After a staff meeting four years ago, our staff team had lunch at a restaurant down the road from our church. The mayor of our city was sitting near us. After we finished eating and were getting ready to leave, the mayor came over and said, “Pastor, I wonder if I could talk to you for a few minutes?” I sat down with him at his table, and he said solemnly,
“Pastor Scott, there’s a problem . . . a big problem.”
I responded immediately, “What do you mean? Tell me what it is.”
Without hesitating, he said, “You and your church have a bad reputation in our community.”
I was stunned, and I asked him to explain what he meant: “Mr. Mayor, I don’t understand. Please tell me what you’re talking about.” He explained, “You’re the biggest church, and in fact, the biggest organization in our community, but you have the reputation for doing your own thing. You’re not really part of our community at all.”
I tried not to be defensive as I explained, “Everything we do is designed to help this community. I wake up every morning thinking and praying about how we can make a difference in the lives of people.” To be sure he heard me, I repeated myself: “I’m serious Mr. Mayor. It really bothers me that you would say such a thing because everything I do is for this city.”
He smiled knowingly, “That’s the problem, Pastor Scott. You’re always doing things for us, but when was the last time you ever did something with us?There’s a difference . . . a big difference.”
I still didn’t understand, and he could see the confusion in my face.
To make his point, he gave an example. “Do you remember last fall when your church had your Fall Festival? You had about 5000 people at the church. It was huge. The city had a Fall Festival, too, but we had only a handful of people. When we have our citywide clean up days, we call your church to see how many of your people want to participate, but the answer we get is that your church has your own clean up program planned, so very few of your people are available to help us.”
The mayor stopped for a second to let this sink in, and then he continued, “Pastor Scott, your church has all the money, all the people, and all the resources to make a huge difference in our city, but the other leaders in the city see your church as inconsiderate, and worse, as competition. Here’s what I’m saying:
“You can either partner with us or compete with us. It’s your choice, but your reputation is on the line.”
As I walked out of the restaurant, I knew this wasn’t a complaint I could easily dismiss. The mayor had pointed out a profound misunderstanding in the way we were trying to live out our mission. We had been seeing our role as a “bastion of hope” where people could come for salvation and comfort. Our efforts in the community were designed as forays “out there” to touch people and bring them into our fellowship.
That afternoon as I prayed and reflected on my conversation with the mayor, the Holy Spirit reminded me of several things.
When the Son of God stepped out of glory onto earth, he came “to dwell among us.” He was to be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” He didn’t remain at a distance and offer resources at arm’s length. He became one of us, ate our food, drank our water, suffered our disappointments, and felt our pain, endured similar injustice—and far worse.
In passage after passage in the gospels, Jesus spent time with outcasts of every stripe: despised prostitutes, hated tax collectors, the blind, the lame, and convicted criminals.
Jesus didn’t see us as projects to be fixed, but as real people to be loved.
There’s a monumental difference between creating services to help people and becoming one of them—it’s the difference between for and with. When we do things for people, we feel superior, and to no one’s surprise, the recipients often feel inferior.
Jesus stepped out of the glory of heaven to become one of us, to live with us, to serve instead of being served, and to give the ultimate sacrifice to show the extent of his love for us.
God used the mayor’s words to challenge me, inspire me, and redirect the efforts of our church.
Our leaders prayed and planned, and within a week, God led us to rethink everything about our church: our identity, our calling, and our strategy. Before my meeting with the mayor, if anyone had asked if we had a compassionate church, I’d have pointed to our support groups for addicts and hurting people, our food pantry, benevolence ministries, our assistance for struggling churches in other countries, and on and on.
But we suddenly realized all of these were for, not with. We held a hand out to these people, but we didn’t embrace them—we didn’t identify with them and become one of them.
Now, we have become committed to make compassion who we are, not just part of what we do. Caring for people is no longer a department of our church; it has become the soul of our church.
True compassion couldn’t remain a niche; it had to become the new norm.
(In my next post I will share with you the four huge changes we made in the church because of this encounter.)