JFK and the Church

The US election is behind us and the post-poll analysis continues to seek for reasons why Americans were faced with the dilemma of voting for one of two candidates who in different ways fell well short of the decency and morality expected in such an office. You can’t blame democracy because democracy simply reflects the people who vote and in a culture which elevates personal freedom and the pursuit of happiness above all else it is no surprise when in the one corner the candidate champions a woman’s right to end a human life and in the other corner we have a philanderer and a misogynist who ultimately rises to power by fuelling fear and insecurity. Many of our American Christian brothers and sisters are feeling raw and chastened as their new political reality exposes the drift from Christian values of self-sacrifice and duty that has occurred under their watch.

John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech on January 20th 1961 could not have been a greater contrast to the priorities of the current President -elect. At no point in the speech was that more evident than in Kennedy’s reference to Latin America. “To our sister republics south of our border we offer a special pledge — to convert our good words into good deeds — in a new alliance for progress — to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.  But one line, rightly famous, demonstrated that the Christian principles which had helped shape the nation could still be called into service. “Ask not what your country can do for you -ask what you can do for your country.”

But it’s easy to dwell on the problems of other people. Less easy to discern the same tendencies at home. The drift towards self-centred narcissism is one of the symptoms of the contemporary church scene in our own culture. Church for many attenders is about meeting my needs and finding maximum fulfilment. In a land where every school child was once able to define our purpose on earth as a “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” that great maxim has been reduced to “finding maximum enjoyment” We, too, have enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right.

Whilst no one should be arguing for unfriendly worship services and damp buildings the opposite extreme is increasingly encountered- worship which has been shaped by market preferences rather than to glorify God. One small town Scottish congregation proudly states that “Through a variety of Sunday services we aspire to offer worship in styles helpful to newcomers and long-standing worshipers alike, and to all ages.” Tellingly, the language comes close to the idea of offering up worship to the worshippers.

The decline in the Christian population has been accompanied by a growth in a small number of larger churches that are better equipped to meet the needs of worshippers for diverse friendships, youth ministry, quality music and pleasant surroundings.  At the beginning of every new academic session these churches engage in an ecclesiastical beauty contest to attract the new intake of young people who are thus conditioned further to “ask what the church can do for you.”  Could we imagine what a difference would result if an army of young evangelical talent was released to energise church revitalisation or church planting?

Church planting continually struggles to take off because of the reluctance of larger churches to send their best people to locations which are unattractive. There is no shortage of church plants in the trendy west ends of our cities but few want to fund church plants or join core teams to break new ground in Hawick or Wick.

And rural churches typically suffer from proximity to large “successful” evangelical churches in neighbouring towns. It is a depressing fact that our desire to have needs met has so overturned our doctrine of the church that in some parts of the Highlands villages are emptied of significant populations of Christians commuting to the better option.

If Scotland is mission field territory (and it is) then we need to rediscover the missionary mind set if the large tracts of population remote from flagship churches are to be reached. We will need to find people who are asking the question “What can I do for the church?” and are prepared to be deployed for the kingdom and forego (even for a season) some of the attractions of more established churches.

Our society is very mobile. People move around for education, for employment and many retire to new places. I happen to think that mobility is a mixed blessing and that there is much to be said for being rooted. But reality being what it is, it would be wonderful if Christians were motivated primarily in their re-location decisions by the question, “What can I do for the church?”

I have met with glowing examples of such an attitude. I had a wonderful time ministering at a Highland communion a year ago. The congregation was being revitalised. In no small part the reason lay in the decision of a young couple to relocate with their family and serve the church. Their presence had made it easier for others to join. It made my heart soar! Athole Rennie’s church planting in Leith was encouraged by young people who, early on, took the costly decision to give up work and relocate to get things moving. Andy Longwe in Cumbernauld is blessed by folks who have mobilised for the gospel. As has Campbeltown. The list could go on.

All the above is not to diminish the importance of having large, equipping churches. As Ray Evans points out in his great book Ready Steady Grow large churches are often more effective at certain ministries because of their multiplied contacts and resources of buildings, finance and people. But we want churches to grow big because of effective evangelism not Christian consumerism. And we want big churches to be much greater risk takers in sending out their best people to resource the mission frontline.

There are no rules about what kind of church someone should attend. There is, (apologies to JFK), one mantra that helps in making good decisions, “Do not ask what the church can do for you. Ask what you can do for the church.”

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President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.
JFK and the Church

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