I once heard my friend Mike Foss preach a sermon whose focal point was the simple assertion that “it’s not about me.” Church is not here to meet my wants or even my needs. This is the first point made in Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. The Body of Christ exists to live out Christ’s mission of love and service to the world. We are His hands and feet. I’ve heard it said recently that God’s church does not have a mission; the mission has a church.
I did not grow up in the church. As I heard Ernie Hinojosa say one time, “I chased a skirt into the church.” My wife, Genie, is a lifelong Lutheran. I was baptized as a 28-year-old, along with my young son. As a child of the ‘60s, I was turned off by the church. I saw people dress up on Sunday morning and go to church, but I could not see how it changed them on Monday. It seemed that spirituality was something that happened for an hour on Sunday morning, in a special place, the sanctuary. I couldn’t see Christ for the Christians.
A few years ago, Robert Wuthnow wrote a book called “After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s.” In it, he maintains that since Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, there has been a pendulum swing between eras of spirituality as place, and eras of spirituality as journey. During the exodus, the Jews were on a spiritual journey. When Solomon built the temple, the era of spirituality as place emerged with the Holy of Holies. God went with the people through the Exodus journey, but now God was understood to inhabit a place, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.
Flash forward to the twentieth century. Wuthnow maintains that the time after World War II, a time of great church building, was an era of spirituality as place for the American Christian church. The builders had survived the depression and the War and were seeking to build a better life for their families. It was not a time of deep introspection, but a time for building homes and churches, careers and families.
Cracks in the Façade
During the sixties, a time of questioning everything, cracks began to appear in the façade. Many boomers did not stay rooted in the traditional church, and the modern mega-church appeared, drawing disaffected people to a new way of being church, but mostly rechurching the previously churched. There was still a common language of faith, and the culture, while changing, had not reached the postchristian age we see in much of our country today.
Further, he describes a shift occurring, a swing of the pendulum. With the coming of the postmodern era, Wuthnow proclaims the dawning of a new era of spirituality as journey. These days, many have abandoned the idea of one truth with the big “T.” Instead, they see bits of truth in their life experiences, their reflections with others, and the journey. The broad acceptance of Eastern religions, with practices of meditation and yoga, help illustrate how people look for spiritual truth many places. Sadly, they rarely want to look in the traditional church.
I’ve been on a spiritual journey since my 20’s. My journey took me through Eastern spirituality, the Koran, Native American beliefs and all over the map before I came to Christ at age 28. Somehow the idea of spirituality as place never worked for me. Maybe God planted me as an early postmodern, kind of a scout out getting the lay of the land.
For much of my Christian walk, I never spent much time praying or reading the Bible, because I was never really challenged to live as a disciple. I was inculcated into the membership church. Even beyond the culture of the membership church, my lack of serious Bible study was rooted more deeply. You see, I knew many of my fellow Christians who read the Bible and attended Sunday School. However, I could not see transformation happening on account of the study. For years, when I read scripture, I wondered to myself, “Why doesn’t anyone seem to really believe this stuff can happen today?”
I heard Mike Foss speaking about his book Power Surge, in 2002. He contrasts the membership church with a true discipleship community, and calls the church to return to its roots. His call drew me to begin to discover what discipleship really means. The world has not been the same for me since.
During my last trip through the Gospels, I was struck by how many times Jesus said, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see. For those who have ears to hear, let them listen.” The implication is that not everyone has the eyes and ears to hear the message Jesus was bearing. The reaction of the people of God throughout the New and Old Testament bears witness to that fact. The vast majority of people seemed to go their way without hearing and following the life and message Jesus lived. Is that still true today?
There is an inflection point in the walk into discipleship. It comes when we realize one simple statement that Mike preached, “It’s not about me!” I think we all come into the church seeking to have our own needs met. Whether it’s for our children, to create an environment for our offspring to find safety and a good set of values, or for ourselves, to bring meaning and some sense of giving back to assuage our generalized guilt and anxiety about living so well when so many do not.
Bill Easum says that in a healthy church, we are changed by an experience of the living God. That change begins to help us take our focus off ourselves and begin to see the other. Slowly, our focus moves outward, and in doing so, we can’t help but be grateful for the many blessings in our own lives. When I focus on myself, I can always find something not right, some challenge to my happiness, something troubling that leaves me wanting. When I focus on others, I see their troubles greatly exceed my own. I see a billion people living for less than a dollar a day. I see homeless under the bridges and coming in to our food ministry, tattered and torn by living on the streets.
As this realization that “it’s not about me” slowly dawned on me, I began to grow a grateful heart. Not long after I sold my business and built my cabin in Colorado, my life was shaken by a single phone call. We were at the top of the world, and then got a call that my son had hit a tree in the backcountry on his snowboard. He was on the way to the hospital with serious injuries. Through three surgeries over two weeks, he was slowly put back together. The realization sank in that no matter how well off we think we are, we are just one phone call away from having our lives turned upside down.
Through this and many trials that have come my way over the last eight years, I have slowly come to understand something important. God said to me, during one of the darkest times, “Do I have to take it all away from you for you to see that is not where to put your trust? I have blessed you mightily. What are you waiting for? Be a blessing.”
Since then, I have gone through life with a grateful heart. I try to treat each day as a blessing. My health, my finances, my wife, my kids and grandkids are all a blessing from God. As I have walked this path, I have found many ways to serve God by serving others. I have been more satisfied and joyful than ever before in my life.
Sadly, I see people continuing to reach for control in churches, trying to preserve traditions and worship styles. Their wants and needs, their comfort zone is what is at stake. I see people who have not reached the inflection point. They have not learned the lesson that is the key to a joyful Christian life, “It’s not about me.” An old friend turned down a call at a big traditional Lutheran cathedral a few years ago. He said to me, “I think they are more interested in preserving the museum than reaching people for Christ.”
The world is changing. At a Lutheran (ELCA) Assembly, one of the speakers from the larger church shared a statistic I learned some time ago. Two thirds of our young people leave the Lutheran church by the time they are 18. Fewer than half of them return by age 35. If you follow this trend, and if the trend doesn’t worsen, in three generations there will be 30 percent of the Lutherans we have today. Our cathedrals will become empty museums like those scattered across Europe. We have such trouble separating the form of our Lutheran worship from its substance.
Discipleship gives us another option. But, until our pastors learn to multiply disciples, learn to draw people across the inflection point, our future will be bleak. God blesses those places that are following the leading of His Spirit. If your church is on plateau or in decline, whose voice are you listening for, the voice of the people, or the still, small voice of God? He will lead us to green pastures when we realize, “It’s not about me.”