Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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We Are They

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Jul 30, 2015

During my first pastorate, a woman came up to me following a service and said, “I’ve had a real breakthrough.”

It wasn’t about my talk.

It wasn’t even as a result of my talk.

She told me, “As I was driving away from church last week, I said to my husband that the church really needed to do more with young people in high school. I said, ‘They really ought to do something about that.’ And then, as soon as the words left my mouth, it hit me. We are they!”

And that opened my eyes to one of the most important tasks of leadership in the life of a pastor: the highlighting of personal responsibility. This is a subtle idea, but an important one. 

Perhaps a quick story will help show what I mean.

One of the most tragic events in American history occurred in New York City in 1964. A young woman from Queens named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death. She was chased by an assailant and attacked three times on the street, over the course of half an hour, which in and of itself is tragic enough – but it happened while thirty-eight of her neighbors watched from their windows. During the entire half-hour ordeal, not a single one of them came to her aid. 

They didn’t come to her rescue. They didn’t shout out or call for help. They didn’t even bother to pick up the phone and call the police.

Shocking, isn’t it?

It is hard to imagine people acting that way. But we pass it off by saying, “Well, that was a while back, and in New York City. It was obviously a one-time deal. It’s not like it’s the norm.”

But that’s where we would be wrong.

Situations like that of Kitty Genovese have happened over and over, in cities and towns all over the land. 

Two New York City psychologists – one from Columbia University and the other from NYU – decided that they wanted to dig deeper into what they called the “bystander problem.” In a fascinating set of studies, outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, these two psychologists decided that they would stage a series of emergencies of differing kinds and in different settings in order to see who would come and help.

They found out that one single factor determined whether or not people would respond to a need. It wasn't the severity of the crisis or the degree to which the person screamed or called for help; it wasn't even the characteristics of the people in the experiment – whether they were young or old, male or female, black or white. 

What mattered was how many witnesses there were to the event.

The more people who were around, the less people tended to respond.

In one of the experiments, they had a student – by himself in a room – stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were as few as four others who also overheard the person having the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31 percent of the time. From 85 percent response to 31 percent response – just because the sense of personal responsibility had been spread out.

The essence of what the two psychologists discovered is that when people are in a group, responsibility for taking personal action is diffused. It gets watered-down.

People assume that someone else will make the call, report the problem, or respond to the need. Or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem isn't really a problem, because if it was, others would be responding.

Since no one else is responding, there must not be a problem. Or because others are around – witnessing what they are witnessing, experiencing what they are experiencing – the sense of personal duty, of personal responsibility, is somehow lessened.

So in the case of Kitty Genovese, social psychologists argue that the lesson isn't that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream.

If she had been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived. Then, that one person might have felt a sense of obligation to respond. They would have been moved by the fact that it really was up to them.

When I read that, a bell went off in my head about leadership. 

In any large group setting, such as a church, one of the great dangers is the loss of personal, individual responsibility. It becomes almost natural for folks to come, sit, enjoy, benefit, receive, appreciate, and profit but never feel a sense of personal responsibility for responding to the needs within its midst. When they come, it seems like everything is cared for, everything is humming along, and if a need is made known, well, there are so many others around that it never even enters their mind that there won’t be a response to meet that need or that things might depend on them.

The idea that they are the key – that what they do or do not do matters – isn’t even on their radar screen.

It’s not because they are hard-hearted and not because they don’t care but because they don’t feel like they have a personal responsibility to act. They don’t have a sense that there is a need for them, and them alone, to respond. They can be lulled into becoming like one of the witnesses to the death of that young woman in New York.

People need to be challenged to feel that they have a personal responsibility, and the church has a critical need, for what they do.

Like many churches, we have an electronic system that can flash numbers to alert a parent in a service that their child needs attention. There is also a special number, known to various children’s ministry team leaders, that alerts them to an unexpected need for additional volunteers.

I remember one weekend when the number was used during a particular service, and so many people came out of the service to help that they had to turn volunteers away. I asked if that was common, and one of our children’s ministry leaders said, “Happens every time. People really own the need.”

You may think it’s a direct reflection of my speaking ability – that people are just looking for a way to escape the service. Perhaps. But whether it’s served by my preaching ability or not, it’s a value that has to be developed.

When I think about this, my thoughts tend to turn to a story that came out of World War II. A church had a statue of Christ. The church was bombed, and the statue of Christ was damaged. The hands and the feet of Christ were blown off. A soldier came upon it, set it up against a wall, and tried to restore it. But he couldn’t.

Then a thought came to him, and he stopped trying to repair it and instead wrote a single sentence across the bottom of the statue. On this figure of Christ without hands and feet, he wrote, as if Christ Himself were saying the words:

“I have no hands but your hands, and no feet but your feet.”

People need to know that.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.