Earlier this year, when the Winter Olympics were going on, I read about the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, the swimmer Michael Phelps. It’s hard to overstate his Olympic dominance. He’s won a total of 28 medals (23 of them gold), which means that by himself, he’s won more medals than 91 nations have won in their entire histories.
But these victories weren’t without cost.
During his peak training season, Phelps would swim 12 miles a day. To fuel that intense training, he would eat 12,000 calories—daily. For over a decade, every moment of every day was structured around one goal—become the best Olympian ever. And to his credit, he did it.
Maybe Phelps will remain on top of the Olympian leaderboards forever. Probably not. One day many, if not all, of his records will be broken. Our children won’t recognize his name. And his medals will decay. But his example of discipline prompts a question for us.
Here’s how Paul put it In 1 Corinthians 9: If athletes train with this kind of intensity and discipline, how much more should we, God’s people, be willing to discipline our lives for the souls of people that last forever—the souls of our neighbors, our coworkers, and our grandkids?
This call to discipline impacts how the church should think about and organize itself in three ways.
1. We must sacrifice preference to reach the lost.
A church should be marked by a group of saints who are willing to make themselves uncomfortable for the sake of reaching others. Sadly, the countryside of America is dotted with just the opposite, churches that are more concerned with maintaining their traditions than reaching their grandchildren. How willing are we to put up with things we don’t like in church for the sake of reaching others? To put up with music, styles, or topics that may not be our favorite but that help us reach someone else?
The moment we stop feeling uncomfortable and think our church is our dream church is the moment we can be assured we’re no longer focused on the lost but on meeting our needs. The mission is not to build the kind of church we always wanted to be a part of, that caters to our needs and preferences, but one stripped down for maximum effectiveness in reaching our community.
2. We must care not only about depth but width also.
A lot of Christians, when they talk about their church, seem to think the only measure God cares about is whether they are doctrinally faithful. Yes, doctrinal faithfulness is a required baseline. But isn’t evangelistic passion, too?
Paul was never satisfied with merely being “in the right.” His attitude was more like, “I’ll do whatever it takes, become whatever I need to become, that I might, by all means, save some.” Charles Spurgeon said it this way:
If my hearers are not converted, I feel like I have wasted my time; I have lost the exercise of brain and heart. I feel as if I lost my hope and lost my life, unless I find for my Lord some of his blood-bought ones … I would sooner bring one sinner to Jesus Christ than unpack all the mysteries of the divine Word, for conversion is the thing we are to live for.
That’s how I feel. Yes, we need to get our doctrine right and grow our disciples deep. But we’re not content to simply preach the truth accurately. We want, by all means, to save some.
3. We must seek to reach all people, not just one kind.
It’s clear from what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 that he was focused on reaching different kinds of people in Corinth, from Jews and Gentiles to people under and outside of the law.
Do you know how much easier it would have been to just focus on one kind of person? To go to one side of the city and plant a church focused only on reaching Jews, and then go to the other side and plant one that reached Gentiles? But that’s not what Paul did.
He challenged the church to put some of their cultural preferences aside to reach someone else because he knew that what would glorify Jesus was a united community, not a segregated one. He made all of these cultural adaptations to reach people.
Friend, we have a gospel too precious and a mission too urgent to let anything stand in its way. Let’s do as James said and “… not make it difficult for the Gentiles [or Jews] who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19 NIV).