Pastor Tim McConnell explains how Christians can find greater joy in life and share that joy with others – especially non-believers – in a discussion based on his book Happy Church: Pursuing Radical Joy as the People of God.
Tim McConnell: And he said, “I want everyone in this room to understand this. I was sad. I didn’t know why I was alive, and I met a bunch of people at my high school who seemed happy. And I found out it was because they knew Jesus. And he raised his hand in the air, and he yelled, “Jesus is awesome!”
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s Pastor Tim McConnell talking about what it means to be happy in Christ and happy as a church community. He’s our guest today on Focus on the Family with your host, Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, the world promises us happiness in so many areas that it can’t deliver for us. And, uh, you know, and they end up, uh, only delivering disappointments. The movies often have those fairy tale endings where, you know, the hero rides off with the girl, whatever it might be. Life is not always like that. And we want to be happy. I think the Lord gives that to us in our - in our spirit to desire it. But these examples of where it doesn’t bring true happiness, it leaves us really just with emptiness. True happiness, as we know as Christians, is found in Christ. And that’s the theme of today’s program. That’s what we want the listeners to hear. You want to make your life count for something, then live for something bigger than yourself. And that’s where it’s at.
I just read some Pew research this morning, which I thought would be apropos for the discussion today. It cited some of the reasons why people attend church and why some don’t. And, uh, this is becoming very critical in our culture. Respondents said the most important reason they attend church was to become closer to God. That’s a good thing. 1 in 5 adults say that they usually don’t feel God’s presence when they go to church. And one person said, “Well, that’s not too bad - 20 percent don’t, but the other 80 percent do.” And that’s one way of looking at it. Also, they usually don’t feel God’s presence in a church service. That’s kind of sad, I think - 1 in 5.
The other data point was 1 in 4 don’t usually feel a sense of community. And that’s what we want to talk about today. How do we - as churchgoing Christians - how do we create a sense of community where people can feel a part of something bigger? And that ties into our discussion with Pastor Tim McConnell. He has some wonderful insights about happiness, which should be inherent in the church and in the Christian life. And we’re gonna talk about those things with him today.
John: Mmhmm. And Pastor McConnell is the lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church, right here in Colorado Springs. And he’s been married to his wife Abigail for 21 years. They have four children. And he’s captured his thoughts in a book called,. And we’ve got copies of that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Tim, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Tim: Jim, thanks so much for having me. It’s just an incredible blessing to be here with you and John. And - and, thank you for - for bringing me along.
Jim: Well, let’s hit this one. I think the distinction between happy and joyful needs to be made. So - so many Christians, as we’re looking at it, you know, “The happy church? Really, Tim? Is that what it’s about? We’re on a mission here!” It’s - joyful is the right word. So make that distinction. You’re a seminarian. You went to Princeton I think, right?
Tim: I did.
Jim: That’ like, okay, you’re top of the class. We give you the credibility there. But in that regard, what is the - the distinction between joy and happiness, when it comes to church life?
Tim: Well, we’ve got this recent discussion, where we don’t want to use the word “happy.” And a lot of that is that pastors are worried that if we say that we’re after happiness, people are just going to do whatever seems to make them happy in...
Tim: ...The moment.
Jim: ...Why is that? Why have we - it’s a sullied word, it feels like. Happiness...
Jim: ...Isn’t what we should be after.
Tim: So we’ve developed this allergy against the word “happiness.” But I actually think that really confuses or muddles our witness to the Gospel, because nonbelievers are looking for happiness. They’re gonna look for happiness in every direction. Blaise Pascal said, “It’s the secret motivation behind every decision we make.” So people are after happiness, and somehow, in the church, we want to make this distinction and not talk about happiness. But there’s not that big of a distinction in the Bible between happiness, joy, blessedness, or gladness. I mean, these are all things that God has given us as gifts.
My motivation is this: everybody’s got some relationship with the church. Every one of your listeners has a relationship with the church. Good, bad or indifferent, they know the church is there. And what I want to do is help people to understand and feel confident again about their relationship with the church. The church is God’s work to reveal His own character to the world. And the church has this mission to show all of us who God is.
Now if we hide the happiness that we find in Jesus, it’s kind of like - imagine if people found a fountain of youth, and they went in there, and they splashed all around in it, and they became kids, and they just had a great time. And then every time they left, they put on their old age again when they went back out into the world. People wouldn’t know it was in there. And that’s what we’re doing with the church. We’re in the presence of God. We’re enjoying redemption in the name of Jesus. We’re having the forgiveness of our sins, the Holy Spirit welling up in us with eternal life. And then somehow, when we leave and we go out of our community, we put on this kind of dour and grumpy face. So people have no idea what’s going on inside there.
Jim: Now, let me ask you, why do you think good-intentioned people do that? Why do we put on the grumpy, old-man face?
Jim: Don’t be mad at me, everybody, I’m just saying, you know, that dour kind of thing - that high spiritual expression is being kind of neutral or down.
Tim: Right. I mean, I’ve noticed a growing grumpiness in churches. And I think there’s a number of reasons. I mean, we all feel some loss. We feel like maybe we’re losing in - in the culture, maybe we’ve lost some of church as we remember it as kids, because church has changed so much. And there’s some people that are saying that the most responsible way to live your life as a Christian is to be kind of dour and serious and - and, you know, really heavy all the time. But actually, that’s not - lament isn’t the only way to live. I mean, lament is really important. And I want lament to happen, as we need to be...
Jim: It plays a role.
Tim: It plays a role. But, if lament is all you’ve got, then you’re really missing something.
Jim: Missing it. Let me put a couple of thoughts together for you. And, again, as a seminarian and a pastor, respond to these things. The observer that’s reading the Scripture, when you look at Jesus, the Pharisees, who I think are trying to be exactly what you’re describing - they’re the educated, highly-vaulted religious people of Jesus’s time. They’re trying to put on the grumpy face...
Jim: ...And go by the rules.
Jim: And, you know, if you’re really close to God, you’re doing all these things - you know, wrapping your forehead and your wrist and keeping the Word close to your heart. And...
Jim: ...You know, you’re living out the law. And yet, Jesus seemed to go after them like they were the whitewashed walls, right? They were...
Jim: ...vipers, He even called them. He really attacked religious people of his time...
Jim: ...Because they didn’t have joy. They didn’t have what seems to be happiness. They didn’t respond to people in a way that made God’s yoke light, as Jesus was describing. And then even - again, bear with me with the examples, and you can tie them altogether - but where Jesus was with the sinners, and these religious people didn’t like that.
Jim: He was even seen laughing with them.
Jim: And they responded negatively to that - that He was a drunkard...
Jim: ...being with these sinners and all that. And then with children - which to me, really catches my attention, that Jesus did not want the adults, the disciples, to prevent the kids from coming to Him. I think because God has a heart for that pure joy. You know how kids can be. They’re just - they say what they see. “You look funny. You’re fat.”
Jim: “You’re short.”
Tim: That’s right.
Jim: I mean, they’re fun to be around. Kids just say what they’re thinking.
Jim: And, I just think, in that context, the Lord was saying, “This is the kingdom of God. You know, these children...”
Tim: Well, He said that, right? Yeah, He...
Jim: So tie all those things together in terms of the personality of God and how we should be putting that on display.
Tim: Yeah. Our unwillingness to show gladness at God’s blessings is going to fail to reveal to people the character of God. If they see a grumpy people of God, they’re gonna assume that God is grumpy...
Jim: Yeah, right.
Tim: ...That He’s miserable...
Tim: ...Because, these are His people, these are His followers. And Jesus, He didn’t only gather the kids on His knee, but He turned to His disciples and said, “You’ve got to be like kids. You’ve got to be little children if you’re gonna enter the kingdom of God.” And He didn’t mean that you have to be, you know, ignorant, you know, unlearned, or simple or - He just meant you have to be yourself, and you have to allow joy to - to erupt within you.
You know, people put on a religious air, but the heart of a relationship with Jesus is joy, because of what God, the Father, has done through Jesus Christ to bring us into an eternal relationship...
Tim: ...With Him. At the core of Christian fellowship is a root - a taproot of joy. Now, churches of any size, large or small - not everybody goes to megachurches where things are flashy and successful and professional. Most people go to small churches where they’re just trying to tie things together and keep them going. But churches large or small, they all have the same taproot of joy in union with Christ. And what I want to help churches to see is that if you can tap into that, if you can cultivate that, listen, there’s gonna be a revival across this nation.
Tim: Let me tell you a story. At my church in Atlanta, we had a young man come to our church for baptism. And he had met some of our youth group kids. And he’d kind of asked them, “Well, do you guys know how to get baptized?” And they said, “Sure, you can come meet our pastor and get baptized.” And I met with him. And we talked. And we brought him up for baptism. His name was Zach. And Zach was kind of a - he had kind of a rough background. He was kind of awkward. He was an outsider. He grew up and he was living in a trailer park with his mom and a grown up with different parents - different people taking care of him in different seasons. And - and he came up to baptism, and, Jim, he’s wearing all black...
Tim: ...Almost entirely black. He’s wearing boots. And - and I baptized him. And I don’t know why I did this to this day, because I don’t usually do this. But I leaned over and I said, “Zach, do you want to say anything to the congregation?” The Spirit just prompted me. I don’t know why I asked him, because...
Tim: ...I had a hard time getting him to put two words together in the hall, before the service. But then, I sort of handed the mike to him, and I expected him to push it away. But he grabbed it. Jim, he stepped forward in front the congregation and he said, “I want everyone in this room to understand this. I was sad. I didn’t know why I was alive, and I met a bunch of people at my high school who seemed happy. And I found out it was because they knew Jesus. And I wanted what they had. And I gave my life to Christ, and now I feel that happiness.” And he said, “And this morning, with you, I see that you feel it, too.”
Tim: He started to hand the mike back to me. But then he took it again, and he raised his hand in the air, and he yelled, “Jesus is awesome!”
And the whole congregation started clapping, you know, erupted in applause and laughter as he bounded off back down to his buddies.
Tim: That is the taproot of joy in union with Christ that I want to help churches to - to reconnect with.
Jim: Yeah. And that is so good. Sometimes people can maybe misapply temperament and personality. Tell us more about you. I mean, obviously you’re smart. You went to Princeton divinity school - I keep coming back to that, don’t I? I don’t know...
...If I’m jealous or what. But I mean, you have a very serious side to you, yet you want to tap into God’s sense of joy and happiness. That, to me, sounds well-rounded. Who are you? And how much does temperament play into this whole thing?
Tim: Well, yeah, I’ve read way too many books, but actually...
Jim: And you did well on your SAT, obviously.
Tim: I did okay on my SAT I guess.
They told me I was all right. And - but it actually served to help me, because as I noticed pastors not wanting to talk about happiness, it actually - I could remember so many church fathers and so many philosophers and so many people talking about happiness in other areas - eras of the church. And so, I kind of went back to that. But you know, I wrote this book, and people said, “Hey, is Tim a happy person? Is Tim a really happy guy?” You know, they think you must be a naturally happy dude, you know.
Tim: And the truth is I’m not.
Jim: So that gives it more credibility. That’s why I asked the question.
Tim: Well, yeah. I mean, I’m - I’m kind of a melancholy guy. I - I grew up - my parents got divorced. Their marriage was a casualty of the Vietnam War. And my dad went on with the Army, and my mom started working full time. And I spent a lot of time alone. And when I was a boy, I remember walking home from school and thinking, “I think happiness is something reserved for people with perfect families. You know, little boys who get home from school and their mom is at the front door with a warm plate of cookies and Rice Krispy treats.” And I thought, “Maybe happiness isn’t really for me. And it wasn’t until I came to Christ through Young Life that I was even introduced to joy as a Christian. But it wasn’t natural for me. I had to cultivate joy. I had to decide to cultivate joy. I went on my honeymoon. My wife was a naturally happy person. She...
Tim: She just was sunshine.
And I was...
Jim: I’m sure that was attractive to you.
Tim: Yeah, it was. And I was - she was the sun, I was the moon, that kind of thing. We went on our honeymoon - this is well after she came to Christ, we were both Christians - but went on the honeymoon, and we both got books out to read on the beach. And I pulled my book out of my backpack, and she looked over at it. And you know what I had decided to bring on my honeymoon to read?
Jim: I’m scared to ask.
Tim: Soren Kierkegaard,.
Jim: And what did she say?
...You know, she looked at the title of the book...
Tim: .... And we had just gotten married, you know, two days before.
John: Isn’t “Till death do us” part of the sermon...
Tim: Yeah, right.
Tim: And so...
Tim: ...My - my gracious wife leaned over and patiently explained to me why I was not going to be reading...
Tim: ...On our honeymoon.
Jim: Your first conflict in your marriage.
Jim: Here it is.
Tim: You know, people would think, “Well, I just got married, and now I have to figure out what this is all about, so I have to read- you know, it’s been funny how many people I’ve told that story, and they didn’t understand the problem. Like, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense - you read .”
No, you don’t read,on your honeymoon.
Tim: So she pulled that out of my hands. But, uh, listen, happiness and joy, it’s kind of a protest. That’s what I like about it. Jesus said, “You’ll have tribulation in this world, but take heart,” or - or in my - the old RSV, “be of good cheer...”
Tim: ...For I have overcome the world.” That’s a protest. That’s says, “I know it - I know it’s painful. I know there’s rough things. But you’re gonna be of good cheer, not because of the situations, the happenstance that’s all around you, you’re gonna be of good cheer, because I’m Christ, and I’ve overcome the world.” And so, happiness and practicing joy, cultivating joy, both as an individual and as a church, it’s kind of a protest. It’s a way of - of pushing back.
John: I don’t know if you’ve thought of being happy as a protest, but I like that idea a lot. And I think you’re gonna enjoy Tim McConnell’s book,. Get a copy of the book and a CD or download of this conversation. And while you’re there at the website, make a donation if you can - focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Let me tap this area, as well, for Christians - sometimes - and I think this may be true of Christian leadership - we can fake being happy and positive, because we want people - we want to project the right thing. And even the Christian laity, the same kind of thing - we want to project to the world that we’re happy, even when maybe we’re not. So the point of my question is this: when is it okay to tap the source of God’s joy and happiness to refresh us? And then how do we not project something that’s not real, with how we’re feeling that day? Does that make sense?
Tim: Absolutely. And it’s - the last thing in the world you want is to sort of tell people they’ve got to pretend to be something they’re not. I mean, no church is going to thrive trying to make people do or say, or act in a way that isn’t genuine and true. I spent a summer as a knife salesman for...
...A well-known - well-known bunch of, uh, of knives and...
John: Sickness, death...
Jim: That’s a little odd.
Tim: Yeah, knives...
John: I’m sensing a thread here.
Tim: Death, knives, boy, yeah.
Jim: Okay, so you went door to door selling knives?
Tim: Oh, yeah, referral basis...
Jim: Okay, good.
Tim: ...the whole deal and do the presentation - all that. But it was my first adventure into sales, or cold calling, and so they trained us how to motivate yourself. You’ve got to tell yourself all these things. “Hey, I’m gonna do great today. I’m gonna sell a bunch of knives today.” And I just could never get there. I mean, I could never fool myself into feeling, you know, that that was genuine.
Tim: But luckily, they were good knives, so I didn’t have trouble, you know.
John: The knives did the trick.
Tim: But there’s nothing worse than being told you have to fake your emotions. But joy is the second fruit of the Spirit. And the Psalms are full of things like, “Happy the people whose God is the Lord.” And Jesus said to his disciples, “I’ve told you these things so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” So we don’t want to fake or act false, but we do want to think more carefully about the roots of true joy and about cultivating happiness, because if we don’t, we’re - we’re really missing something. We’re missing one of God’s greatest gifts for us. And a joyful people on earth reflects the joyful and loving character of God.
Tim: So as a church - that’s what we’re doing as a church - we’re sharing God’s character with the world.
Jim: In a culture that is moving at such a pace as ours is, and the garage doors go up and down, we click, we don’t really know, even at times, our neighbors. Maybe one, but probably not the eight neighbors around us, how in that environment - and then, with our churches that we’re engaged with - how do we create community? How do we form bonds that are beyond social media? How do we move away from modernity, to go back to some basics of human interaction?
Tim: Yeah, so we miss a lot sometimes when we’re reading our English translations, you know, Jesus said, “There’s tribulation in the world, but be of good cheer, I’ve overcome the world.” Like, so many commands that Jesus gave, He gave that to a group of people, not to just one person. It’s not just up to you to go down to the workshop of your soul and figure out how to crack this nut. It’s for us to do together. So we’re gonna have tribulation. We’re gonna have suffering. But imagine the difference of going through that alone as opposed to going through that with meaningful relationships where you know one another and you care for one another.
You know, I talk in the book about the importance of praying together. I remember a friend whose sister was going through a terrible time with her marriage. And she got off the phone - a long hard conversation with her sister - and she immediately jumped on a group text and sent it to her prayer group, “Please be praying for my sister.” Now she hit “send” and immediately she felt really scared that she had jumped a line. You know, maybe her sister didn’t want anybody to know about it. So she got back on the phone with her sister. And she said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I want to explain what happened. I just quickly - I just hit text and I sent my prayer group about what you’re going through. And they’ll keep it private. I want you to know they’ll keep it private. And I’m so sorry.” And you know what? Her sister wasn’t mad, but the phone went quiet. And after a minute, her sister said, “You mean you have people who pray for you about things like that?”
You know, people are alone. People are in isolation. And for her sister, it just was like the lights were going on that you would have somebody in your life who wants to go to the Lord on your behalf, for your well-being. “I don’t have anybody like that in my life. Where do you find them?” Friends, you develop that at church. And you develop that in a community of believers, going to the Lord together. You learn how to - how to be cheerful together, how to be glad in the Lord together, how to walk through even the suffering of the mission of the church together.
Jim: Tim, more than anything else, the Christian life should be lived in joy because of the hopeful message of Heaven and eternal life in Christ. Share a story with us to illustrate that kind of joy, the joy we should have as believers.
Tim: Every person in the world is searching for happiness. And we as a church, we’ve got to be able to declare that this is found in Jesus Christ. One of the most difficult seasons in my life was when, as an Army chaplain, my division was called up to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. And there was a possibility that I was gonna go to Iraq. And that meant that I had to bring to close a time that I was spending as an interim pastor of a sweet little mountain church outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. And there was a woman who was shut into her apartment at that church that the elders had told me I needed to visit. They called her Mrs. Geneva McDaniel. And that’s how they said it. They didn’t say Geneva. They didn’t say Mrs. McDaniel. It was Mrs. Geneva McDaniel.
Tim: And I was a little bit - I was a little bit scared of her really because of the way they talked about her.
Tim: They’d say, “Mrs. Geneva McDaniel put that there, we’re not going to move that.” And so, I put it off and put it off. And finally, my last week there, I went to visit with her. And what a mistake it was that I had waited so long. I walked into her apartment. It was a little bit dark and warm, and she said, “Oh, you’re the young pastor I’ve been waiting to meet.” And I felt terrible. But then she said, “Come on in,” and she said, “Tim, you probably think I’m alone here, but I’m not. I’m with my Lord. And every day I wake up, and I greet Jesus, and I open my Bible and read, and I journal, and I pray, and I walk through the day with Him, and I eat with Him, and I sit with Him. And at the end of the day, I pray again, maybe sing a little song. And He’s right here with me.” And I knew that I was in the presence of wisdom. I knew that I was in the presence of someone who was living in the habitual ecstasy of the presence of God. And I started to open up my heart.
And there I was - I was supposed to visit her and comfort her, and here this young pastor, you know, I start opening up my heart. And I told her, “Mrs. McDaniel, I’m headed off, and I might be going to Iraq. And when I was a younger man, it was so easy for me to say, “Jesus have my life, whatever You want to use it for, if You want to - if I need to die for You, I’ll die for You. But now I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids, we’ve got all these plans together, and it’s so much harder for me to think about giving my life for Jesus.” And I started crying. And I said, “I just want to be honest with you. I’m scared that I might die.” And she reached over, and she put her hand on my knee and she said, “Tim, God, I believe, has a purpose for everything in our lives. There is a purpose for you being here. And if you have to go, there will be a purpose for you being over there. But He’s good, and you can trust Him.”
We’re all looking for that kind of joy in the habitual presence, the presence of Jesus in our lives, day by day by day. We learn that in community. We learn that from others who are wiser than we are, who’ve been down the road further than we are, who can speak to us and declare the goodness of God, through ups and downs. When people are looking for happiness - listen, happiness is found in Jesus Christ, in joyful obedience to Him as your Savior and your Lord. He’s the answer that we’re seeking. And if our churches - if we fail to present that, people are just going to walk right by.
Jim: Well, Tim, this has been terrific. I hope you, the listener - I hope this has captivated your heart. This means a lot to me, because I think running the international division here at Focus for the years that I did, John, I met some incredible people. And we have deep friendships around the world as a ministry. We have partners and offices, Focus on the Family offices, in Cairo, in China, in other places. And it thrills me. And it builds me up. It matures me in these friendships, because I see so much wonderful Christian character in these men and women that we work with, internationally. I wish I could bundle everybody up and take one of these trips and show you the work that you’re participating in to help Christians in the Middle East through our office in Cairo, wow.
Jim: And this is it, everybody. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to stop drinking milk and eating the meat of God’s Word and living it every day. And Tim, you’re bringing it.- sounds like milk; it’s meat. And I so appreciate your willingness to be with us and to help us better understand the joy of God. Thank you.
Tim: I love the church so much. I love the mission of the church. And I would love to see the church renewed in its joy, in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, because if we reconnect with that, oh, there’s gonna be revival.
Jim: There’s no stopping it, then. That’s twelve men called the Disciples changing the world. We need that once again. Thanks for being here.
John: Well, get your encouragements to live a happier life, as an individual and as a community, by getting a copy of Tim McConnell’s book,. And while you’re at it, get a CD or download of our conversation today. Focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, and our phone number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. When you get in touch, please make a generous donation of any amount to support the work of the ministry here. We rely on your prayers and your financial gifts. And we just can’t do this ministry without you, so please give, and we’ll say thanks by sending a copy of the book to you. Again, focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Well, join us next time. We’ll hear from Ginger Hubbard as she helps you reach your child’s heart, especially when he or she is misbehaving.
Ginger Hubbard: When children use demanding forms to communicate their wants and needs, they’re really in bondage to their own emotions and lack of self-control.
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