Today is the anniversary of the birthday of John F. Kennedy. JFK, as he was most typically known, was the 35th President of the United States, and he is remembered for his brief presidency which was cut short by his assassination in November of 1963. Those of us old enough to remember his assassination remember where we were at the moment we heard the shocking news of his death.
Because his presidency was cut short, we will never really know what JFK might have accomplished. Many of his dreams (including the Civil Rights Act) were only passed after his death. Some historians claim he would not have gotten the U.S. so deeply engulfed in Viet Nam, as happened after his death during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. JFK led the Congress to cut taxes, and there was an economic boom during his brief years as a result of that boost to the US economy. His domestic agenda was called the New Frontier, and he introduced health care for the elderly. JFK is famous for introducing the goal of space travel and putting a human being on the moon by the end of the 1960’s (which of course was fulfilled in 1969). JFK is one of those figures in our U.S. history who will be remembered and discussed for many years to come.
He is well known for his inaugural speech in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Can you imagine any political leader today making such a statement? Today it seems our politicians compete to make the most promises to voters, in essence saying, “I will take care of you. I will not raise your taxes. I will not ask you to do anything to be a responsible citizen. Just vote for me and take it easy.” How sad that we have come so far from Kennedy’s powerful words.
I wonder if we in the church should dare to speak similar words to our people? The past 40 years have been dominated by a church philosophy of pleasing people and entertaining people to get them attend. It probably started with Robert Schuler’s maxim, “Find a need and fill it,” in order to grow his Crystal Cathedral (which now has gone bankrupt, by the way). Perhaps that philosophy of pleasing people is at least partly responsible for the decline of all denominations in the U.S., including our own UMC. Perhaps our attempt to avoid challenging our people is part of the reason that younger adults don’t find our churches to be as interesting as other arenas of their lives where they are rising to meet the challenge to make a difference.
Do we dare to challenge our people, to say to them, “Ask not what your church can do for you – ask what you can do to help your church be more faithful in following Jesus”? Are we able to challenge people with the truth that being a disciple of Jesus is more than just being a church member, and that following Jesus is filled with demands?
It is too easy in the church – as well as in the U.S. political arena – merely to cater to people’s needs and desires. Of course we must provide pastoral care for persons who are hurting, and of course our church members deserve support in times of their personal crisis. But once those times of crisis are past, what people really need is a challenge to grow, to mature in faith, to serve others, and to move beyond focusing upon their own needs.
I know at least one congregation in our Indiana Conference which presents to their new members an apron for serving, and they make the point that being a disciple of Jesus is about wearing an apron and not a baby bib. I like that message, and I believe it is more authentic to the Gospel invitation.
Perhaps this birthday of JFK is a day to reflect on this message: “Ask not what your church can do for you ….”