I read a lot of books, listen to a lot of tapes  and sermons. When I say this is the best story this year, you better believe it will be good. It is from John Ortberg’s talk Huts of Refuge, given at Willowcreek’s annual Small Group Conference. If you would like to purchase the entire talk, you can do so at Willowcreek’s web page. Here is the direct link.

Several years ago we took a vacation and we went to Massachusetts and we visited a little museum on Nantucket Island. It was devoted to a volunteer organization that was formed centuries ago, over 300 years ago.

In those days, travel by sea was extremely dangerous, and given storms in the Atlantic, and the real rocky coasts of Massachusetts, many many lives were lost real close to the shore, within a mile or less of the land.

And a group of people who lived on that island couldn’t stand to think about all these people going down so close to them. So, they went into the life saving business. They banded together to form what was originally was called the Humane Society. We think about animals with that name now, but in those days, that was a life saving deal for them. They built little huts that dotted the shore.  You can still see one of them in this museum. They built little huts containing boats and rescue equipment. They were sometimes called huts of refuge.

Huts of refuge. And people were posted in those huts all the time. And their job was just to keep watching the sea. And any time a ship went down, the word would go out.  They would devote everything.  They would risk themselves to save every life they could. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, somebody was watching. Everybody was willing.

They did it for no money. They did it for no recognition. They did it just because they prized human life.

And to remind them how seriously they took this task, and what was at stake, they adopted a motto.  I love this motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” That is a catchy little recruiting slogan, don’t you think? “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” You wouldn’t think that would entice a whole lot of people into joining them, but it did.

It is a fascinating thing to read accounts in that museum of people who risked everything, even their lives, to save other people they had never met, faces they had never seen, names they might not ever know.

Over time things changed and after a while, what would come to be known as the U.S. Coast guard, started to take over this task. And, for a little while, the Coast Guard and the Life Saving Society worked side by side.  Eventually the idea that carried the day was, “Let the professionals do it. They are better trained. They get paid for it.”

Volunteers stopped manning the little huts. They stopped searching the coastline for sinking ships. They stopped sending out teams to rescue people.

And, it is a funny thing. They couldn’t bring themselves to disband. And the life saving society still exists today. It meets every once in a while in Boston or someplace in New England to have dinners. And they hand out awards for things like community service. They enjoy each other’s company. They sponsor programs. They get together. They are just not in the life saving business any more. They don’t scour the coastline anymore to see if anybody is going down.

They don’t know the thrill any more of what it is to risk themselves to save a life that could perish. They don’t speak those words to each other any more, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” They are just not in the life-saving business anymore.

It happens all the time. It doesn’t happen in a day. It doesn’t happen in a month. But over time, a church forgets it is in the life saving business. It usually doesn’t disband, at least not until much later. People still meet. They still enjoy each other’s company. They still use words like community. They still have services and buildings and staffs and programs. They might even be involved in various forms of community service. They are just not sending out teams any more for people who are going down. They are just not really scouring neighborhoods and offices, schools and networks and cities to see if there is somebody that needs to be saved.

They forgot, maybe, that Jesus put this rescue effort in the hands of volunteers who would love the people that God loves so much and adopt for themselves the motto, “You have to go out, but  you don’t have to come back.”

They have buildings and budgets and staffs and meetings. They are just not in the life saving business any more. It can happen to a church. It can happen to a small group. It can happen to an individual. And don’t think it can’t happen in your church; don’t think it can’t. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.

Whether or not we stay into the life-saving business is in the hands of the people in this room. Jesus is still looking for people who are willing to go into the life saving business. That is what the church does.


I try to include stories like this in each Sunday School Lesson I write each week. If you would like great stories for your Sunday school lessons, take a look at Good Questions Have Groups Talking