The gospel of Luke describes a visit Jesus paid with his disciples to the home of two sisters. Their names were Martha and Mary. Martha was busy making preparations and serving her guests, while Mary sat with the disciples and listened to Jesus. Finally, in exasperation, Martha begged Jesus, “Tell my sister to help me!” Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
During the Middle Ages, Christian writers spoke of Martha as a picture of the active Christian life and Mary as a picture of the contemplative Christian life. Drawing on the words of Jesus, they concluded that the active Christian life is good, but the contemplative Christian life is better. The one thing necessary is to know Jesus. A Christian needs to sit at his feet and hear his teaching. Thousands of Christians left the world, left even their families and communities, to pursue the contemplative Christian life in monasteries and abbeys.
During the Reformation, the value of monasteries and abbeys was challenged. Martin Luther said that true service to God consists of vocation, doing the task to which God has called a person. This includes being an obedient son or daughter, a faithful husband or wife, and a good mother or father. It also includes a productive career that serves others, not necessarily in church work, but in any labor that makes the world better and helps people. God is pleased by such service. Protestant reformers closed monasteries and abbeys and sent the monks and nuns to find more useful ways to spend their lives.
Visit a church in America these days, and you will see that Martha prevails. The literature you receive at the doorway has some notes about the service, but it is packed with information about what groups in the congregation are doing to serve God and help their neighbors. Announcements before the service or after the service remind people of the same activities. I have attended wonderful services that were followed by ten minutes of announcements, some accompanied by audio-video displays, and in the parking lot afterward I remembered the announcements far better than I remembered the sermon, the prayers, or the hymns.
Martha is anxious and troubled about many things. I have attended meetings of church groups where discussion of how to gather new members for the group—and dismay that more people are not joining—seemed to be a regular part of the monthly agenda. The choir needs a few more voices. The education committee is looking for two more Sunday School teachers and will need volunteers for Vacation Bible School. The nominating committee will be calling every family asking for members to serve as officers and board members for the congregation.
Scorn is heaped on those people who come to church but never get involved. They won’t usher or greet people at the door. They won’t sing in the choir or teach in Sunday School. They won’t hold an office. Some of them won’t even stay for the fund-raising meals and fellowship events after the service. I’ve heard them called “pew potatoes,” these people who come to church only for the service and otherwise refuse to get involved.
Jesus does not call them pew potatoes. He calls them disciples. He says, “They have chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from them.”
I suggest that the congregation needs Mary as much as it needs Martha. I further suggest that the congregation begin loving Mary as it loves Martha. Maybe four Sundays a year, or maybe even one Sunday each month, have a service designed to meet Mary’s needs. Offer no handouts except what is needed for the service. Make no announcements before, during, or after the service. Gently restrain the nominating committee and the recruiters for various church groups. Let Mary sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his Word. I suspect—no, more than that, I am convinced—that when word of these Sundays for Mary gets around, some of those members who have dropped out of church will be back. All they ever wanted was to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his Word. For that they felt unwanted and unloved. Provide a safe place for them to be with Jesus, unpressured to show their love by their good deeds, and let the Lord himself lead them and guide them.
It’s worth a try, isn’t it?