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Unselfish Church
Submitted: Apr 11, 2012
By Ron Gladden


If you’re a speaker, you know how I felt. Everyone pigged out on high-carb entrees topped off with an immoral mass of desert, then slumped glassy-eyed and foggy-brained into soft chairs. My assignment? To rouse them back to consciousness and to inspire them with the power and priority of the local church.
So I started with a provocative statement.
“Some of the most selfish places on earth are local churches,” I asserted (with a smile on my face, of course).
The audience came to life. When I asked if anyone agreed, a sea of hands shot into space. Consensus was as lopsided as a North Korean election.
To be honest, I expected verbal grenades loaded with reputation-piercing shrapnel – at least from a few – but they all seemed to agree. So I proceeded with my outline.

  •          One: If you have committed your life to Jesus, you have assurance. Because of what he has done, you are redeemed today and headed for heaven. You definitely haven’t earned it, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And all the people said?
  •         Two was introduced with a question. If you are already saved, why would we do church for you? Think about it. Sure you need church. All of us do. The Bible says “Don’t forsake assembling together, as some are in the habit of doing.” We need to worship God – together. We need to recalibrate spiritually. To receive instruction, correction, and hope. To deepen friendships and to encourage one another.
But the primary purpose of the church is to unselfishly serve the disadvantaged and to make the gospel attractive to people who have never received Christ. The world is a tough place. People are all-too-often misunderstood, criticized, and harmed; the church must stand, in contrast to pretty much every other location on earth, as the place where people are protected, valued, encouraged, and unconditionally loved.
The AMENs were heartening. Heads nodded like a litter of puppies watching a yo-yo, so I glanced at my watch and poured it on…
Here is the deal: The most unselfish place on earth should be the local church. Let me make sure you heard me: The most unselfish place on earth should absolutely be the local church. Those who have made the decision to follow Jesus and have experienced God’s grace are compelled to make a second decision, namely, to live unselfishly as Jesus did, to determine that since we have been redeemed, we will partner with God in caring deeply about the people He loves.
When one person is kind and generous, that’s good. Hearts are warmed and people are blessed. But when a whole group of people embrace the DNA of unselfish generosity, the impact is exponential. That is God’s dream. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t stand a chance.” The inhabitants of hell don’t worry about selfish churches. They don’t lose sleep over churches that argue over trivia or look down their noses at people with tattoos and addictions and bad reputations. Imps of darkness smile broadly when Christians insist the church use music they prefer with no sensitivity toward those who don’t understand the code words and demand sermons that “feed” them first and foremost.
But when the overwhelming majority of people in a local church stands tall and says, “We get it; we will do our best to live unselfishly; we will take seriously the call to live like Jesus; we will make his priority ours,” God turns the church into a movement that prevails against darkness and eventually brings hope to an entire city.
Philosopher James Allen writes, “Selfishness must be discovered and understood before it can be removed. It is powerless to remove itself, neither will it pass away of itself. Darkness ceases only when light is introduced. So ignorance can only be dispersed by knowledge, selfishness by love.”
At Epikos Church, where I serve part time as directional leader, we are pathological about being unselfish. I’m not sure pathological is the finest word choice (one definition from dictionary.com is “grossly atypical of normal expected input”), but here is what we do to make sure we are and remain unselfish. We repeat this phrase frequently: It’s all about the next person. It’s all about the next family.
Honestly, it isn’t. We care profoundly for the people who have already committed to Christ. We budget to meet their needs; we organize so they can serve; we have an entire support system in place to make sure no one stands alone or falls through the cracks. But like a scratched old-time record, we keep repeating that phrase so that we never, ever lose our white-hot focus on living unselfishly: It’s all about the next person. Every welcome, song, and sermon is planned with the next person in mind. Even the offering call and video clip are evaluated through the lens of the next person who walks through the door wondering if this church might be different.
God is blessing. We started with six people in a living room, we’ve been worshipping weekly for 3.5 years, and over 200 people attend. We ran the numbers at a recent gathering and found that eighty-four percent of those who attend have never been in an Adventist church. Eighty-four percent! Conversion growth is happening almost constantly because we decided when a half-dozen of us were sitting in the living room visioning the church, which Epikos would always be about the next person who needs friends, hope, a place to make a difference, and Jesus.
Back to the room with soft chairs and stomachs packed with Special K loaf and lemon meringue pie. I had downloaded enough information for one afternoon so I ended with Three. It was an appeal. And I’ll make it to you.
How about it? What if you linked up with a bunch of kingdom maniacs and created an unselfish church? What would that take? Who could you ask to join you? When would you start the discussion? And would it be worth it?

Join in the discussion:

William Noel
2012-04-12 9:35 AM


Welcome!  You are right on target.  Though I will disagree slightly with what you said was the purpose of the church.  Jesus called us to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  Serving the disadvantaged is one of the primary methods by which that is to be done (though misunderstood and neglected in many churches). 

I would be interested to know more about the ministries in your church because I am part of a church that is focused on gift-based ministry.  One of the discoveries I have made in my Bible study was that the first result of every miracle Jesus performed was an immediate improvement in the life of the recipient.  Belief followed and the testimony of the recipient caused others to inquire about the loving power that made it happen.  The ministry team I lead does home repair and home-related projects with the slogan "Improving Lives by Improving Living."  It has been amazing to watch God work and the joy I have felt seeing the smiles on the faces of those whom we help has been amazing.  This past weekend brought a special blessing when the tables were turned due to illness and I became the recipient of the team's labors.  I now know firsthand the sweetness of the blessing we have been delivering.

May God richly bless your church as the members learn to minister God's love to others.

Darrel Lindensmith
2012-04-12 10:33 AM

Hi Ron,  welcome.   I agree with your thoughts here.  Love your book, "Plant The Future."   How does one keep the 'unselfish' focus and be evangelistic and not loose the need many believers have for
personal strengthening and support?  How have you found to work the balance?   God bless

William Noel
2012-04-12 2:12 PM


I'll tell you how it works at my church.  It is so simple that many cannot believe it works, yet so effective that they are amazed.  Our church is growing as a result.

We are focused on discovering and developing gift-based ministries.  Our philosophy is if the Holy Spirit hasn't raised-up that function as a ministry, then we don't need it and if God is nurturing a ministry, then we need to embrace it.  The primary focus of our ministries is nurturing the church family.  That creates bonds of friendship and trust where spiritual growth comes as a natural result.  You become part of the family.  The benefits of being part of the family are so great that inviting people to join is a natural action no longer requiring conscious effort or decision.  We no longer use traditional evangelism approaches because the ministries within the church family are so much more effective at bringing people into the church. 

2012-04-12 11:12 AM

Ron, as usual you are provocative and current!  I plan to one day spend a Sabbth at your church.

Elaine Nelson
2012-04-12 11:29 AM

Shouldn't we first ask "why church"?  What is the purpose of church?  Is it a building, a group of people or a specific denomination?  Or do we use the term for all three?

Most of the time, in the churches I have attended, it is similar to an inspirational sales talk urging more activity for members as well as assuring them that they must be ready for that last trumpet call as all else is insignificant to being "ready" for that "Great Gittin' Up Morning."

Must people belong or attend church to be effective hands for God?  What about the many groups offering food, shelter, and services for those in need that are not sponsored by a church but by very concerned community members?  Is the church doing a better job simply because it is called a "church"?  Isn't there a hidden motive to win people to the Adventist church
to ensure their salvation that otherwise would be lost?

A bonafide cycnic.

Nathan Schilt
2012-04-16 12:12 PM

Note, Elaine, that the title of the article is The Unselfish Church - not The Anonymous Church. Christ's command was to love one another - as I have loved you. I understand your antipathy toward church, Elaine. But my reading of scripture informs me that, when God calls people into covenant relationship with Him, He calls them to form and enter communities of faith, even knowing just how dysfunctional those communites will turn out. I'm not sure what you mean by "a very concerned community." It sounds rather like a community of mules - it doesn't reproduce.

"Concerned communities" tend to easily be blown by the winds of passion, prejudice, and ideology. One  year they are advocating for peace, tolerance, and abolition of the death penalty; the next year they camp out with OWS, destroying property, defecating on public property, and shouting, "Death to the fascist pigs." One day "concerned communities" are singing Hosannas to the object of their dreams and aspirations; the next day they are shouting, "Crucify Him, crucify Him."

So no, Elaine, I don't have much confidence in "concerned communities" because such communities generally do not gravitate towards loving as Christ loved. They love with government grants and coercive legislation. They want to expel the Christ that most Christians profess from His message and identity as the Son of God.

Christ engaged in disinterested benevolence - not annonymous benevolence. The personal encounter always was foundational to His deeds of mercy and love. The beneficiaries of His miracles were never healed, fed, or freed without knowing Who had healed, fed, and liberated them. 

"A bona fide cynic," Elaine? I don't think so. Your pride in hurling the cynic's ban, to use Coleridge's metaphor, is unwarranted. You are no more a cynic than is any other fundamentalist a cynic toward caricatures which she projects on others in order to avoid self-questioning. Like a moth drawn to the flame, you are drawn to the spoor of Christianity, believing that, having examined its droppings, you understand its essence. Indeed, we Adventist Christians are often clumsy and inarticulate communicators of the Gospel, and we do have a "hidden" motive." What is that motive? To introduce and win others to the crucified, risen Christ whom we have encountered, and whose love we have come to know and feel. If that is the passion of your "very concerned community," then we have much in common.

Elaine Nelson
2012-04-16 1:02 PM

My intention with "concerned communities" is not at all your descriptions.  The "concerned communities" which I define are the organizations in my community which I support:  Community Food Bank; Salvation Army, Fresno Rescue Mission, and similar community efforts to relieve the needs of so many who are being ignored by many churches. 


Adventist congregations are often too small to have an impact on these conditions but by supporting those with long years of experience in providing for those needs is that not exactly what Christ said would be welcomed into his kingdom?

Speaking of "government grants" every church in the U.S. receives large amounts of money in the provision that enables all churches to be free of taxation.  That is not inconsequential.

Nathan Schilt
2012-04-16 5:39 PM

I don't know about Community Food Bank or Fresno Rescue Mission. But if your point is that denominationally controlled charity is not necessary to be effective hands for God, I wholeheartedly agree. On the other hand, I suspect that most who work with The Salvation Army would say that being part of a faith community (belonging to/attending church) is a critical foundation for them to be effective hands for Christ. The possibility that one can be Christ's hands without being part of a faith community is, IMHO, rather remote. To the extent that it occurs, it is an exception that does not disprove the rule.

My wife is a volunteer co-director for an organization that supports kids who have aged out of the foster care system, but have no life skills, nowhere to stay, and no government assistance. It is not affiliated with any particular church. But staff members all belong to church communities, and the group home that my wife is in charge of is strongly supported by our church community in both financial and human resources. She will be opening up a home for boys this summer under the sponsorship of another local Adventist church donating funds to the nondenominational charity. Without being part of our church community, this project could never have taken off.

I am on the Board of an organization called C.A.S.A.(Court Appointed Special Advocates), which provides volunteers to mentor and advocate for foster kids in San Bernardino County. Every single Board member, and most of our volunteers, belong to faith communities. And a good share of them are Adventists. So I think you need to wake up and smell the coffee, Elaine. The Adventist Church is growing, even if your perception of it is not. Many of its members participate in serving the needs of their communities in the name of Christ without a proselytizing agenda. They affiliate with non-denominational organizations in addressing those needs. But the overwhelming majority of those with whom they serve would emphatically answer your question, "Yes! Belonging to and attending church are essential to being Christ's hands in those organizations."

Darrel Lindensmith
2012-04-12 1:01 PM

Great question Elaine, Adventism fits many people some it does not-salvation is a living connection To God. It seems that the churches' role would be to create an environment for Spiritual Connection.

Darrel Lindensmith
2012-04-16 10:07 AM

Thanks Willian,  what you say and are doing, I also think, is the best service; providing  HEALTHY Christian Community/Family.

2012-07-30 2:04 AM

Sounds like Joel Osteen fluff-where is the Gospel, the science of the cross of salvation?


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