I couldn’t believe my ears. “Who is this?” I asked my wife. She had on a Christian radio station and a song was playing, the words of which seemed to express the bane of modern American Christianity. The lyrics that caught my attention rang out, “It’s all about you.”
I have a friend who pastors a trendy church. He is of sound doctrine in terms of his understanding of sin, grace, God, Christ, the fall and sinfulness of man. He cares deeply for people. But he’s bought into the subtle notion that the way to make the gospel heard and acceptable to people is for the church to bend over backwards to make new people believe that “it’s all about them.”
He calls every now and then to cry on my shoulder because of the constant problems he has in his church; problems that stem from selfishness, self-centeredness, and conflicting interests. “I’ve often heard you say that Bethel has a lot of people with problems, but no problem people – how do you do that?” Well, the truth is, I don’t do anything. But I believe that it is not enough to have a sound theoretical theology. The rubber of the theology has to meet the road of peoples’ lives. At the very heart of what the gospel remedies in us is the sinful, self-centered notion that everything is about us.
My friend gets excited when someone of moderate fame or means comes into their assembly. That’s natural. But it is very different from the way Jesus behaved. He no doubt would have been more successful if he had spent his time courting Pharisees and Sadducees once his teaching caught their attention. Instead, though, he seemed to go out of his way to provoke them. But it was not a “class warfare” thing. He had disciples among the rich (Joseph of Arimathea) and influential (Nicodemus), but he didn't woo them. He never made them “feel special,” never made them think it was all about them. That’s the very thing the gospel came to remedy. If they came to him, they had to come like everyone else, realizing that they were nothing special, and they needed a savior.
The “church success” manuals tell of the importance of “glad-handing” -- going around with a big smile on your face -- especially to the movers and shakers who might grace your doors. Those who are hurting can make an appointment for later in the week. Ministry has become marketing. The goal is to “reach a lot of people,” but no one ever stops to ask what they are being reached with. We live in an age in which the life-transforming power of the gospel has been exchanged for the number of “likes” a church has on Facebook, forgetting that Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
When ministry takes precedence over marketing, things change and priorities seem upside down, until we come to realize that it is we who are upside down. Once while in the vicinity of the Garasene region, a man named Jairus who was a ruling elder in the synagogue came to Jesus. His twelve year old daughter lay dying, and he believed Jesus could heal her. While on his way to Jairus’ house as the crowds thronged around him, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years snuck through the crowed and touched Jesus, believing she would be healed (and she was). She did this stealthily, no doubt because her condition rendered her un-clean. The synagogue was not a place she could go. Not con-tent with the healing of her body alone, Jesus questioned the crowd until the woman came forward, and Jesus pronounced the benediction of God’s shalom upon her.
Jesus has pretty strange priorities, doesn't he? He delays going to the home of a synagogue leader to engage a poor, unclean woman. She has had her condition for twelve years. Couldn't it wait? Jairus’ little girl was dying. And in fact, during the time Jesus took to minister to this woman, the little girl died. It was too late. I wonder how Jairus felt? Jesus had some strange priorities, didn’t he? Everyone who lives according to the flesh, devoid of the mind of Christ will certainly think so. But Jairus (whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead) learned a kingdom-orienting lesson that day: “It’s not all about me.
Oh, that song I mentioned at the beginning – it’s by Michael W. Smith and the words actually go like this:
"I'm coming back to the heart of worship And it's all about you, it's all about you Jesus I'm sorry Lord, for the thing I've made it [i.e. worship] When it's all about you, it's all about you Jesus."
That’s the right perspective, but until I read the words, there was something about the metering of the chorus that made that message unclear. I thought the singer was saying to the people to whom he was singing, “It’s all about you.”
Back to my friend. I’m sure that he too has the right perspective. He understands and believes that it is all about Jesus. Yet there is something in the way he “does church” that conveys to people that it’s all about them. At some point, this becomes a problem because the people who have come there under that impression either expect the church to make good on its promise that it’s all about them, or become angry because they believe they've been lied to – “Hey, it’s not all about me at all!”
“So how is it that you guys have a lot of people with problems, but no problem people, and we have people with problems and tons of problem people?” I’m never sure what to say when he asks me that. How do you reorient someone’s entire culture? He believes all the right things, but (I believe) he’s confused marketing with ministry. He can’t bring himself to tell people up front, “Here you’ll find the life-changing healing of the gospel, beginning with the realization that it’s not about you.”
I didn't know where to begin in response to his question, but I could tell him why I think Bethel doesn't have problem people. “Don’t idealize Bethel. We have a lot of people who are wounded and hurting, and with serious sin issues. But I guess that I can’t think of anyone at our church who thinks it’s all about them. The people who come to Bethel either understand that from the start, or they learn it and submit to this ‘new idea’ (sometimes painfully). And of course, there have been lots of people who, once they realize we are not going to bend over backwards to make it all about them, will leave and go somewhere else.”
When I was in seminary and we had to find a church, we visited quite a number of them. The PCA church we became members of lived as well as preached the gospel. People were cordial and friendly enough, but the message was clear that it was not “all about us.” Ministry was taking place that took precedence over us (unless we were in need of ministry). This in contrast to some other churches we visited in which we were treated like royalty. That was an uncomfortable situation because I knew that if I was at a church, then the real King was present, and we were just fellow subjects. I felt like an imposter being the object of such treatment, and breathed a sigh of relief when I could finally leave.
In the age of American Idol and slick marketing, it can be startling for people to realize that it’s not all about them. But that’s exactly what the gospel does for us. What gets in the way of people coming to Christ is not a lack of slick marketing, or failure to glad-hand. What gets in the way of a person’s coming to Christ is the self-centeredness of the person himself. That’s what the gospel remedies. The church belies the message it preaches whenever it conveys (perhaps subtly and unintentionally) “It’s all about you!”