I have listened to hundreds of sermons and have preached even more than that. Too many of them—including my own—focus on telling me what to do: a good Christian tithes, prays, reads the Bible daily, works to eliminate poverty, recycles, forgives . . . you get the idea.
These are all good things. But what is often missing is demonstrating why I should want to do these things and how I can actually do them.
Have you ever spent much time with young children? They have a propensity for asking why. They are curious, take nothing at face value, and simply want to know how the world works. At some point, the “why” questions try an adult’s patience and inevitably leads to those conversation enders, “Because that is the way it is” or “Because I said so.”
Once upon a time we lived in a world where it was a given that most people we knew were Christian and went to church. You didn’t have to explain why. It was just the way it was, what people did.
But that world is gone. It is reported that 17.5 percent of Americans are in worship on any particular Sunday. The fastest growing segment in religious-preference surveys is the people who claim “none.”
Can you explain why?
We live in cynical times. People’s trust in leaders and institutions has eroded. “Why” is the predominant question of our time. Why should I follow Jesus? Why should I be a part of a church? What difference will it make? What difference has it made in your life?
So let me take a detour to explain this. I have been on a personal journey of weight loss this past year. All my adult life I have been overweight. I have had more than one doctor tell me what to do: lose weight. They even gave me a general sense of why: so I will be healthy. But that wasn’t concrete enough, motivating enough, for me to make a significant change to my life, even though I understood it would be a good thing to do.
Last fall, something changed. I saw a new endocrinologist, and he told me that if I lost 30 pounds in the next year I would not become diabetic. He gave me a powerful why: I could avoid medication and I could avoid the consequences of a disease that cannot be cured but only managed. And he made it doable: 30 pounds in one year. You can do that.
And he was right. I have done that and more. Several people who have known me for a long time have asked me, why now? What changed? And my reply is that I finally had a powerful enough picture of the difference it could make to my life, and for that, I was willing to give my best energy, my life to the journey.
Does our preaching and teaching have that same power? Do we show people the difference that following Jesus does and can make? Each and every week, do we offer a picture so compelling that people say, I want to do that and I can do that?
I am convinced that simply telling people what to do, and to do more and do better, is not enough. We need to start with why.
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church