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Joy: The Missing Ingredient

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.

I’ve now begun a new pastoral call in a congregation that is 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.

But Joy – industrial strength, mood-altering, life-shaping, blessing-counting, contagious Joy – is the missing ingredient we’re searching for, and we won’t find it by changing the brand of coffee at the welcome desk. So how do we find Joy?

On one level, it’s as simple as adding flour. Joy is produced in a life built around the Joy-giver:

  • Listening to God; aware of God’s beauty, power, purpose, and immeasurable blessings
  • Interceding for others with confidence in God’s faithful response
  • Looking deeply into God’s Word to see what the Holy Spirit is revealing
  • Worshiping with heart, soul, mind, voice, and posture
  • Giving as an act of letting go and Joyfully sharing God’s blessing
  • Welcoming others into your world through conversation and meals
  • Building an accountable relationship with people you can trust
  • Resting—(yes that means YOU!); setting aside the time for all of the above.  

While the recipe is simple, the life-change required is not. Most of us have become quite accustomed to mediocrity. We’re settling for the “flour-less cookie” version of a life of faith thinking that’s all there really is despite Scripture telling us, over and over again, IT’S NOT! We would do well to listen to the advice of more seasoned followers of Jesus for whom these Joy-producing disciplines act like spiritual “flour”, and not just blindly follow the recipe we have thinking it is the way its supposed to be.

I have found that the long and patience-trying process of re-“Joy”-ing our individual lives and the life of our congregation begins in worship. The way we worship eventually shapes the way we live, and the way we live most certainly shapes the way we worship. This is true for every member of a worshiping community, but it is especially true for those of us who are called to lead worship. We can’t give what we don’t have. Part of our call to leadership involves taking responsibility for our own spiritual health and Joy (or lack of it) we are experiencing.

Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian in the previous century, wrote, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” How much of your life are you building around the Joy-Giver?

The recipe God has given us is for a life shaped and defined by Joy. Discovering the missing ingredient of Joy will make all the difference between a gooey mess and a melt-in-your-mouth taste of heaven on earth in life as well as in ginger snaps!