Joy: The Missing Ingredient

missing ingredient
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I remember the first time I used my great aunt’s recipe for ginger snap cookies. I was meticulously following her handwritten notes, certain that everything was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my utter disappointment when the first tray of soppy, run-together cookie dough came out of the oven. Apparently Aunt Mabel had been painstakingly accurate when it came to cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar, but had forgotten to mention flour. A more seasoned baker would have caught the oversight immediately (my wife did!) and added the flour in. I was just mindlessly following the recipe I had and, as a result, ended up with a gooey mess. One missing ingredient can ruin the best recipe. I’ve learned the same is true for people and the congregations we form.

For the last ten years I have led a national “congregation” of pastors and other church leaders. Throughout that decade, my family and I were blessed to be active in a congregation where Joy (capitalization intentional) was rampant. Now, by “Joy” I don’t mean giddy, happy-sappy, just-put-a-smile-on-that-face-and-buck-up escapist religiosity. Nor am I thinking of the toothy grin that can sometimes accompany wholly unhelpful platitudes. “Joy”, in the deepest biblical sense, is inner strength that produces outer resilience. Joy is the natural outcome of contentment in God, confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ, and the unquestionable presence of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus named “Comforter.” Joy exists independently from, and irrespective of, circumstance or context. Joy is the Teflon coating of faith that allows followers of Jesus to be “pressed but not crushed; persecuted not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed.“ (Darrell Evans) The Joy of the community of faith we experienced for ten wonderful years is a deep well I learned to draw from. It changed my life and my approach to ministry.

Joy: The Missing Ingredient

In my most recent pastoral call I met a congregation that was rediscovering the power of Joy. Being here is like watching perennials bud and bloom after the winter. Joy has been severely tested in this congregation over the past few years, but it just keeps bubbling up—truly a sign of a depth of faith and spiritual maturity on the part of leaders and congregants alike. At the same time, I’m watching another congregation in a different part of the country struggle and falter because, in the words of a friend on the ground there, “Joy has left the building.”

When a critical mass of people experience and embody Joy, it is a community-shaping game changer! So is the absence of Joy. Joy-less Christ followers are about as much fun to be around (and about as much use to the Kingdom of God) as flourless ginger snaps. All you have left of an otherwise-great recipe for missional living is a gooey mess.

When Joy is missing, people realize it. Often we’ll try to “fix” the lack of true spiritual Joy by addressing the low-hanging fruit of its outward symptoms. “Let’s just replace the __________ [minister, organist, choir director, choir, drummer, hospitality team, light fixtures (yes, someone in a church actually said that!)]; or, if we could just ___________ [sing ‘happier’ music, get out of church on time, all sit together, have children in worship, not have children in worship, project more, project less]; or, if we just had __________ [a younger staff, a more seasoned staff, bigger screens, different carpeting, no carpeting, softer pews, chairs instead of pews, a different church name, a better website…]; the list goes on and on and on.