The unChristian Elephant

Joel Schmidgall

My name is Joel Schmidgall and I’m our Ballston campus pastor. How are you doing today? Good. I feel a little bit more prepared to talk about the elephant in the church than our other pastors, and here’s why – because I know the elephant. There’s a picture of me and my wife cuddling up with the elephant, we were in Thailand, he is not pink, he is hairy. Look at that guy putting his trunk around me. We cuddled up and he loves freezy pops. This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done in my life, his tongue was bigger than my head. So I feel prepared to talk today because I’ve visited the elephant.

I want to talk about the unChristian Elephant. It is less of a topic within the church. I think it is more of a perception of the church. John Stewart Mill has an essay entitled On Liberty in which he explains the process in which words lose their meaning. And his prime example, the best example he can offer of this phenomenon is Christian, because Christians have a wonderful way of saying things. They have a beautiful way of talking about things, but in actuality, they don’t believe them. Think about a few of the phrases that we talk about or that we say. Things like: judge not lest ye be judged; it is better to give than to receive; if someone asks you to go a mile, then go two; and so on.

So what I want to do is look at this list. It’s just a small list of what’s available to us. Let’s go down the list and ask these questions? Do I believe these things? And check them off. Like “it is better to give than to receive,” yes, that’s a good concept, good idea, check it off, done. I believe that. “Love you neighbor as yourself,” alright, check. “If someone asks you to go one mile, then go two,” check, especially this weekend, we’ve got the marathon, we’ll go 26.2. That’s why half of Georgetown is gone today, sorry Dave. So, check, check, we love all these things, but let’s change it now from do you believe these things, and let’s take phrases and put them into action steps. So, “we’ve got to give more than we receive.” That’s a bad one to start off with. We’ll give you a free one. “I love my neighbor like myself.” Well, you don’t know my neighbor, he is a rough dude, I can’t stand him. “I go beyond what people ask of me.” Well they ask a lot of me. “I care for the widows and the orphans.” And we go down this list and there is a problem. We show this list of what we believe, check, done, I believe it. Check, done, I believe this, I believe that. But then we match it up to what we actually do, the way that we act in life, and there is this huge discrepancy. What we say is different than how we act. You know what the word for that is? Hypocrisy. We see a cultural perception of the church and I think we can pinpoint it right away at the front end of this sermon.

We see Christ calling and then we see the way we act among young adults outside the church. 84% of young adults surveyed knows a Christian, about 15% would say that those Christians are any different than anyone else that they know. You are what you are, not what you tell people that you are. There is a high level of hostility towards Christians in our culture. About 49% of young people would say they have a negative perception of Christians. In terms of negative connotations that people have, it is 3 times larger than a decade ago, so you have this rising tide, in a sense, and we have become famous for what we oppose rather than who we are for. That kinda hurts myself when I say that. According to the research done in the book called unChristian, common perceptions of present day Christianity are judgmental, hypocritical, a political party, anti-homosexual, insensitive to others, boring, and confusing, just to name a few, and only a small percentage of people use the labels love, respect, trust, hope. The heart of the issue is right here. I’m not talking about political polling. We don’t make decisions as believers by which way the wind is blowing or by people’s perceptions, right? But here’s the heart of the issue, right here, do we act like Jesus? Or do we believe it in our heads and then go out and live a different set of principles. The book I mentioned is appropriately titled unChristian because it is the most common perception or title that those outside of the church give believers and Christians. Here’s what it says: “When they see Christians not acting like Jesus, they quickly conclude that the group deserves an unChristian label. Modern day Christianity no longer seems Christian.” You don’t have to go much further than a co-worker or a neighbor or a family member or a friend to find that this is true. There is some negative perception out there that comes back and hits home. Why do those things come upon us? And I think what we are finding out is that there is a difference between the red letters in the Bible and the way we actually live out our lives.

My thoughts about the church. I love the church. The church is a place and a people that I believe in. I am a product of the church. So much good and the values and the principles that I learned to know and the examples in my life, many of them came out of the church. I love the church. The Scriptures talk about, in Ephesians 5, that God loves the church, that the church is His bride. So it is this beautiful, wonderful thing. But I want to share a couple of convictions that I have out of these perceptions and some of these statistics.

The first is this. The same people that ran toward Jesus in the Bible often run away from Christians.

Number two. Jesus incarnate. God incarnate is Jesus coming from heaven to earth and putting skin on to bring us salvation, to experience our suffering and our grief and our pain and to pay the price for our sin, to become as the Scripture describes Him as our High Priest, that He takes our needs and brings them to our heavenly Father. The Scripture uses the term High Priest, He is our Mediator before God. He came and He relates with us and his heart relates with ours.

I went to Thailand about a week and a half ago, and the first morning we were there, we got up and Nina and I got up and prayed a God, and I said, “God break my heart,” and it slipped out of my mouth and I didn’t even mean, but I said it and I tried to take it back but it was already out there, and we finished praying and I said, “Man, where did that come from? I didn’t mean to say that.” And it caught me off guard, but the prayer captivated my heart and couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t let go of it. God break my heart. I realized, I can’t remember the last time I prayed that prayer, “God break my heart as your broke.” The incarnation is God becoming man and knowing our suffering and our circumstances, knowing our problems so that He can come into this world and bring us salvation and bring us deliverance and healing. A lot of times we just ignore the heart of God, we say I’m going to do it and I’m going to believe it but I’m not going to allow it to penetrate. I’m not talking about pity, ok? I’m not talking about guilt, I’m not talking about sadness, I am talking about a deep penetration within our hearts, a gut-wrenching feeling of understanding how God sees the needs in the world around us. God, break our hearts like yours breaks.

Number three. These realities don’t scare me, they make me sad and give me anxiety but they don’t scare me because we have a message of hope, and I believe that God has called us and empowered us as the church to step forward and into the power that he has so beautifully laid out for us. So today, what if? What if the church began to pray this prayer, “God break me heart as your breaks.” What if the church began to step forward and care about the things that God cares about, that we see in the Scriptures. “Lord help us to care for the poor, help us to care about the widows and the orphans and treat others better than ourselves, to go the second mile. God help us not to judge but to love and to step into the place of ministry that You have called us to.” What if our hearts broke like God’s heart? Remember the vision of A1:8 that we talked about a couple months ago? A1:8 is taking what if to we will. We will step forward as believers, as a church. We will care for the orphans and the widows. We will get out there and care for the desperate and those in despair and those who need God’s care. We will care and look a girl who is involved in prostitution in the face and tell her that Jesus loves her and that God has a plan for her life. We will.

One of the favorite moments of this trip we just came off of. On a Sunday, at the church, we had gone out each night and had conversation with girls involved in the sex trade industry and we came back and we invited a few of them to the church and we didn’t really believe they would show up, and we were a little surprised on Sunday. Service time came and three of our friends showed up. I was speaking that day and I got up and introduced our teens of the church and had them stand, and with them these three girls stood up and I introduced them. It was this incredibly beautiful moment, people clapped, we could honor them and show them that God loves them. We love you and we accept you in this place. This is a church and a community that believes that God has a plan for your life. What an incredible moment. We will care for the needs of those around us, for those in places who have nowhere else to turn. A1:8 takes what if to we will, and we did. The goal is ten trips, the vision is a missional heart.

I found a simple equation, when you step out and make yourself available to God, when you go, God begins to captivate your heart. You step out and God will challenge you. That’s only the beginning of the vision though. I don’t know how many times I heard Pastor Mark quoted on this trip, “Change of place plus change of pace equals change of perspective.” I’m going to throw one more on the end of that, “equals change of priority,” because it twists your priorities around the things, the self-centered issues that you have begin to go on the back burner and you begin to care about what God cares about. I don’t know how else to say this, I don’t know how to say it another way, but can we go? Can we go on a trip? Can we go and get missional within our hearts? I talked to my 13-year-old nephew, Parker, this week and he went on our Galapagos trip, and he was talking to me a couple of days ago about this idea he’s got, he wants to do a fund-raiser and raise money to buy a herd of goats, yes he is a 13-year old, a herd of goats in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, for this family so they can eat and have a sustainable source of food. Makes me feel bad about myself. When you step out and go, it doesn’t end there. That’s the goal but it’s not the vision. The vision is much larger because God grabs a hold of you and pushes you. That’s only the beginning of what He desires to do in us. John Stott said, “It is not a matter of commission, it’s not a matter of compassion, it is a commission of compassion.” Let me just remind us of something today, Ballston Theater number one is not a church. The people sitting in Ballston Theater number one are a church. Union Station, Georgetown, Ebenezers, the buildings are not a church, the people within, you and I, when we talk about the church, when we talk about Christians and when we talk about some problems that are maybe happening among us, we need to step forward and accept responsibility. I’m preaching to myself today. I’m glad that you all could be here, but I’m talking right here and my heart is being purged because of the stuff I’ve allowed to build up in here. I need God to shake me up and move some of those things out.

Great summary of the mission of Christ and His church, us, is in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

Listen to some of the words in this Scripture. Poor, broken-hearted, deliverance, captives, blind, recovery, liberty, oppressed. Do any of these words cross your mind on a regular basis? Do any of these words cross your heart? Do any of these words cross your prayers? Jesus said, “I did not come to be served, but I came to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to serve. I’m fresh off of the first of ten trips in this A1:8 project, and a week and a half ago, 11 of us from NCC went over to Bangkok, Thailand to help a ministry called The Well, and a missionary named Jim Larson. A number of years ago, Jim went with a group over to Bangkok and we went with a group out to the streets and saw some of the things that were happening. He saw young girls prostituting themselves with old men, and he saw how what happens is these girls will begin to drink and get drunk and get involved in drug use, and the first thing a girl starts doing is drinking, she gets a customer to buy them a drink so that they can dull their senses of what they are involved in. So Jim sees this stuff and the group is going back to the hotel to watch a movie, and Jim says, “I can’t do that.” So he stuck around and he began to walk and just pray and he came to one girl with one candle outside and he had one single prayer in his heart. He says, “God, help me save one. Give me the opportunity to be part of saving one of these girls.” And from there, he and a friend got to know a few of the girls and one of them came to Christ and left chains and bondage behind and got out of that whole thing and began to serve God and find a new way of living and find self-worth, and Jim’s prayer of ‘give me one’ was answered, and you know what he prayed? ‘Give me another.’ And he moved his family, his wife and some of his kids, to Bangkok, Thailand, to give his life to this thing, because of a simple prayer. Here’s what Jim said, “Not long into it, I realized there was nothing I could do to fix these girls. Only the Spirit of God could fix them.” One of their large donors came and talked with Jim and said, “Hey, I’ve got a suggestion, maybe you do a little bit less talking about Jesus and maybe you focus more on the issue of the sex trade.” Jim didn’t know how to respond. He said, “I’m not here because of a hot button issue, I’m here because I follow Jesus, and Jesus takes me to the poor and He takes me to the broken-hearted, He takes me to the desperate, He takes me to the needs that need my attention, to the people who can’t care for themselves so I will care for them. So the only reason I’m here is because Jesus brought me here, and the only thing I have to give and to offer is the Holy Spirit who we have been given access to. Without this, I’ve got nothing, I’ve got no power.” Acts 1:8: For you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you to be my witnesses. Witness and power are linked in the Scripture when you have the Holy Spirit, right? When you go before God and ask for his gift of the emblem of the Holy Spirit on your heart filling you up from the inside out, these things come in hand and hand. Witness and power. We went out on the streets, and Nana was one of bar areas we went to, so we started calling Jim the mayor of Nana because he knew everyone. He knew every girl and they would come up and they respected him and they loved him, some of them called him their dad, he had gained the respect of these people because he followed Jesus. He didn’t care about an issue, he cared about following Jesus.

This is the secret of what we’re talking about today, of the elephant in the church today. We are not talking about an image problem for Christians, we are not talking about an image problem for the church, we are talking about an action problem. The fact that we sit back, inactive, we don’t need to get excited about an issue, we need to get excited about the life and the purpose of Jesus Christ because when we follow Him, He will lead us to the people that He desires to serve, and what happens, just as Jim did, he doesn’t need to worry about his witness. He goes to the streets and people respect him. You hear his story and you can’t help, whether you are a believer or non-believer, atheist, agnostic, you can’t help but respect what he is doing because he is following Jesus and Jesus leads him to those places.

The vision of Jim’s ministry started out of John Chapter 4. I’m gonna get there in a moment. The Well takes prostitutes from the streets and they teach them the Bible and they teach them English and they teach them a craft or a skill so they can make an income for themselves. It’s just a great thing. It sounds like a good cause doesn’t it? That’s what I felt like before going. I feel good about me, I’m going to help a good cause. Pat, pat, pat. We were going to help a good cause and we didn’t know what was about to hit us. We had talked about it here, about what we were gonna do, just like we are doing tonight, we talked about it, but then we heard when we got there, second-hand, some of the stories of what these girls came out of and the grace of God in their lives, then going to see it first-hand and the disgustingness of what we saw. After that first night of outreach, the bar outreach, we came back and we were overwhelmed. I was overcome with a myriad of emotions, anger, sadness, rage, disgust, to see these old white western men taking advantage of young girls, and to see it first hand with my own eyes. I think I believed it but I didn’t believe it until I saw it, to see this made my stomach sick, it got under my skin. So we would go out each night and what we would do is just get to know some of the girls, and one girl we met, her name is May, you’ll see a brief picture in a video I’m going to show you in a few moments. We got to know her and eventually we invited her, we had planned to do this big party on Monday night, on our last night, we were going to have dinner and songs and games and prayer and a fun night, so we invited her and the next day we called her up on the phone and we’re all in the van and she said, “I’m busy, I’m with a customer right now.” That was weird. So we said we’d call back later. So later we have Paige, our friend who speaks more Thai than us, she called back and the first question she asked was, “Are you done yet?” What a stupid question, we all started laughing. We have no clue what we’re doing. Two minutes later, she calls back, every guys self-esteem in that van went up like 3 notches. It doesn’t end there. Paige is talking and she’s relaying the information to me and everyone is listening and she says, she is asking if she can bring her customer along to this party? “What!” I don’t know. I look over at Dave and he gives me the ‘why not?’ shrug, so why not? Bring him along. Look at this situation. You’re going to pay for a bar tab for a girl who is in prostitution, and pay for her time and come to a party with believers with people who have been changed by the love of God, who have been transformed by his grace. Why not? This is so weird, it’s almost biblical! That’s when I started thinking about this Scripture, John 4:6:

Jacob’s well was there and Jesus, tired as He was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the 6th hour when a Samaritan woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Will you give Me a drink?” His disciples had gone into town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to Him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman, how can you ask me for a drink? For Jews do not associate with Samaritans?” Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would’ve asked Him and He would have given you living water.”

The Scripture goes on to tell of her five husbands, and the guy she is with is not even her husband, she is a sexually broken woman, she’s got problems. But does Jesus condemn her right here? No, because Jesus hangs out with people that He is not supposed to hang out with. This woman is Samaritan, Jesus is a Jew, these people don’t hang out, in the Old or the New Testament, they don’t hang out together. But Jesus wasn’t worried about perception. He wasn’t worried about categories and He wasn’t worried about culture, He was worried about the need that God had put in front of his face. And He thought about that.

The contrast was so striking between our days and our nights in Thailand. In the daytime, we would go into The Well, and we would see these beautiful, wonderful, sweet-spirited girls and the grace of God in their lives, and we’d be thankful. Then we’d go out at night and we’d see the neon flashing lights and half-naked girls and costumes and sex traded as a commodity and women who looked at us as objects. The fact that they would wear a number, they didn’t have a nametag, they would wear a number and they would put it on. One of the girls gave me one of her numbers, because this is who they are, or I should say, this is who they think they are, a number. What you can do to get a girl, you can come in and talk to her or you can talk to the mama or you can point at the girl you want. In one of the bars, you could take a ping pong and throw it at the girl you wanted. Girls are treated as objects in this place. It is sick, it is disgusting, it gets under your skin and it frustrates you and makes you angry. One night we were out and we were talking to one of the friends that we had gotten to know over the few days, and we were on the second floor at Nana, and we were having a Coke, and we were sitting there in conversation and there was a moment where God got a hold of me, something just clicked in my head and I looked at this girl and I realized I’m looking at the girl at The Well, not literally, but behind all the make-up, behind the costume and the lights, this is the same girl that I spent time with in the daytime at The Well, who is full of grace and potential and God’s goodness and you walk around in these places and you see the neon lights and the nudity and the sexual nature of the things and you are enamored by everything, by the culture, and it’s emotionally oppressing and you see it all there, but in the midst of that, God gave me his viewpoint, and He said, ‘Behind all that stuff, she is not a number, she is a name, she is a daughter of the living God, created in My image, she is not number 8, her name is Em. Isaiah 43: For I have called you by name and I love you. I care about you, and you’re better than this, and I want to wrap my arms around you and take you in and take you out of this environment. God sees.

Let me ask you a question today. Does your heart break as God’s heart breaks? As He sees suffering and his heart breaks, our High Priest, does your heart break? Or is the world right about us? Is the world correct and the perceptions correct about us? God help us. Lord help me.

Most of us in the room probably understand that we are not making sacrifices. That’s my question, what personal sacrifices are you making? What family sacrifices are you making for the kingdom of God, for the thing that God deeply cares about? When we read about Jesus and his mission and the things that captivate his heart, do those things captivate my heart? I’m talking to me, do they captivate my heart? What sacrifices am I making for those things? And don’t you dare think that this message is for the person next to you, because it is for you and it is for me. God get a hold us. This is more than giving a few bucks or giving some money, it’s more than a donation. Today I am asking you this question – are you willing to allow your life to be turned upside down, to give everything you’ve got. I don’t want to ask an easy question, I’m asking are you willing to allow God to turn your life upside down like Jim Larson stepped into that place and God rocked his world, God nailed him and turned him upside down on his head.

The elephant in the church today is that Christ followers forget to follow Christ. We get off missions to the right and to the left and we have godliness in form but not godliness in nature. And we worry about the form and the exterior but God calls us to an interface, we’ve been called onto the carpet by our culture because we are separated from Christ. Jesus came why? To seek and to save the lost. And I’ve looked the lost in the eye this week, and you know what it is, the lost is a little girl, sweet-hearted and good and broken and she just needs someone to say, ‘God loves you, He cares about you, He has a plan for your life.’ Now step up and into that place.

One of the testimonies that stuck in my head on this trip was a girl who shared about going to her workplace and she talked to a guy there and he asked her a question, “Why do you work here?” She gave the answer, but he said it again, “Why do you work here?” And she was stunned. He said, “You don’t belong here do you?” He said, “I know it and you know it, you are better than this.” And she went through her day and that statement was lodged in her heart, she couldn’t get it out because it forced her to deal with the feelings that she pushed underneath the surface. And God began to work in her and pull those things out and bring deliverance and healing to her heart.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said an authentic church is one that lives for others. Jesus didn’t say live for yourself, He said here is the living water that I have given to you, now drink of it and share with other people. John 4:28: Then leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I did, could this be the Christ?” And the town comes to Christ. Here’s what’s fascinating to me. The town comes to Christ, but Jesus didn’t seek to save or to win a town, He sought to save the woman who God had put right in front of Him. When he took care of that, God multiplied and He blessed his efforts.

Jim Larson came and he sought to save one girl, but when he did that, God multiplied it and He used it to move around to the other place. So let me give you an image, a picture of what God is doing at The Well.


What if we decided to save one person? What if we decided to change to meet one need? What if we decided to go on one trip? What if we decided to pray one prayer – God break my heart like yours is broken. A1:8 takes what if to we will. I can stand up here and define a vision, but each one of you defines your actions and when you do, God defines your destiny. Destiny is not what we choose for ourselves, it is what God chose for you.

Father we come before You and we pray that prayer – break our hearts as yours is broken. Forgive us Father for not acting upon what we know is true, for not acting our beliefs. Lord right now before You, we submit our hearts to You God. Let us not release this in a simple act, God, but we pray that You would start a process within each one of us, make our hearts missional, Lord. Give us your heart, heavenly Father. We pray this, God to You, in Your Name, Amen.

Other Transcripts