I have always had an interest in history and politics. My first memories of American politics was the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. After a series of older men in the office, Kennedy brought an energy and excitement that someone like myself who was still in public school could connect with. My first really memorable moment in history was the day on which President Kennedy was shot.
Yesterday, for the first time ever, I listened to Kennedy’s inauguration speech. It is considered by many to be one of the great speeches of all time. I listened in awe. I loved the entire speech but I was absolutely captivated by his closing remarks. The most famous line from the entire speech is this.
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy challenged the men and women of America with those words back on January 20, 1961 but they are a challenge that still needs to be given again and again today in a lot of different settings.
Commercialism in the church
There are few more serious challenges facing small churches today than the fact that most Canadian Christians in the twenty-first century view their church options from a commercialism mindset. As they decide which church they should attend, the question that is primary in their thoughts is what the church can do for me.
Does this church have a good Sunday school program for my children? Does it have a strong youth group for my teenagers? Does it have a good preacher who is dynamic enough to keep me awake on Sunday morning? Does it have a women’s Bible study in which a young mother like me can make friends? At the heart of these questions and a lot of others is the same basic commercial question: What can the church do for me?
Here is an interesting statistic about grocery stores. Back in the 1990s the average grocery store carried approximately 7,000 items. Today that same store carries some where between 40 and 50 thousand items. Is it any wonder that people block the aisle while they stand there looking at the shelf deciding which of the many brands of spaghetti sauce they should buy? Shoppers, in whatever type of store, demand more and more choice and retailers have changed their approach to satisfy that demand.
Unfortunately they have carried over that demand for variety into the church. The temptation is for the church is to try to meet those demands. I once heard of a church that offered five or six different services on a Sunday morning each offering a different style of music designed to meet the individual tastes of attenders. If you like classic hymns, we have a service for you. If you like country music, we can meet that taste as well. If your preference is a contemporary worship team, enter auditorium C and we will give you exactly what you like. It is all designed to make you happy and satisfied when you attend a service.
Discipleship in a commercial world
The problem with all this is that Jesus did not commission his church with the task of making people happy. We have been called to make disciples. Discipleship is all about what we surrender to Jesus. It isn’t about meeting all the wishes that people bring to church.
One of the most famous conversion stories in history is that of the Apostle Paul in Acts 9. He is on his way to Damascus on a mission to arrest followers of Jesus. Jesus meets him on the way and Paul’s life is miraculously transformed. He is changed from being one of the primary enemies of the church to being one of its strongest proponents.
When we think about the gospel message that we present to people today, Paul’s conversion is a good place to start. God sends Ananias to Paul with specific instructions.
Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him now how much he must suffer for my name.
That is the exact opposite of commercialism. The message doesn’t concern the blessings that Paul will experience as a Christian. It doesn’t begin with the news that God wants to meet Paul’s needs and give him a happy life.
It begins with the cost involved in serving Jesus. It begins by talking about the suffering that Paul is going to have to endure.
I once heard the following conversation that ended in a challenging question. If you were part of the first-century church and you were sharing the good news with a friend, what would you say to that friend. You would know that a commitment to Jesus could end up with your friend in the arena facing a bunch of hungry lions just waiting for their lunch. You would know that others had suffered a similar fate. In sharing the gospel, would you tell your friend about the lions?
There is a temptation in a small church to try to imitate the larger churches around in offering more programs than the church can afford. Leaders know that they are ministering in a commercial culture that wants what it wants when it wants it. John Kennedy’s words still carry an important challenge.
Ask not what your church can do for you – ask what you can do for the one who is head of the church.