Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,
cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more
—”Pick a Little” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man
The image from my favorite musical is a crowd of well-to-do women in a circle squawking endlessly about this person and that, but mostly about River City’s librarian and the questionable relationship she had with the deceased owner of the local library. To drive home the point concerning their activity, the director of the film version of The Music Man juxtaposed the image of the bobbing, feather-hatted heads of the townswomen with hens pecking for grain.
Save for being carriers of bird flu, a hen is not considered a ferocious beast capable of inflicting great damage. Despite this, I suspect that few of us would want to be at the center of a flock of crazed chickens intent on driving us off. A peck is a peck, but multiplied a hundred times over, blood might very well be shed.
I know a couple driven off from a church recently by the relentless pecking of chicken-hearted people who love to hear themselves talk. Their talk is “cheep,” but it still hurts. The Bible says this:
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.
—Proverbs 16:28 ESV
Loose lips sink ships, or so the old war caution went. I would contend that gossip sinks people and churches, too. Again, the Bible sets down a clear-cut case:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
—James 1:26 ESV
Isn’t it frightening how often the people who think of themselves as the pillars of our churches are all too often the ones flapping their jaws about this person or that, proving with the tongue how worthless their profession of faith is?
In the last few months I’ve witnessed some of the worst outcomes imaginable because of what one supposed Christian said about another. No matter if what was said is true or not, if the end result is that people are devastated by what was said, then we know the true origin of what the tongues wagged.
This is not about godly conviction —speaking the truth in love to people who are in sin—but about slander, backbiting, and pride. It’s about circulating gossip in the form of prayer requests, the infamous “Did you hear about Sister So-and-so’s sin? Let me tell you all about it, then we can pray for her more appropriately.”
We’ve all been on the receiving end of gossip. After a particularly difficult break-up with a girl, I was asked by a friend to come to a Christian singles group. I’d never been to one before. What I did not expect when I showed up that first night was to find that everyone there knew the intimate details of my break-up. My friend plead ignorance, and I believed him. He wasn’t the type. But I knew some other people in the group who weren’t so careful. How they knew this all, I could not know, but what I did know was that I was never coming back to this little group of gossips
I’d been a Christian for several years before that incident. While it was sickening, I’d built up some resistance to the poison. But what about those visitors who show up one Sunday in our pews and by the next Sunday everyone knows their particular issues? Worse yet is the ubiquitous telephone game that occurs when our oral tradition is lacking and what started out as “She entered her baked goods at the fair” transmogrifies into “She entered into an affair with the baker.” Your first week of considering a church and you’re trying to figure out which Sunday School room is your child’s. Next Sunday everyone is staring at you because you’re “that woman.”
I mentioned a couple days ago that the growth of the Church in America is stagnant at best and going downhill slowly at worst. And this despite being purpose-driven and seeker-sensitive! It seems to me, though, that at the root of our lack of growth is not just our evangelistic compromises, but the fact that we’ve somehow loused up simple human interaction. Perhaps we’ve become so self-centered and self-righteous that we can no longer look at another human being and put ourselves in his or her shoes. What else can explain how badly we treat other people?
I may have gone to a secular elementary school, but they drilled this one into us:
And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
—Luke 6:31 ESV
Remember that one, The Golden Rule? How easily it’s consigned to a dusty trunk in the basement of our childhood. How many of us want to be on the wrong end of someone else’s gossip? Doesn’t it just tear your heart out to have it make the rounds for so long that it finally gets back to you? I hate to think that being on the receiving end of hurtful words is the only way to remember the Golden Rule.
I don’t care how great each of us will say our churches are, too many of them are filled with gossip. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that this might be the most prevalent corporate sin in our churches. (“Corporate” because no one person can be an effective gossip without another to willfully listen.) The amount of this will vary from church to church, but I doubt that it drops to zero anywhere.
What an incalculable human toll, though! If true love does not keep a record of wrongs, then our churches should be gossip-free zones 24/7/365. The mere thought of the Gospel and gossip spewing out of the same mouth together should keep us tongue-tied whenever the opportunity arises to scald someone with our words. Better to say nothing at all than to tear down our brother. Or better yet, how about this precious metal standard:
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
—Proverbs 25:11 ESV
If we’re to be people of grace, then we have to be able to dispense it. Rather than speak ill of others, why not turn that around and find something edifying to say about them, instead? If we can’t find anything nice to say no matter how hard we try, then we’d better say something to the folks who run the discipleship programs at our church because they’re not doing their jobs very well!
Don’t spread gossip. Don’t listen to gossip.
The tongue is a fire. Keep the extinguisher handy.