Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 3 April 2015
For more sermons and other writings, please check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org
Not About You
James Emery White is the Founding and Senior Pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church which is a church that grew from one family to over 10,000 active attenders through 70% growth from the unchurched (1st worship service in 1992). What is their secret? Pastor White explains in his blog – Church & Culture Blog, Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2015 (www.churchandculture.org/Blog.asp?ID=9148):
When people ask about Meck’s growth, or ability to penetrate the unchurched, they are looking for a silver bullet. A single program, method, or approach that they can take, implement, and see similar results.
Here it is.
Our secret sauce … our secret sauce is simple. It’s in a four-word mantra we say to each other all the time around Meck: “It’s not about you.” It’s about the person who isn’t even here yet.
Don’t like the new music? It’s not about you.
Don’t like the new style of worship? It’s not about you.
Don’t like the new dress code? It’s not about you.
Don’t like what we’re doing with video? The new website?
The… It’s not about you.
It’s about them.
Pastor White argues that there is no silver bullet for mission success. There is no secret sauce except an underlying attitude and culture which informs every decision and prepares everyone to make sacrifices. They speak it out to one another all of the time: “It’s not about you.” This is at the heart of Mecklenburg Community Church where 70% of all attenders are converts.
Then Pastor White becomes uncomfortable because he has a go at the culture of many other churches:
The value of narcissism is the classic “I, me, mine” mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. And it is just this spirit which has invaded our thinking.
A spiritual narcissism has invaded the church. Eavesdrop, for a moment, on how we talk:
“I want to go where I'm fed," not where we can learn to feed ourselves, much less feed others.
“I need to be ministered to,” as if ministry in the life of the Christ-follower is something that happens to us, instead of something we make happen through us for others.
We walk out of a worship service and say, "I didn't get anything out of it," as if that was its purpose – our edification, instead of God’s.
Where did that come from? It wasn’t from our Leader. He didn’t talk that way. He said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” “Whoever wants to be first must become last.” “Whoever wants to be great among must become the slave of all.” “Not my will, but thine.”
Yet a spiritual narcissism has invaded our thinking where the individual needs and desires of the Believer have become the center of attention. Which is why most churches have, as their primary focus, reaching and then serving the already convinced. So the mission isn’t making disciples, but caring for them.
This is an uncomfortable truth. Because almost everybody who follows Christ, and almost every gathering of those Christ followers constituting a church, says the same thing: “We want to reach the world for Christ.”
Yet most don’t.
So where’s the breakdown?
When questioned about His own missional emphasis toward those on the outside of faith, He said: “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what the Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.'" (Matthew 9:12-13, Msg)
The problem? According to Jesus, seemingly long-term “insiders.”
In other words, scratch the surface of a sacrificial, pick-up-your-cross, to die is gain, eat my flesh and drink my blood, Christian …and you have an it’s-all-about-me, spiritually narcissistic, turned-inward, meet my needs, feed me, consumer.
Again, listen to how we talk:
“Of course I want to reach lost people,”
...but I’m not going to see us change the music.
…but I’m not going to lead a capital campaign to raise the money.
…but I’m not going to park far away.
…but I’m not going to risk stirring things up right now in the church.
…but I’m not going to attend at a different service time.
…but I’m not going to start a new church.
…but I’m not going to stand for the pastor dressing casually.
…but I’m not going to give money to launch a new site or relocate.
…but I’m not going to watch someone on a video.
…but I’m not going to put in fifty or sixty-hour weeks.
…but I’m not going to let them start playing drums.
…but I’m not going to change how I preach.
…but I’m not going to give up my favorite seat.
…but I’m not going to turn things over to a bunch of 20-somethings.
…but I’m not going to attend on Saturday night.
…but I’m not going to…
You fill in the rest of the blanks. I’m not even suggesting this list is what a church should do. But it does betray our spirit.
The problem with outreach today is that the most basic and elemental issues related to outreach are resisted by the very people who say they want those unchurched people to come and find Jesus.
Ouch! Who doesn’t like his church to be comfortable and inspiring and personally fulfilling? We want the worship services to be good – good for us – or we might not want to come back. If a guest-preacher is scheduled that we don’t like, we may stay home. If people come and struggle with worship and struggle with prayer (maybe some traditional Christians looking for more), we may complain that unbelief quenches the Spirit and criticize the church. Yet, it’s not about you. You are here to serve.
However, let’s go slow. We need to settle the basic premise first. Is it really true that faith and church are not about you? This is where it gets a little confusing because when you are an unbeliever – even at Mecklenburg Community Church – especially at Mecklenburg Community Church – it is all about you.
The preaching, the style of music, the dress code, the design of the building, the order of worship, the programs and volunteer teams are all about you because the whole church is absolutely committed to meet your needs and serve you in your quest for God. People greet you, hand you welcome packs which include a chocolate treat, make you coffee, invite you into their homes, take care of your children and offer to help with anything in your life – cleaning up your yard, finding accommodation, prayer ministry and lots more. For unbelievers, this is a great experience. They come into an environment where they are loved and this is genuine.
A church like Mecklenburg Community Church does not need to grow in size. They could remain as they are – as we could. We have critical mass and a close-knit family feel and any growth would cause a few challenges – e.g.: how to fit everyone into the building, how to integrate newcomers into the community, maybe some of us would have to park in the street, etc. Yet, when you come into Living Grace as an unbeliever or someone that is seeking God, you will notice that you are welcome, that we don’t mind any inconveniences because it’s all about you.
So in the beginning, it’s all about you and Jesus himself made this clear:
John 10:9-11: I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved … The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus made his own life all about you.
John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Acts 10:36-38: You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
Luke 19:10: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
Since everything is about you (what Jesus is doing for you and his people at church), it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion and slip into a life-style where you maintain an expectation that it is always all about you. It’s not. The whole point of lavishing love on you and the whole point of Jesus offering salvation to you is to give you an opportunity to get right with God and you only get right with God when it is not about you but God and what he wants. Salvation is not a commodity which you can consume for yourself but it is entering into a new relationship with God where God is God and it is about him and serving him, not you.
This is not turning out bad for you – this is safe and profitable (there is eternal life in the presence of God where all tears are being wiped from our faces) – because God is a loving God (which he has proved on the cross of Jesus Christ) and his promises are for a full life but – fundamentally – it is about him and not you. Some Christians make a sales pitch for faith, saying: “Become a Christian and life will be luxury from now on. God will make you happy and always comfortable.” This is not quite the whole truth. Jesus promised that life with him would be a life of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). However, there is also a job to do and this job will require sacrifices – in the worst case scenario, martyrdom.
Matthew 28:18-20: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Luke 14:33: In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
[1 Corinthians 6:19-20: … You are not your own; you were bought at a price …]
How can I say it so that it makes sense and is less confusing? On the one hand, it’s about you and your salvation because God loves you – God always loves you and sees you – but, on the other hand, when it comes to your response and your own heart attitude, it cannot be about you. It cannot just be about life improvement for yourself. It must go deeper than that and be about God and his will for all that he has created. [Salvation includes grief for disappointing God and feeling sorrow for our rebellion and disobedience against him.] It’s all about you so that you can take the risk – step out in faith and risk a relationship with God – and live a life where it’s not about you.
In 2002, the book “The Purpose Driven Life” was published. The book has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for advice books for one of the longest periods in history, while also topping the Wall Street Journal best seller charts as well as Publishers Weekly charts with over 30 million copies sold by 2007. This is a startling publishing phenomenon because the pastor who wrote “The Purpose Driven Life” starts off in ways that the world may not expect him to say (especially if you want to sell books):
Rick Warren: The Purpose Driven Life, Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2002, p17: It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfilment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
You can unravel the seeming contradiction (of salvation being about you and not about you) from another angle and understand everything from the perspective of love. God is love and, according to the Bible, love “is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5) but serves the other (Galatians 5:13). God loves us and his love – serving and not self-seeking – makes salvation about us and, as we respond to him, we love him back and make our life about him – and what he wants which is the salvation of many more people. When Jesus died, it wasn’t about him and his comfort but he died for love – for us. Likewise, we give our lives back to him in love. With God, it’s about love and, if it is about love, it’s not about you in the sense that you just try to consume the goodness of God but hold back from loving yourself. This is not how it works.
Jesus said radical words:
Mark 8:34-38: Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Before I come back to the “secret sauce” of the Mecklenburg Community Church – how the attitude of “it’s not about you” makes them so effective in mission work – I want to say that it can be quite liberating to let go of our self-importance. My life is about doing what God wants from me. My life is about God and not about me which means that I don’t have to promote myself. I don’t have to strive or become jealous and envious of others. I don’t have to be top dog. I don’t need certain positions to feel good about myself. It’s not about me. It’s about others and I can simply do the job that God is giving me. I can relax. He promotes me as he pleases and he values absolutely every job – delights especially in the hidden work (the humble service that does not require praise from others). [It’s also amazing how happy you can become when you don’t seek your happiness but the happiness of others.]
In 2003, Reinhard Bonnke held outreach campaigns in Makurdi with more than 180,000 attending (per meeting). These campaigns are inspiring, powerful miracles happen and masses of people come to faith and give their lives to God. And it looks so easy. A few days of meetings and preaching, and a plentiful harvest is coming in – so easy it seems. This is not the full story. Doing campaigns – be it Reinhard Bonnke or our own Jesus Tent – are the “easy” part but look more carefully and you discover the “secret sauce” of the fruitful Christian life where “it’s not about you.” Every person needs individual care – every single person needs someone that makes sacrifices for them – someone that is showing love to them – and doesn’t worry about themselves, their own comfort and ambitions. I tell you about one convert at the Markurdi campaign:
[Abbreviate and retell in your own words.] Reinhard Bonnke: Living A Life Of Fire, Orlando: E-R Productions LLC, 2009, p591-610: “David Attah had been raised in a Muslim home in Nigeria … He loved the Christian language of new birth, starting over, and second chances … The crusade sermon presented a God of love who had died for the sins of the world … David raised his hand and repeated the sinner’s prayer …
Soon afterward, tragedy struck. As he walked to school, a woman sped through an intersection near campus, striking David down. Police arrived. The woman was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. An ambulance took him away. David knew nothing. He remained unconscious for days with severe head injuries, broken bones and internal bleeding.
… David knew he would not recover in time to finish school with his friends … A nurse checked his vital signs. He decided to ask her the extent of his injuries, but as he attempted to form the words, no movement or sound came from his mouth. This alarmed him … He thought the bandage on his head might be too tight across his jaw, restricting his speech … He struggled to speak to the nurse again. Forget speech – he tried to make a sound, a groan, a moan – nothing happened … Fear swept through his mind like a wildfire.
… In the months ahead, the hard work of therapy began … He … was able to write. But David had totally lost the ability to make his mouth utter – even whisper – a single word. The doctor consulted the medical journals. He returned to tell David that this was a well-documented disorder resulting from a head injury. It was called aphasia …
… the hospital bills … mounted beyond all reason. Nothing was given freely … He was sinking deeply into debt … It seems his old friends had stolen everything … This hit him hard … He began to plunge into fits of depression … David stayed in the hospital. Weeks turned into months. One day a national television crew came and filmed a story about him … It was broadcast nationwide, and David’s name and face was seen across Nigeria …
… the neurosurgeon … suggested a surgery could be done … But the political situation in Nigeria went through a sudden upheaval. The doctor … fled the country … All plans for David’s surgery were abandoned.
Enough was enough. David decided to end the pain. He took advantage of his free access to the pharmacy, stealing a supply of poison. He prepared a lethal dose for himself … He sat down and wrote a letter. He thanked the hospital staff for all of their efforts. He made it clear that his death was by his own hand. In the letter he described the reasons that he would kill himself. ‘Life is not worth living,’ he wrote. ‘I will always be alone. Nothing matters.’
He placed the letter inside his Bible and laid it on the nightstand. Then he lay down. His plan was to wait until the ward was asleep, and then he would take the poison. No one would find him until it was too late.
… A beautiful girl with large, kind eyes, walked into the room. At first David thought he was dreaming. She was not a member of the nursing staff … ‘Can I talk with you?’ she asked. Her voice was soft and warm. She spoke with a steady tone … He wondered, Is this an angel? He stared at her. ‘I know you can’t speak,’ she said. ‘But they tell me that you write very well.’ He sat up and nodded. He took a notepad and wrote, ‘Who are you?’
She came and bent down to read the note. He could detect the delicate floral scent of her perfume. It filled his head with the idea that if he had no reason to live for himself, he might go on living for someone else. Especially someone as lovely as this creature.
‘My name is Rita. I am training to be a nurse,’ she said. ‘So, they sent you to practice on me?’ he wrote. ‘No, I am curious about you. I saw you on television and I wanted to come see you. I have talked to the staff here. They tell me you’re depressed.’ She reached out and picked up David’s Bible. ‘Are you a Christian?’
He nodded. ‘I knew it!’ she exclaimed. ‘So am I.’ … She opened his Bible and saw the note he had just written. ‘May I read this?’ David froze inside. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to give her permission to read his suicide note, but in some part of himself, he did. He nodded, and then watched as her expression changed to one of alarm.
She looked at him, her brows darkly knit. ‘You must never, never do this!’ she said. ‘I want you to promise me that you will not do this terrible thing.’ David looked away. He could not promise her. He could not promise himself. He shook his head.
She became offended, and spoke sharply, ‘Do you really believe in God, David?’ He nodded. ‘Did God give you life?’ … He nodded. ‘Then He will not forgive you if you take this precious gift by your own hand.’ She was pacing back and forth, piercing him with her gaze. ‘It is not your life to take, David. It is His. You will go to hell if you murder yourself. And I do not want you to go to hell.’
David wondered if hell was as lonely as his lie. He took his pad and wrote, ‘My family is gone. My friends have betrayed me. I have lost everything I own. My education has become worthless. I cannot pay my debts. I am alone, and not even God cares.’
As Rita red this, she heard a voice speaking in her spirit: If you want him to make this promise, you must make a promise to be his friend. God was calling her to go beyond anything she had intended when she walked into the room.
Rita spoke slowly, deliberately, ‘God cares very much about you, David. He sent me to you today. If you will promise me that you will never take your life, I will promise you something in return.’
… He had absolutely nothing to lose. Could it be that God had sent this girl to break him out of his silent prison? He reached out beyond himself and decided to make her this promise. Taking his pad, he wrote, ‘I promise you, Rita, not to take my own life.’ ‘Sign your name,’ she said. He signed his name. ‘Date it,’ she demanded. He added the date …
The next day Rita came to his hospital room with a prepared meal. She came the next day and the next. She ran errands for him. She did his laundry. They began long hours of conversation, she talking, he writing his answers …
His debts mounted higher. He decided to sue the woman who had hit him with the car … David’s emotional state went up and down with the legal fight.
Meanwhile, Rita was accepted to nursing school in Enugu, hundreds of miles away. She promised that she would not neglect him … While studying in Enugu, Rita continued her conversation with him in letters, writing every day as the months of her schooling progressed.
In time, she graduated. Her family was happy and excited for her. The wanted her to seek work in … more attractive locations … But she refused … ‘I made a promise to God to be David’s friend,’ she said. ‘I intend to keep it.’
Her family members were not happy about this. They began to despise David … A fine Christian man began to call on Rita at her home … She told the man that there was no possibility of her marrying as long as she remained true to her promise to take care of David.
David learned about this and he was overcome with emotion. He had nothing to offer her, but one day he wrote, ‘Rita, will you marry me?’ She hesitated. ‘God will make it clear if we are to marry … my parents would not approve … I think when you talk again, this will change everything … ’
David’s heart fell … His trust in God had been fragile at best. Now it was broken …
These were the longest years of his ordeal. His life became limited and defined by his disorder … As a final indignity, the government issued him a license to beg for a living …
Meanwhile, Rita continued as always, checking on his condition, bringing occasional meals, running errands. She continued to encourage him in his spiritual life. She prayed with him often and took him to churches and crusades in Makurdi. She took him to Christian counselors. But he continued to struggle in his faith and his emotions. Up and down, up and down.
Eight long years passed. By now everyone who knew David, knew that his aphasia was a real disorder …
… When Rita heard about the meeting [February 2003; Christ For All Nations crusade] she called David and urged him to go. She told him that in her Christian life, she had never seen a miracle, but she had heard that many miracles happened in our crusades. Our publicity posters promised that I would pray for the sick, as I always do. She did not go to the meeting with David. For some reason she felt that this was something he must do on his own. Secretly, she was close to despair over his lack of improvement.
David also felt desperate. He was coming to the end of his ability to keep his promise to Rita and he knew it. Thoughts of suicide were plaguing him again … For one last time he would seek healing from God … He would fast and pray, asking God to heal him at the Bonnke crusade. Failing that, he would find a way to release Rita from her promise. He would do that by breaking his own.
On our opening night in Makurdi, 180,000 people crowded the field. Thousands of sick people came close around the platform. David stood at the perimeter and counted his chances of being prayed for by Reinhard Bonnke at zero. He felt lost in the crowd. At the end of the sermon, as I made a general prayer for the sick, he turned and walked away …
[“Nose bleed lesson”] [The next night] after the salvation prayer, I addressed the sick people in the crowd as I usually do. I asked them to place their hands on the part of their body that needed healing. Then I began to pray.
As Jason describes it, he saw David place his hands on the back of his head and immediately fell to the ground as if someone had cut him down.
David experienced what Jason saw, but in a much different way. His testimony is that he laid his hand on his head and felt the warmth of a strong light shining on him from above. He thought it was a crusade field light. Something told him to look at it. When he looked up, the light shot down around him. It was so powerful it drew him inside. He looked out of the shaft of light at his cousin, John. John obviously did not see the light because he was looking at the stage as normal. David tried to reach out and grab him by the sleeve to get him to look at the light, but he could not reach beyond the light … He felt strangely cut off from reality.
… He was alone with God, and he felt thrilled with his love. A hand came down through the shaft of light and touched the back of his head. It removed something. He immediately felt relieved of a great burden.
The light began to fade, and he found himself on the ground in the crusade meeting. How did he get there? He felt confused and wondered if he had really experienced this light …
At this point Jason Betler reports that he saw David reach to the back of his head again and fall to the ground again. This was the very same reaction as before.
Once again, David experienced what Jason saw, but in a much different way. He said that suddenly the light came back. This time it was even more powerful. He looked again at his cousin John but once again, John did not see the light. The hand returned, touching the back of his head. Once again it removed something, and David felt lighter. This time, however, he felt another sensation as well; he knew that he had received something from God. The light disappeared, and he found himself on the ground.
John helped him to his feet. He seemed baffled and just a bit angry. The crowd was surging all around them. People were praying intently with their hands raised. ‘Who pushed you down, David?’ he asked. ‘Who did this to you?’ David looked at John, and for the first time in eight years, a word in his head found the power to make his mouth respond. ‘Jesus,’ he rasped.
John’s jaw dropped. He stared. ‘Did you say something?’ ‘Jesus,’ David repeated. He felt like he was glowing. It never entered his heart to say any other word than the precious name of the Son of God. ‘Jesus.’
John gasped. ‘David, I heard you.’ ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,’ David repeated … John grabbed him in a bear hug. ‘God has healed my cousin!’ he screamed …
In December we returned … David came again, and this time, no one could stop him from talking. His face bore a new light. He introduced us to a beautiful young woman named Rita, his fiancé, he said …”
God asked Rita to be David’s friend, if she wanted David to be saved. She needed to be his friend and love him and she did – for eight long years – where David was up and down in his relationship with God, where Rita sacrificed her marriage prospects and job opportunities, where she risked the displeasure of her family; but she prevailed and then the breakthrough came at the outreach campaign with Reinhard Bonnke. Can I ask you? Whose convert is David (apart from God)? Who was instrumental in bringing him to Jesus? Rita or Reinhard Bonnke? The answer is both (it’s a team effort) but mostly it was Rita – for sure. Yet, her sacrifice was a hidden – a humble – sacrifice. She was not standing on the platform with a microphone in her hand but she acted on what makes the difference: Life wasn’t about her. It was about Jesus and serving him and – in his name – reaching out to others in love.
The best Bible story that illustrates the general principle of fruitfulness when it’s not about you is written in Luke 10:
Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
The priest and the Levi and the Samaritan were travelling from one place to another. They were busy. They had plans but then a person lying on the road – stripped and beaten – needed help and then the question arose: “Am I ready to be inconvenienced? Do I get involved? Will I stop and take care of this man? What if I cannot delegate this to someone else?” Only one of them answered: “I will help. It’s not about me and what I set out to do. God put this person in my path and I am going to stop and love him until he is well again.”
This is the “secret sauce” of a growing church where people come to know Jesus. It’s not about you. At Mecklenburg Community Church, this is what they are saying to each other all of the time. Maybe we can begin to do the same – make this part of our culture [It is already our culture when it comes to the direction and future planning for our church]: Because of the love of Jesus – for the sake of the lost – to see them saved – it’s not about you. Amen.