would Jesus have used a cell phone if he’d had one? How many times in the gospels do you see Jesus getting interrupted in the middle of a conversation by another eager petitioner, or sending people ahead to make arrangements so He could squeeze an extra meeting in on a layover in that city, or changing his plans to visit a place halfway there, or jotting out quick letters (no more than 140 characters of course) to random disciples scattered around the countryside and sending them off via the fleet of couriers He always had in His entourage? Very few if any of these happened, and certainly not often. Because all of Jesus’ interactions were measured, deeply personal interactions. I don’t even see Him making plans to go to more than one place at a time. When Mary and Martha wanted Him to come and rescue their brother, He went to them, even though it was a multi-day journey (John 11:1-44); with modern tools at hand, would He have rather just sent a card or emailed condolences? He was ready to walk to the Centurion’s house to heal his servant, until he said it was unnecessary (Luke 7:1-10); do you envision that exchange having taken place by phone if that had been an option? Etc. I just can’t see Jesus investing in email, smartphones, or blogging. And I don’t think He’d have considered “following” on Twitter or “friending” on Facebook to constitute real relationship.
Jesus did nothing in the gospels to expand the scope of His ministry, to grow His follower base, or to squeeze more into a day. If anything, I see Him warning people off (e.g. Matthew 16:24). I never see Him rushing, never see Him frantic, never see Him late or concerned about not being able to be two places at once. If there was ever a person who was fully present with you when He was with you, I bet it was Jesus. It seems inconceivable to me to imagine Him checking His watch or answering a text in the middle of a conversation.
Believe it or not, I didn’t write this post to somehow “win an argument”. In fact, I don’t have any more ability to somehow “prove” a position than my colleague did this morning. In many ways, this is all speculation. In truth, this post is more about impressions I have of God based on broader personal engagement and reading of Scripture over time than anything else. Very few passages deal directly with Jesus’ choice of cell phone carrier (or lack thereof).
That said, I think there are two concrete applications at stake…
The first is seeing God for who He really is — taking time to think about questions like this concerning His nature. It can’t go anywhere good to layer our cultural constructions on top of Jesus, because I think that drives a wedge between us (Him and me). It’s much harder to have an intimate relationship with a figment of your cultural imagination than with a real person. We can’t just make up who Jesus really is. So, even if it’s speculative, I think it’s healthy to really try to place myself in HIS cultural context (not mine) when trying to understand what He was like when He walked the earth.
Secondly, if as Christians we want to be like Jesus, then we need to accurately understand who He is and follow Him. If Jesus took a “more is better” approach to ministry, then I want to too. But if Jesus was disinterested in “more” and “efficient”, and rather placed an extremely high value on being present with people in the moment, then I want to as well. I want to learn from Him and be like Him.
As I said, I think “quantity of production over quality of product” is very “modernist America”, but I don’t think it’s very Christlike. I think Jesus would be much more fixated on really being with and making a difference in a few than in figuring out a high-output factory-assembly-line approach to discipleship. Again, that is why He only had 12 disciples. I think Jesus tried to meet fewer goals each day than we do. And I think His goals were about people, not production.
So, no, I don’t think Jesus was very efficient. I think He was effective. And I’m pretty sure that distinction was an intentional part of His strategy, not a failing to reach His maximum productive capacity. I suspect lean manufacturing efficiency experts would find very little value in studying Jesus. But for those who want a foretaste of Kingdom living, modeling their lives after His life is the best it’s going to get.