Some of the largest steam locomotives every built were produced in the 1930s by the Lima Locomotive Company of Lima,Ohio. The granddaddy of them all was named the “Alleghany,” and only two models of the dozen or so built survive. One of these survivors is stored at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This railway beast weighs more than a million and a half pounds and has output of 7,500 horsepower. In its short heyday it carried 25,000 pounds of coal and 100,000 pounds of water, enough to power the engine for only three hours.
Here’s the interesting thing: It had all this weight, all this power, and could burn through all these resources, but it took more than ninety percent of the engine’s power just to move itself. Sure, it became much more efficient once it was moving, but the thing was so big, sucked up so much coal and water, and was so expensive to operate, it just wasn’t practical. The Lima Alleghany is an excellent, though painful metaphor of most of our church and religious systems. We have got all the bells and whistles, steam is pouring out of the boiler, power is moving to the wheels, but most of it is spent just getting things moving. We spend most of our energy on ourselves, with little left to pull the load, as it were, along the tracks. And the resources we have been blessed with – in people, dollars, talent, influence and time – are all burned up and burned out at rates that are appalling.
It has to be simpler than this. Maybe we can trade in our locomotive for a bicycle. We can’t go as fast, and we can’t carry as much baggage, but maybe that is exactly the point. Contrary to how I am sometimes understood, I do not advocate the razing of all church buildings, the complete emptying of every church coffer, and the removal of all professional clergy, though this would be good in some locales. But all these do call for much needed balance, and the discarding of these things as absolutely necessary to the functioning of the church.
The church is not an end unto itself, but is called as the people of God and imitators of Christ, to bless, serve, and love others. This servant task is unachievable if the church continues to spend its time, energy, resources, and personnel on building bigger, more complicated machinery, doctrines, and structures. Nor am I saying that big is bad; that denominations are evil; that if you are a part of a mega-church you are somehow missing out. No, I am not saying that at all. These aren’t bad things, but complication, religious obstacles, and man-made roadblocks placed in the path of Christ – these are bad.
The commitment to spiritual simplicity always calls us to use severe discretion, and careful self-examination, to ensure that while the depth of our faith should always grow, we should vigilantly purge ourselves of all the unnecessary accessories that get attached to faith. We, and the world we now live in, do not need our religious systems and structures, but we all need simple faith in the way and person of Jesus who teaches us to love God and love others. That is enough, isn’t it? In the words of the old German Schleitheim Confession: “Watch out for all who do not walk in simplicity.”
I love this old prayer from the “Celtic Prayer Book:” It goes: “Lord, help me now to un-clutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it. Lord, I give You these stirrings inside me. I give You my discontent. I give You my restlessness. I give You my doubt. I give You my despair, I give You all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of transformation, of growth; to listen seriously and follow where they lead, through the breathtaking space of an open door.”