“We wonder why so many congregations go to church, log many hours in activities each week and still feel unfulfilled.”
I was reading one church’s minutes from a century ago. In a business meeting, the clerk told of a request for $10 from a new church in Texas. This was back when $10 was the equivalent of about $200. After voting to send the money, the secretary said, “This spirit of generosity was put to the test when someone pointed out the church fellowship hall needed renovating.” As I recall, they ended up spending $2,000 on that project.
“What’s in it for us?” is the prevailing principle of decision-making for too many churches. Denominational leaders and professional fundraisers know that to be successful in their promotions, they have to convince churches that this project will reap great rewards for them personally.
It’s not enough to do something for the kingdom.
It’s not sufficient to do something to please God, honor Christ or obey the Spirit. “Show me how this will benefit us.”
And we wonder why so many congregations are stagnated, plateaued or declining.
We wonder why so many congregations go to church, log many hours in activities each week and still feel unfulfilled.
We wonder why churches run off pastors who are not meeting their needs, not leaving them with warm feelings after sermons, not making them feel better about themselves.
I cannot tell you the times I’ve heard someone pray in a worship service, “Lord, help us get something out of this today.”
As though it were all about them.
Warren Wiersbe said, “It pays to worship. But if you worship because it pays, it won’t pay.” Worship is about giving to the Lord the glory due his name, about bringing an offering and bowing down before the Ruler of the universe and honoring him. When we do this right, we walk away blessed.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The irony of this—“Worship pays, but not if you worship for the pay”—is lost on a huge portion of the Lord’s people, I fear. True, God wants to bless his children. He said to Abraham, “I will bless you and make your name great, so you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). At no time did the Lord tell Abraham to focus on getting that blessing, or to keep praying that his name would be great. “I will do it,” the Lord said. Then, Abram’s job would be to be a blessing.
When we concentrate on being a blessing to others, God blesses us.
The mentality of our age is something else entirely: Me before you. My needs before anything else. My wants and desires above all. How can I tithe when I still owe on my boat and luxury car? Surely the Lord doesn’t want that.
Us before others. Our needs and our comfort take priorities. We need a strong home base here, and then we will be able to give more to missions.
All of us before God. God wants our welfare, doesn’t he? He’s not honored if we are worshiping in something less than the best, right?
And thus, we justify our materialism, our self-centeredness, our negligence of the needs of a lost world. Thus, we sanctify our disobedience.
So easily do we nullify the teachings of Scripture and discount the commands of our Lord. (If this sounds vaguely familiar, you will notice in Matthew 15:6 that the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ generation were slammed for the same selfish error. God is not amused.)
A church I know split over this. Some of the leaders resented spending money on missions. Their philosophy, according to the pastor, was that the Great Commission meant they were to reach Jerusalem first, after which they were to branch out into Judea, then on to Samaria, and from there to the ends of the earth. Live by that philosophy and Judea would always be waiting for the gospel.
There will be reward aplenty. But the Lord is in charge of that.
Peter said, “Lord, we’ve left everything and followed you.” He was leaving unsaid the question, “So, what do we get in return?” Or, “What’s in it for us?” Our Lord understood this and said, “There is no one who leaves houses or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms for my sake and the gospel’s sake but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now … and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:28-31).
The concept of reward from God both here and now and “there and then” is found all through the Word.
“Our inner man is being renewed day by day. For this momentary, light affliction is working for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comprehension …” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)
“In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:8)
We do well to have the servant-slave attitude. Early disciples introduced themselves as servants or slaves of the Lord. See Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1 and Jude 1.
Not that the Lord felt that way about his choice servants. They were faithful, honored, his friends, his beloved. The point, however, is that they felt that way about themselves.
And therein lies the secret to faithful and effective discipleship. The best way to understand this is found in the little parable of Luke 17:7-10.
The servant who comes in from the field is not told to go take care of his own needs first and the master’s second. Instead, he is instructed to go straight to the kitchen and prepare a meal for the master, then make himself presentable and serve it, after which he can see to his own needs. “Even so,” said our Lord, “when you have done all the things I have commanded you, say (to yourself) ‘I am only an unworthy slave; I’ve just done my duty.’”
This overlooked parable may be the one most needed by our generation of churches.
It requires a little self-talk. The one who sees himself as a slave to Jesus does not work for reward. He is rewarded just in serving the one he adores. So, he tells himself at the end of a long, hard day, “I’m an unworthy servant; just doing my duty.”
Notice the Lord does not say that to us. He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many” (Matt. 25:21,23).
Notice also that we are not to say that to one another. Instead, we are to give honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:7). We are to acknowledge (appreciate) those who serve faithfully and sacrificially (1 Corinthians 16:18). And elders who serve well, we are told, are worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17). They are not to seek that honor, but we are to give it.
The servant of the Lord who labors hard, serves sacrificially, stays humble and sees himself as unworthy is a rare treasure. Let us labor to be such.
Let those of us who teach and preach keep this great truth—and therefore this wonderful parable—before God’s people at all times.
Joe McKeever spent 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist churches and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications for more than 40 years. This article was originally published on McKeever’s blog.