Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tabernacles, Trellises, and Thunderstorms

A church in California recently built a full-size replica of the tabernacle of Moses.  They used it to teach their own congregation about the symbology of the tabernacle, and how it foreshadowed the work of Jesus.  When they were done, they made it available for free to any church that would come and get it, as long as that church would give it away for free to the next church.  And so on.

The tabernacle in California.  Photo courtesy Eric Lawrence.

A group of churches in Sedona, Arizona, found out about this offer.  They sent over a team of people, rented a 26 foot moving van, and loaded all the tabernacle into it.

It was erected on a vacant parcel of ground on Main Street in Sedona, next to Walgreens.

The call went out for volunteers to serve as greeters and as tour guides.  I was excited by the evangelistic potential of the tabernacle.  After all, it is one big "picture" of Jesus.  And Sedona is well-known to be a place with a lot of spirituality and religion, but very little of the true gospel of Jesus.  What better place to bring the tabernacle?

So, I volunteered to take a few shifts as a tour guide.  I must say, this role really caused me to start digging into Exodus and Leviticus.  Here is a tour given by Joy to a group of homeschool kids and their parents. I am one who recorded it on a cheap digital camera. The video quality is not great but it picked up the audio fairly nicely.

For my first two shifts we had unseasonably warm temperatures, in the 90s. I discovered how stifling the real tabernacle must have gotten at certain times of the year in the Sinai peninsula. We gave as much of the tour as possible standing outside under a shade tree before we brought the guests inside. Even so, I got mildly sunburned.

My third shift was just the opposite: freezing!  A major storm system blew in, bringing very chilly temperatures (I actually started shivering), wind, and rain.  A number of the curtains surrounding the courtyard were in danger of destruction by the wind and had to be taken down.  The wind began to threaten the curtains over the tabernacle itself.  The rain threatened damage to the furniture of the tabernacle (which was made mostly of wood, without the metal that the real furniture had), so we covered them with big plastic bags.

I was scheduled for a fourth shift, but before that day came, the storm worsened.  The rain softened the soil, allowing the wind to pop out the stakes that were holding the tabernacle frame in place.  With the structure damaged and unsafe for the public to visit, and only 4 days of scheduled tabernacle tours remaining, the decision was made to close and disassemble the tabernacle.  It has now been repaired and is available for another church to come and get.

In the approximately 10 days that the tabernacle was open for tours, from what I heard, about 1000 people toured it.  For the tours that I gave, at least, most of the visitors were Christians, or at least from a Christian background.  I did have one Jewish couple and in retrospect I wish I had been more bold in sharing the gospel with them.

The entire tabernacle episode prompted some deep reflection in my heart.  It seems symbolic to me of the reasons for much of my ineffectiveness as a Christian, and of the ineffectiveness of the American church as a whole.  It was the living expression of what I learned in "The Trellis and the Vine" which I reviewed on this blog a few months ago.  Simply put: we cling to "structures" as tools for evangelism.  A structure can be something like a church building, an evangelistic method, a training program, a pre-packaged Bible study curriculum, a homeless feeding ministry, or even a blog.  Structures make evangelism easier.  In the case of the tabernacle, it was very easy to share the gospel with visitors because the whole tabernacle simply shouts "Jesus!"  It's also easier to attract volunteers to build structures than to do raw evangelism, because it's much more pleasant to drive a nail into a board than to drive the law of God into a sinner's conscience.

But structures all come with a cost.  The bigger the structure, the easier the evangelism, but the bigger the cost.  They seem to require more money, meetings, minds, maintenance and materials than anyone initially expects.  Like the tabernacle, they are vulnerable to the unexpected thunderstorm of problems.  When we are honest, we must admit that structures often become black holes of labor, rather than logistical aids.

Structures are addictive because they feel "safer" than raw ministry, they keep us very busy, and they have just enough positive results to make us think that we are accomplishing something worthwhile.  It is like setting up walls to protect us, only to discover that we have made ourselves prisoners. 

I am still processing how all this should impact my life, and what structures in my own life need to go.  I'm not advocating for a minute that all structures should be eliminated from anyone's life.  But I think if we look at the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, it seems that they operated most efficiently on a bare minimum of structure.  Structure is necessary; but only a little bit, far less than we probably imagine.

One thing I see the need to prune is my blogging.  I love blogging, and it appears to allow me to minister to many people very efficiently.  It's far less messy and far more professional-looking than talking to a real person.  But while many people may read my blog, I have little reason to believe that it is accomplishing much effective ministry. 

So much of my life consists of sending and receiving mass communications.  It's rare that I actually talk or write one on one with another person any more.  I'm so busy with producing or consuming blogs, mass emails, sermons, books, Tweets, and Facebook messages that I don't have time for personal ministry.

So, for now you'll probably see a decline in the quality and number of my blog postings.  Those that I do put up will be emails I've sent to or received from individuals (I will trim the personally identifiable details before posting).

Life is too fast and short to unnecessarily squander more time on infrastructure.  I've spent an hour just writing this message.


  1. Wow. Great "Takeaway" from the Tabernacle and TandtheV (great book, btw!).

    Thank you for sharing this. Great food for thought.

  2. The three T's. I wonder how long the whole process took.