Preaching for Total Commitment
What does it take to convince people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ?
Monday, December 29, 2008
Recently a man commented on the "tough topics" I'd taught on over the years—hell, money, sex, relational confrontation, self-discipline. He asked, "Of all the topics you've preached on, which has been the hardest to get across?"
I didn't even have to think about it. "Becoming totally devoted to Christ." My greatest teaching challenge is to convey what Paul was driving at in Acts 20:24 and elsewhere: "I no longer count my life as dear unto myself; I have abandoned my personal aspirations and ambitions; I have offered myself as a living sacrifice to Christ." When I teach that to secularly minded people, they think I'm from Mars. The thought of living according to someone else's agenda is ludicrous.
To many people, living for Christ is a kind of fanaticism the world could do without. Who, they wonder, would be foolish enough voluntarily to suffer loss, refrain from pleasure, or impinge on the comfort level of his life? They think total devotion to Christ means squandering the only life they have.
A man from my church provides a perfect example. His biggest problem, as I perceive it, is his successful company. Clients whose business he's not even seeking are lining up for his services. Just responding to them is tyrannizing his life. Several months ago I asked him why his heart didn't seem to be as warm toward things of God as it had been.
"Business has been dominating my life," he admitted, but added in defense, "but I'm not seeking it. I'm just trying to handle what's coming in. I mean, what do you expect me to do?"
I suggested he could say, "Enough is enough." He looked at me as if I were insane. What businessman in his right mind would say no to a client whose order would produce a bigger profit? You don't do that in this world. More is always better; it's the American way. The desire for more had a greater pull on this man than his desire to follow Christ, use his spiritual gifts, serve his wife, or be father to his kids.
If it's so hard to persuade people to commit themselves unreservedly to Christ, why bother? Why not settle for church attendance, or membership, or at least periodic service?
As ministers, we all have to come to terms with the quality of fruit we're producing. We have to decide what level of commitment we expect from the people we're leading.
Church history has taught us that a leader can do more through a handful of totally devoted believers than through a church full of halfhearted ones. So we're left with a tension: How can we teach in such a way that we produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, when we know that most people don't want to hear about radical discipleship?
Let me suggest five principles that guide me when I preach for 100 percent commitment.
Describe total commitment
The first step is to develop a clear understanding of total commitment. A teacher constantly has to define and redefine: What does it really mean to be completely devoted to Christ? If it doesn't mean simply showing up for services, putting in a check, and going home, then what does it mean?
Several Bible passages define total commitment for me and shape my preaching on the subject:
Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15:31: "I die daily." I've never met a fully devoted follower of Christ who didn't have to die daily to a host of things that would like to have a grip on him—personal ambition, worldly pleasures, people's applause, greed. This culture ferociously maintains that "you can have it all," but that slogan is foreign to the mind and teaching of Christ. It's difficult for me to stand in an affluent, suburban congregation and tell people what they need to die to, walk away from, or give up, but I have to do it.
Jesus' command in Luke 10:27 to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind." This means we need to obey God's Word and order our lives in such a way that we can live in the constant awareness of his presence.
John's question, "How can you say you love God yet hate your brother?" (1 John 4:20-20). We live in an age in which hate is routine, and too often that attitude spills over into the church. Yet Scripture makes it clear that total devotion to Jesus Christ includes being at peace with our brothers. True Christians, particularly leaders, need to take Matthew 5:23-24 (the need to be reconciled with our brother before coming to God) more seriously. We need to make relational integrity a priority and actively seek reconciliation whenever a problem arises. That should be a prerequisite to ministry.
Jesus' constant teaching on the use of time, talents, and treasures. After a person spends thirty years devoting all of his or her time and talents to the marketplace, it's hard to start devoting it suddenly to the Lord. It's hard to hear verses like "Seek first the kingdom of God," or "Always abound in the work of the Lord," or "Set your mind on things above," or "What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"
It takes time to develop personal spiritual disciplines—Bible study, journaling, praying, fasting, reflecting. It takes time to be in a small group of brothers or sisters who will provide challenge and accountability. It takes time to advance the kingdom in practical service. But those commitments of time are a good measure of our devotion to Christ.
A medical professional from our church has decided to work a four-day week so he can devote the other three days to his lay-leadership role and his relationship with his family. The work time he has given up costs him substantial income every week. But he has decided to die to that so he can live to what Christ has called him to do apart from his vocation. Already he had been using his skills to serve needy people; but now, in addition, he's able to use his gifts of administration and leadership within the church in significant ways. He's putting his time, talents, and treasures at God's disposal.
The second step in preaching on total commitment is tougher: to live it ourselves. It's clear, I think, that we can't lead a congregation into total commitment unless we're attempting to model it.
Every pastor has been on the wrong side of the total-commitment fence at one time or another. It's like asking an athlete, "Have you always been in superb condition?"
Inevitably, the answer is, "Not always."
When you ask, "How'd you feel when you weren't?" they say, "Sluggish. Under par. Less than professional."
Recently I read about a top leader who was asked, "What is your main objective in leading your organization?"
He said, "To intercept entropy." That fascinated me, because that's what I try to do in my own life. I look at myself and say, Where is there slippage? Where am I getting out of condition? Where am I becoming sluggish? Before I pay attention to the spiritual condition of others, I examine myself.
One of my great frustrations is not being able to manage my life so that I'm always fully committed. But if I'm willing to hear the truth about myself, the Spirit will point out areas of carelessness and inconsistency. Then I can repent and intercept the entropy at a fairly early stage.
In addition to trying to model total commitment, we need other congregational leaders who are fully devoted followers, who can uphold the standard. Last night I looked around the table at our elders' meeting and thought, Every elder in this church is committed to Jesus Christ and would take a bullet for him right now. That means when I preach about total commitment, they're the first ones to cheer me on: "Don't ever settle for less. We're with you 100 percent." It would be pretty hard for me to bring a strong call for deeper discipleship if the elders and other key leaders weren't in agreement.
What's exciting is that the more fully devoted the pastor and lay leaders become, the more fully devoted the congregation becomes. The growth in the congregation then inspires the leaders to deeper commitment, and that prompts a continual cycle of growth. Total discipleship becomes contagious and exhilarating.
There's one man in our church whose only day off is Wednesday; he comes in that morning and cleans our water fountains. Another man comes in on his day off and services our vacuum cleaners. Other volunteers weed and cultivate various flower beds on the church property. I recently saw a young mom tending one of the beds. Her baby sat in a stroller, while she listened to a cassette tape and dug around the flowers. When I see discipleship manifested in service like that, I become motivated to be a more devoted servant myself.
Preach from every angle
The third step is to preach on total commitment from as many creative angles as possible. Here's what I mean:
Select series that lead naturally to a call for commitment. In a sense, every sermon I preach defines some aspect of commitment, whether it's about marriage, character development, caring for our bodies, or whatever. Still, I believe the call to devotion is best presented overtly, and some series don't lend themselves to that as naturally as others.
For example, I preached a series that dealt with honesty in relationships. It was a helpful series, but it didn't provide a good opportunity for calling people to a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ. To do that would have been somewhat manipulative, a bait-and-switch for people who came expecting something else. With some topics, if I want to have integrity, I need to stick with the subject matter and wait for another time to talk about discipleship.
But other topics naturally lead to a call for 100 percent commitment. Last year I preached a series called "Alternatives to Christianity," in which I discussed the New Age Movement, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, and contrasted them with Christianity. Following an honest comparison of these belief systems, I ended the series by saying,
After you've heard all this, wouldn't you agree that the Christian message is absolutely compelling? When you line it up against the other belief systems, doesn't it prove to be a more excellent way? If this series has convinced you that Christianity is compelling in its truths, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in what it produces in individual lives, if, in fact, it's the clear winner, then embrace it with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Don't hold back.
That series naturally lent itself to a call for commitment, and I didn't shrink from presenting it. As I plan my preaching, I monitor the series I'm selecting as to whether they lead without manipulation to a message on all-out Christian commitment.
Present committed service as a joyous response to what God has done for us, not as a means to earn salvation. We ministers have to make sure our people realize that discipleship is a way to say thank you to God, not a way to gain merit.
At times I've stopped myself during a call to commitment and said, "If you're outside the family of God, please understand that discipleship is a response to God's amazing grace. It's not an attempt to improve your status before God. Paul says you can 'give your body to be burned,' but you can't save yourself through discipleship. Commitment is a means to express gratitude, not to win entrance into heaven."
Illustrate the alternatives to wholehearted commitment. When I'm trying to challenge the secularly minded person to be a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, I find it effective to play out the opposite scenario.
For example, in a series called "Rare and Remarkable Virtues," the closing message was on contentment. I began by saying:
All he ever really wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a filmmaker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U.S. presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise.
Then I went on to describe how this man concluded his life—emaciated; colorless; sunken chest; fingernails in grotesque, inches-long corkscrews; rotting, black teeth; tumors; innumerable needle marks from his drug addiction. "Howard Hughes died," I said, "believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards."
By depicting the path of the self-centered life, we can show its emptiness and ultimate futility. We can say, "Friends, it's madness. Can you see that? Maybe these men traveled further down the road to deception than you have, but play it out. Think about where you're headed. Sooner or later you'll get so tired of drinking cups of sand, you'll say, 'I'm ready for some living water.' You can do that 15 years from now, after you've gone through two or three more marriages and left a trail of broken children. Or, you can learn from the madness of others, and bow right now and trust Christ."
I go on to ask, "Has your most recent acquisition quenched the thirst in your soul? Has your most recent thrill, your promotion, your marriage, your new child, your published book, left you totally satisfied inside?" People need to admit that what they thought would satisfy them, when once attained, usually doesn't do the job.
For the currently satisfied, offer your help for a later date. Sometimes people say, "Hey, I'm happy with who I am. I'm not hungry or thirsty for anything. I have no major problems, and I'm doing okay." To people who are that self-deceived, there's nothing I can say. It does no good to try to convince them of their need. But publicly or privately I can offer my assistance for the day they finally realize they need Christ.
For several years I was chaplain for the Chicago Bears and taught a weekly Bible study at Halas Hall, where they practiced. One player used to walk by the door, shake his head and wink at me, and then move on. One day I said to him, "You're on top of the world right now. You've got all the money and fame you could ask for. So you go by and wink, and think I and the rest of the guys in there are fools." He just smiled.
I said, "I'm not trying to be a prophet of doom, but sometime the roof is going to cave in on your life. All of a sudden you're going to realize you don't have it all. When that happens, call me."
Three weeks later, he called. "My only brother just had his first child. It was born deformed. My brother's devastated, and so am I. I don't know what to do or say. Can I talk to you?"
With the currently satisfied, our best strategy is to advertise our availability for the day they realize their need. Patiently let the Spirit work
Bill Hybels speaking on patience is like Imelda Marcos speaking on frugality. But I've had to learn to be patient, to preach on discipleship and allow the Spirit to bring it to pass.
Becoming wholly devoted is a process. Colossians 1 says people need to become complete in Christ, but 1 Corinthians 3 reminds me that they start out as spiritual babes. My responsibility is not to push the growth but to monitor the diet. Does the menu I'm offering provide the nutrition that will lead them to maturity? Is the diet too meaty, so that it chokes them? Or is the diet junk food that tickles the taste buds but fails to sustain health?
All believers ultimately should abandon themselves to full commitment to Christ. However, all believers cannot do that at the same pace. Some people in our body are, by temperament, timid and methodical. If they take tennis lessons, they go forty-five minutes a week, and in eight years they'll play a good game. When it comes to full commitment to Christ, they follow the same pace. They're not fighting God or being rebellious; their slow progression toward commitment is in keeping with the overall speed of their lives. With them, I have to slow down and move accordingly.
Other people are just the opposite. Not long ago, a man wrote to me: "I own two businesses. I became a Christian at one of your services two weeks ago. I have already found two men to run my businesses. I am ready to devote the rest of my life to serving at Willow Creek Community Church. Call me."
We called him immediately—to make sure he wasn't moving too fast. His speed made us nervous, but some people are like that by nature. He probably knew his wife a week before he proposed!
Because of these differences in personality, I never say, "Decide by next Sunday." Ultimatums and specific time frames may not be consistent with individual temperaments. Instead, I say, "You've heard truth from Scripture today. Please don't be hearers only, but doers. As for me and my house, we've decided to do this (whatever I'm preaching). You, too, have decisions to make. May the Holy Spirit have freedom in you as you make the right ones." Be ready to live with opposition
I must point out a painful fact of pastoral life. Preaching sold-out Christianity draws the disapproval of snipers who will try anything to persuade us to lower the standard.
Halfhearted believers respond to messages on total commitment the way rebellious sinners respond to messages on repentance. Suppose you stood before one hundred thousand kids at a rock concert and said, "You're on the wrong road. Please reconsider the direction of your life. Fall to your knees, repent of your rebellion against God, and receive Christ as your Savior." You can bet you'd see hostility.
I've found similar resistance when I've challenged halfhearted, cosmetic Christians to be dedicated completely to Christ. Whenever you expose someone's addiction to gratification, you can expect a defensive reaction.
Pastors feel it. We preach a tough message on discipleship, and the reaction tells us it's "thirty-two degrees and falling." The next week we preach on rebuilding self-esteem, and suddenly it's "eighty-five degrees and sunshiny." What are we inclined to preach about the third week?
How do people couch their resistance? "You're being too harsh. You're being unrealistic. We're not ready for that yet. What about 'God loves you as you are'?" If I didn't have support from my elders, I couldn't keep it up, because sometimes the resistance gets too strong.
Not long ago we surveyed our committed core people. One question we asked was, "Are you using your spiritual gift in this body for God's glory on a weekly basis?" About 53 percent said they were. Scripturally, that's not good enough. So, in a message I cited that statistic and said, "I thank God for those of you who are using your spiritual gifts. And I pray for those of you who have been so deeply wounded in the past that you need a time of healing before you can begin to serve. But to the rest of you, I have to ask a tough question: What's going on? If you've been redeemed and welcomed into the family of God, you should be lying awake nights thinking of ways to show God your gratitude. One way you can do that is by identifying and using your spiritual gift. If you're not doing that, something is wrong!"
I have to confess I even used the word parasites for people "who eat and run, who enjoy the benefits of the body of Christ, but don't contribute to its well-being."
One of the elders stopped me afterward and said, "Great word. It had to be said." I needed that kind of support, because the next day the missiles started arriving in the mail: "Just because I choose not to serve in this body does not make me a parasite."
"You had no right to pressure us that way."
"You're an egomaniac who thinks you can tell everybody else how to live."
I answered every letter and offered to talk further. I did, however, affirm my understanding of 1 Corinthians 12: If you claim to be a part of the body, then you need to function as a part of the body.
The point is, when we feel we have to confront the congregation, that's when we need to be surrounded by elders who can say, "That's the right message, given in the right spirit. Don't let the missiles get to you."
Because of that, I alert the elders when I'm thinking of preaching a particularly challenging message. Sometimes they say, "Bill, that sounds more like your personal pet peeve than our collective concern. Be careful." Then I usually drop the issue or wait until I have a better perspective on it.
Other times, they confirm my desire to preach the message, and I can step into the pulpit with confidence. Why I keep preaching this message
What helped me overcome my hesitation to preach the genuine, all-or-nothing gospel of Christ? The realization that living a genuine, all-or-nothing life for God is the only path to satisfaction.
Every day I journal, write out my prayers, and resubmit myself to God. I say with the hymn writer, "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee." Or, "You are the Potter; I am the clay. Hold over my being absolute sway." Then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I try to follow those commitments during the day.
I have never regretted my attempts to be yielded to God. In fact, my times of greatest yieldedness have been my times of greatest joy. They've prompted me to ask with the psalmist, "What can I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?"
On the other hand, I have paid dearly for the times I have not been yielded, when I've been self-willed, carnal, rebellious, or timid. Remembering that helps me when I reach the point in the message when I call people to full commitment to Christ. It's easy to feel tentative when I realize I may be asking a man to give up a six-figure income, or a woman to forsake a relationship she depends on, or a teenager to be rejected by his peer group. The Evil One clouds my mind and makes me think I shouldn't lay such heavy challenges on people.
Then I remember: It's in total commitment that we find the blessedness, peace, thrill, and adventure we were meant to enjoy. It's in the pursuit of radical discipleship that we experience the constant companionship and smile of God. Remembering that makes me want to shout from the mountaintops, "The best thing you can do is drop to your knees right now and say, 'Lord, here I am, wholly available. I pour myself out for you.' "
I've never met anyone who regretted his or her decision to become a devoted Christian. I could fill a stadium, though, with people who shipwrecked their lives because they refused to respond to God's call. People write me saying, "If only I could roll back the clock; if only I hadn't been obstinate in my relationship with God; if only I'd listened."
Radical commitment to Jesus Christ is a tough challenge, but it leads to life in all its fullness. Since we know that's true, we need to ask ourselves only one question: Will we shrink back from calling people to do what will serve them best and give God the most glory, or will we be faithful servants who speak the powerful, life-changing truth?
Bill Hybels is pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. This article was first published in Leadership in 1989.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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