May 6, 2014

Ten Words that will Make or Break a Church (a belated Advent reflection)

by Matthew McEwan

When I worked in retail I was taught that customers are driven by a basic question informing their decision making. The question is contained in five simple little words. Just five words, and yet they make up a truly powerful question such that when the question is answered a retail associate can make an easy sale. Those five words are: what’s in it for me? If a customer understands a perceived benefit of owning some do-dad is greater than having some money in a wallet or bank account, the sale is a given. A consumer culture is based on this question and the message of advertising is that unless the latest and most recent version of something is purchased, we will remain incomplete and unfulfilled. A consumer culture is raised to ask: what’s in it for me?

When this simple little question is applied to a church, the results can be disastrous. A 90’s Christian rock band called “All Star United” did a song called “La La Land” with the haunting lines:

All the saints and martyrs alike, well they would have called a national strike
Demanded less pain, more personal gain, if only they’d known their rights
Well I take it very personally, I’ve got to know what’s in it for me
Ain’t it grand, when you’re living in La La Land

The question “What’s in it for me?” changes disciples into consumers, and when a consumer finds their perceived needs are not being met, it becomes easy to move from one church to another, like changing brands or retail stores. People evaluate a church based on what it can offer them rather than seeing the opportunities where they can serve in that church. “What’s in it for me?” can destroy a church.

A more redemptive statement to replace the destructive question “What’s in it for me?” is another five word phrase. These other five words are guaranteed to bless a church, and they can be found in the pages of Scripture. In Luke 1:38, Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant.” When people say to God, “I am the Lord’s servant” there is no room to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Jesus picked up a towel to wash the feet of his disciples, and he expects his followers to do the same. A church filled with people saying, “I am the Lord’s servant” is a church where you will see the “one-another’s” of the New Testament being practiced. A church filled with people saying, “I am the Lord’s servant” will be a church where people gather to serve rather than be served. A church filled with people saying, “I am the Lord’s servant” will be a church that is blessed.

Whenever I encounter this phrase in the Gospel of Luke, I’m reminded of the painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) of “The Annunciation” (1898). In this painting, the angel Gabriel appears as brilliant light. In this painting we see no angelic wings, no halo, no cherub with a baby face but instead we are presented with an angel in the form of pure, brilliant light. The glory of the angel is ineffable and almost overwhelming , much like a glance at the sun. In contrast with the angel we find Mary and her surroundings painted in earth tones. Mary has no halo and the rug is dishevelled. Obviously the annunciation has come unannounced; were I expecting an angelic visitor, I might have straightened up the room! Mary’s body posture is reflective of her heart. She is in quiet submission and answering “Yes” to God’s plan. Like Mary, may we all answer with “I am the Lord’s servant.”

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