Witnesses, Not Saviors: An Interview with Dr. Gaynor Yancey | Nations


19th July 2024

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Witnesses, Not Saviors: An Interview with Dr. Gaynor Yancey

At the intersection of social work and ministry, where mission meets spiritual formation, you’ll find Dr. Gaynor Yancey. An expert in social welfare policy and congregational and community development, Dr. Yancey has been galvanizing church and student bodies for decades. After spending more than 25 years as a congregational community ministries director in inner-city Philadelphia, Dr. Yancey moved to Waco, TX where she now works as professor and director of the Center for Church and Community Impact at Baylor University. We had the privilege of meeting Dr. Yancey on our Reformation Road Trip. What follows are excerpts of our conversation about service, spiritual discernment, and the future of the church. 

Our job is to be a witness, not a savior

“We have to ask, are we somebody’s savior? The answer to that is no. How much do we actually trust the Lord to do what the Lord says he’s going to do? It’s something we have to grow into. It comes back to two things: one is God’s timing, [two] is [understanding] that God is at work. Those two things are where our discipline comes in, because it’s in trusting God’s timing [that] everything falls into place. Scripture talks about it in terms of planting a seed—if you plant a seed on rocky soil then nothing will happen. I do believe there are people who are meant to be seed-planters, but also know that our hearts can be that rocky soil. So if our hearts have not yet been tenderized in some way, then we can be there forever. We can pound it out because we’re trying to make something happen. I believe that the bottom line for us is to learn the discipline of trusting that God’s going to do what God says he’s going to do. But that’s a discipline.

Our job is to be a faithful witness to the saving power of Christ in our lives and to the relationship we have with Christ. If Jesus is so real to us that we talk about Jesus the way we do our friends, if Jesus can be that in our lives [outside of] “this special moment I get to share about Jesus,” what does that say about what we’ve been doing all along? The sharing of Jesus should be a part of our witness daily.

“Our job is to be a faithful witness to the saving power of Christ in our lives.”

I love what God’s doing in each of our lives individually, but we have to figure out how is it that we get to come alongside [others]? What does God want [us] to be and to do in [our] lives? How do we live into that life together? Learning to live into when God has already softened people’s hearts in the right time—to be there at the right time—means we have to have the discernment of the Spirit of God.

With the savior complex, it’s more about us. It can be blessed, without a question, but see and know the difference of what happens when God has ordained our steps. Psalm 139 says that the Lord knows us and the time when we’ll be ordained to die and everything else, but what comes in between? If we’re known from the womb and we’re known till our death, then the Lord has a whole lot of stuff in between. If God has done that and we believe that, and the scripture tells us he knows every hair on our head, the needs of even the smallest sparrow, then what would make us think we should not trust that? The audacity of us to think we shouldn’t trust that. And yet the struggle is to trust it.”

“If we’re known from the womb and we’re known till our death, then the Lord has a whole lot of stuff in between.”

The church is changing, and we need not be afraid

“We read all the time that the church is dying, and yet we also know from research that the church is not dying. Now, there’s something going on in the white church that’s not going in the black church or the hispanic church. They’re growing in leaps and bounds. So we’re measuring things against a white church picture, and definitely something’s going on, but I don’t think we’ve taken the time yet to think about that. We’re globalizing “the church is dying.” The church is changing, for sure. It’s changing from what we’ve known it be in our most recent contemporary society, and maybe it’s at the point where God needs it to change. And [we need] not to be afraid of that.

We can be so turned off by the church, but what does God want us to do? This relationship with the Lord has got to be paramount even to the point when it causes us conflict. What I had to come to understand with church attendance and church affiliation was, are we here for this church or because God’s called us to be here? In other words, do we have our priorities straight? We can’t afford to be [only] looking at the people who are leading us. It may be what attracts us [to the church] at first, it might be because of the charisma of a certain leader—and again, God can bless that—but it’s not going to be necessarily the way that God means for it to be.

Most of all, I’d tell you not to get discouraged with the church. It is an organization for sure, even if it is God’s bride, but it’s led by people who are human beings and that’s the hard thing. And people will tell you they’re doing what God’s called them to do and I trust that, but we have to live into the Spirit of the Lord and that’s where the authenticity comes from. The authenticity of the Gospel in us has to be real… If we’re fearful in the authenticity, then that’s not okay. Something’s not right, that tells us we’re out of alignment somewhere. To get back into alignment might take a lot of praying, a lot of talking, maybe [saying] “I might have to leave this church,” but it’s more important that we’re in alignment with what God wants and not what all these folks around us want. It’s the Lord we’ve got to be accountable to.

“Most of all, I’d tell you not to get discouraged with the church.”

In the end it’s not all the people who have been our leaders and mentors, as important as they have been in our lives—they’re not the ones we’re accountable to. If we can just get that in our heads and spirits, [everything] would change in how we think about our Christian lives. It frees us up, actually, because we’re not in those shackles, those chains, that Paul refers to. We are creatures of our environment that says you have to have stability. And stability looks very different in the Lord than it does in the world.”

If God hasn’t called you, make room for others

“Scripture doesn’t talk about volunteerism, it talks about service. Our service comes not only from our faith and trust in the Lord but also our worship. Our service is a direct result of our worship to the Lord. That’s very different from volunteering.

What we do too often is fill spots [even] if God has not called us there and we have not waited on God’s timing. God has somebody else that he has been preparing and we have taken up the spot and that person is not getting there. We go into non-profits and say, “I can do this.” Well yeah, we can, but can we do it well? As soon as we say, “Here’s a vacancy that needs to be filled” and that’s not where our gifting is, and that’s not where God’s called us to be, we’ve picked up the ball, now we’re holding it, and as we hold it, then whoever God’s been trying to get to make a decision with God—we are preventing that from happening.

And I still say, if God calls you to be in that place, no matter what it may look like or however much you’ve suffered there, if God’s called you there, you better be there. If God has not called you there, you don’t need to be there. To go because we feel some kind of obligation or loyalty, if it’s not the Lord, we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. And that’s the harder thing to justify in ourselves: “What will people think of me if I don’t go overseas, am I misinterpreting that call? What will people think of me if I’m not serving this downtown church?” Maybe God’s not calling us to serve this downtown church, maybe we’re meant to serve somewhere else in order to get others to serve where perhaps God is calling them. Because we have people all around who need that worldwide witness that we’re skipping over.”

“If God calls you to be in that place, you better be there. If God has not called you there, you don’t need to be there.”

We don’t go to the church; we are the church

“How often do we grieve the Lord because we’re still not listening. Well-meaning people around us [are] all trying to figure out what it means to live into the Gospel, but we don’t have the answer. What does it mean to be a learner?

Think about the mission trips everyone goes on—and I’m not criticizing that at all—but it’s like, what happens with this for the long-haul? What are we learning? Are we just going in and having these immersion experiences, going in and back out? Where is the change on this street? We don’t see it. If I’m going to have this for my experience, how do I make that real to where I am now living? I [now] get to be this witness where I am.

The thing I know is that you can never go wrong with what God has called you to do, whether that’s to be away from that group or if that’s to be in that group. We need to be aligned with what God’s called us to do. And that alignment comes from praying, being in the Word, being with other Christians. And then how do we gather with God’s people? Notice I’m not saying the church. I’ve come 180 degrees away from what that looks like. Because we’ve had it so often in the building, going to church…[but] we arethe church. We are the church sitting here today. As long as we keep this mindset of having to go to the church, [we’ll believe] that’s where everything happens. That’s not where everything happens; it can happen here just as easily as anywhere else.”

Portraits by Corey O’Connell.

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