One major facet of the beauty of the local church is its power to transform the human heart. I remember exactly where I was when I saw clearly the world’s need for this transforming power. You could say I was “provoked” to this understanding.
It was the mid-eighties. I’d been out of the country for weeks on a speaking trip and was returning to the U.S. via San Juan, Puerto Rico. Having been outside CNN range for most of the trip, I was eager to reconnect with the world and discover what had happened while I was gone. So I bought a USA Today, positioned my Styrofoam coffee cup in the “no-spill” zone under my seat in the gate area, unfolded the paper, and hungrily ate up the news.
Then the commotion began. Two young boys (brothers I assumed) started squabbling with each other. The older kid appeared to be seven or eight, the younger one around five. I watched them for a few seconds over the top of my paper, mildly irritated by the disturbance they were causing. But compared to the information of worldwide importance I was busy digesting, a childish tussle between brothers was hardly worth attending to. Boys will be boys, I thought, and resumed my reading.
Then, whack! I lowered my newspaper. It was obvious that the older boy had just slapped the younger one squarely across the face. The small boy was crying, a nasty welt already rising on his cheek.
I nervously scanned the crowd, looking for the adult who was responsible for these kids, the adult who could stop this violence.
Then the entire gate area was silenced by a sound that none of us will forget for a long, long time. It was the sound of a closed fist smashing into a face. While the little boy was still crying from the first slap, the older boy had wound up and belted him again, literally knocking the little guy off his feet.
That was more than I could take. “Where are these kids’ parents?” I blurted into the crowded gate area. No response.
As I raced toward the boys, the bully grabbed the little guy by the hair and started pounding his face into the tile floor.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I heard the final boarding announcement for my flight, but I was too sickened by this violence to abandon my mission. I grabbed the older boy by the arm and hauled him off the younger one, then held them as far apart as I could. With one arm extending out to a kid with a bloody face and the other straining to stop a boy with murder in his eyes, I knew I was holding a human tragedy in my hands.
Just then the ticket agent came up to me and said, “If you’re Mr. Hybels, you’ve got to board this plane immediately. It’s leaving now!”
Reluctantly, I loosened my hold on the boys, gathered my things, and rushed backwards down the gangplank, shouting a plea to the ticket agent, “Keep those kids apart! Please! And find their parents!”
I stumbled onto the plane and managed to find my seat, but I was badly shaken by what had just happened. I couldn’t get the sights and sounds of the violence I had witnessed out of my mind. I grabbed a sports magazine and tried to read an article but I couldn’t concentrate. I looked in the entertainment magazine to see what movie would be shown and hoped it would be something captivating enough to distract me.
But while I waited, I sensed the Holy Spirit telling me not to try to purge my mind so quickly. Think about what you saw. Consider the implications. Let your heart be gripped by this reality.
As I consciously chose to dwell on what I had seen, I was flooded with thoughts about the older kid’s life. I wondered where his parents were. I wondered what kind of experience he was having in school. I wondered if there was anybody in his life offering him love and guidance and hope. I wondered what his future held. If he’s throwing fists at the age of eight, what will he be throwing at eighteen? Knives? Bullets? Where will he end up? In a nice house with a good wife and a satisfying job? Or in a jail cell? In an early grave?
Then I was prompted by the Spirit to consider what might change the trajectory of this kid’s life. I scrolled through the options. Maybe, I thought, if we elect some really great government officials who will pass new legislation, maybe that will help a kid like this.
But will it? Don’t misunderstand me. I know that what governments do is very important. Writing legislation for the good of society is a noble, worthy task. Public service is an honorable vocation. But politicians, no matter how sincere their motivation, can only do so much.
For eight years during the decade of the nineties I went to Washington, D.C., every month to meet in the foremost centers of power with some of the highest elected officials in our country. What I discovered was not how powerful those people are, but how limited their power really is. All they can actually do is rearrange the yard markers on the playing field of life. They can’t change a human heart. They can’t heal a wounded soul. They can’t turn hatred into love. They can’t bring about repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace. They can’t get to the core problem of the kid I saw in the airport and millions of others like him.
I scrolled through every other option I could think of, considering what they have to offer. Businessmen can provide sorely needed jobs. Wise educators can teach useful knowledge of the world. Self-help programs can offer effective methods of behavior modification. Advanced psychological techniques can aid self-understanding. And all of this is good. But can any of it truly transform the human heart?
I believe that only one power exists on this sorry planet that can do that. It’s the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the love that conquers sin and wipes out shame and heals wounds and reconciles enemies and patches broken dreams and ultimately changes the world, one life at a time. And what grips my heart every day is the knowledge that the radical message of that transforming love has been given to the church.
That means that in a very real way the future of the world rests in the hands of local congregations like yours and mine. It’s the church or it’s lights out. Without churches so filled with the power of God that they can’t help but spill goodness and peace and love and joy into the world, depravity will win the day; evil will flood the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Strong, growing communities of faith can turn the tide of history. They can!
Don’t bother looking elsewhere. The church is it.
Hybels, B. (2009). Courageous leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.