Is your church membership on the decline? Has the stewardship growth and financial position of the church not been as robust as you planned or expected? Is your church finding itself unable to attract and minister to the youth?
Look out for a hidden enemy within your church. It is a common but deadly condition that infects most churches. It is as lethal to the spiritual body of the church as smoking is to the physical body. It is hard to overcome.
Discontent. Murmuring discontent.
Such a deadly and dangerous condition has existed for generations and threatened the life and growth of faith communities for ages. An episode in the life of Israel shows that murmuring discontent is not only dangerous but also lethal, causing a host of spiritually ruinous conditions. The tragedy of murmuring discontent is cancerous in nature; a slow and insidious poison, its effects take years to be seen. Worse, murmuring discontent can also be very addictive.
Observe how this cancer of murmuring and discontent wormed its way through the tribes of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Behind the statistics census recorded in the book of Numbers, chapters 1 and 26 tell the tragic story of murmuring discontent.
A quick look at the total tallies seems to confirm that Israelite numbers were much the same when they left Sinai (603,550 able-bodied men, 20 years old and up) as when they arrived on the borders of the Promised Land (601,730 men) 40 years later. From these statistics, it would be expected that all the tribes might be down by a few hundred men. But that is not true. Most of the tribes, seven of the 12, actually increased in number, one spectacularly. The tribe of Manasseh increased by 20,500, Benjamin by 10,200 men. The three tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, together, increased by 14,900 men; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali together increased by 5,600 men. If these seven tribes increased by 51,200 men, where is the deficit?
The concentration of deaths was in Reuben, Simeon, and Gad—a tragic 45,020 fewer than when Israel left Sinai 40 years earlier. The tribe of Simeon decreased by a disastrous 37,100 men. Ephraim and Naphtali both decreased by 8,000 men.
The Israelite camp was not a haphazard affair, but carefully organized. The tribes camped in four triads arranged around the tabernacle. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were friendly neighbors camped together on the eastern side of the tabernacle with the priests camped between them and the entrance to the tabernacle. The tribes from the sons of Rachel—Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin—were camped on the west, and to the north were Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. The Levites were separated from all the other tribes, and divided so as to camp, with the priests, in a ring closest to and guarding the tabernacle (Num. 3:16–37).
The tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad were neighbors, mates camped together on the southern side of the tabernacle. Their closest neighbors, camped just to the north beside the tabernacle, were the Levite family of Kohath.
Among the family of Kohath was Korah, a cousin of Moses (Exod. 6:20–24), who turned out to be a discontented murmurer and leader of the rebellion against Moses (Num. 16). His associates in the rebellion were his next-door neighbors from the tribe of Reuben: Dathan, Abiram, and On. These men, gathering around their tent doors in chitchat conversations and discussions, encouraged each other in their discontent and rebellious thoughts and actions. Initially, the rebellion was confined to these men, their immediate families, and friends, and they died in an earthquake and fire sent from God (vv. 24–35). But soon the discontent and unhappiness spread; and the next day, more people were blaming Moses and Aaron for the deaths of these leaders. The tragedy ended with an additional 14,700 dead. The text does not say that the rebellion was limited to the tribe of Reuben and its neighbors, but the statistics of 40 years bear its witness. It would be easy to blame God for these deaths, but God’s will for the people is neatly indicated as a choice: “ ‘I call heaven and earth as witnesses today ... that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life’ ” (Deut. 30:19).*
The party at Baal Peor
Forty years later, again right on the border of the Promised Land, and just months before their triumphant conquests, Israel encountered trouble. Terrified Moabites hired Balaam to curse Israel. Three times he tried to curse, three times he failed. God clearly was protecting Israel. But what could not be achieved by cursing was achieved by inappropriate friendship. The Moabites invited Israel to join them for a bit of celebration, a party to their gods (Num. 25:2), and some Israelites accepted. After 40 years of smoldering discontent, what better than a neighborhood party to relieve the misery?
The party was a success, and friends were invited home. “Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father’s house among the Simeonites” (v. 14), brought home “a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel” (v. 6). A plague fell and killed 24,000. The disease of discontent is extremely contagious, and its results lethal. The census recorded in the next chapter of Numbers, suggests that very likely most of the 24,000 dead were from the tragically discontent-infected tribe of Simeon.
The tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad decreased considerably more than expected, while other tribes prospered. The leaders in the Baal Peor apostasy were also from the same geographically connected group of tribes as were those in the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. This suggests that the discontent of Korah and his group still caused disease 40 years later, resulting in the tragic death for many of its members. In the case of the tribe of Simeon, it was, horrifically, most of its members.
Lessons to learn
But the greatest tragedy was that these people were almost home. At both times, Korah’s rebellion and the Baal Peor party, they were on the border of the Promised Land. At both times, the discontent and murmuring resulted from people focusing on their own desires. The people had completely forgotten their mission—to
take possession of God’s gift, the land of Canaan.
What can we learn from these two instances of murmuring, discontent, and complaining that led to enormous tragedy among the children of Israel?
1. Take statistics seriously. If your church membership, participation, witness, stewardship, and other hallmarks of effective ministry begin to show a decline, ask the congregation and leaders for self-examination. Is there a spirit of discontent and complaint slowly spreading in your midst? If so, approach it prayerfully and, in time, deal with it so that harmony and unity once again return to the church.
2. Complaining leads to decline. If a group is declining or just not growing, murmuring discontent may be an unrecognized cause. This message needs to be shared with the membership. Personal appeal is probably a good place to start, but public messages are also important. These messages can be general or explicit if the nature of the discontent is clear. This is not easy work, especially for those dedicated to caring for others, such as pastors.
3. Examine your own heart. A discontented pastor, such as the Levite Korah, is just as much a church risk as a discontented member.
4. Look for unhealthy cliques that spread a culture of murmuring and discontent. They need to be confronted in a spirit of God’s love and power. The Israel narrative indicates that there are three characteristics of groups that lead to danger: (a) they know better than anyone else, usually in retrospect (Korah, Dathan, and Abiram); (b) they consider their own leadership superior (Korah); and (c) they focus on their own needs to the exclusion of the community (Zimri).
5. Recognize that the issues may have either occurred, or been around, for decades.
6. Encourage members to develop an attitude of gratitude. Research shows that this is a powerful factor in general good health and wellbeing. Simply asking people to note and record a few things each day for which they are grateful is powerfully effective.
7. The reality of the Promised Land needs to be kept before the congregation. Christians need the vision of building up the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the church in the wildwood.
With God there is always hope
The good news? That by the grace of God anything can be overcome, even murmuring discontent. Not all of Korah’s family died in the rebellion (Num. 26:11) and some descendants later became, under the leadership of King David, noted worship leaders in Israel, composers of beautiful poems and music that we still rejoice in today (see Pss. 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87, 88).
Jesus offers wonderful promises of life, not death, to those who overcome. “ ‘To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life.’ . . . ‘He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.’ . . . ‘I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone . . . [with] a new name.’ . . . ‘And I will give him the morning star.’ ” “ ‘He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments; . . . I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.’ . . . ‘I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.’ . . . ‘To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne’ ” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 28; 3:5, 12, 21).
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.