Archive for the 'Evangelism' Category

I recently sat in a church that spends more money on its Christmas and Easter programs than it does on its benevolence fund. I know because they are kind enough to post that information publicly.

Five Thousand dollars a year for the poor. Almost twice that for productions. The sermon was full of the easy to hit sins, cute phrases and “rah rah, go team!” rants. Diversity didn’t seem to be a major concern to the congregation or the pastor. It was like being transported back to the early 90’s.  The alliteration of his points was flawless. Seriously, almost every point started with a D, including the sub points. From one perspective, it was simply amazing. Eighteen Christmas trees adorned their stage.

It actually occurred to me that I could be attending a convention of retired CIA agents. Three piece suits, long rain overcoats.

The church was about conservative exclusion. Keep the other kids out of the sandbox so to speak.

I also sat in another church recently. This one went the other way. Invite everyone. Put a ton into the production of the show. Change sharing your faith to inviting people to church. Play with the lights to match the beat of the music. Dim the lights, pump dry ice through the air. Do a rah rah message. By rah rah, I mean read one maybe two verses, and then talk for forty minutes about things that have nothing to do with the verses read.

Lament the fallen state of mankind and the world. The sermon was a mix of self-praise for the preacher, his family and a group therapy session. As a therapist, I know a little bit about group therapy. Just sit in the people’s misery.

Never actually offer real hope. How does one move out of their crap?

I’m afraid we’ve lost our way.

We think we need to protect the message.

We think we need to make the message a show. We need to drum up excitement for it. We offer things that are never promised in the Text. (Those will be a different post).

We have lost our way.

The message is simple. And it’s amazing. Here it is:

God wants to have a personal relationship with you. The God of the universe wants to walk through life with you. He wants to offer you the best way way to live. That’s it. Love God, and love people.

We don’t need to make it better. It doesn’t need to be “made better.” It just needs to be repeated in words and in deeds.

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From here.

Photobucket

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Over the last week, I’ve read a lot about Rob Bell’s new book. This post isn’t about that. This post, ultimately, isn’t about people’s responses to what they’ve read or seen about about the book, or even about my response to them. Reading comments on an article about the book, however, is the thing that got me thinking. One of the comments I read said the following:

With all due respect, what is the most loving thing one can do for another? The most loving thing we can do is tell another about the most loving thing anyone has ever done… Christ’s death on our behalf (plethora of Scriptural references follow.)

Now as I read that, I wasn’t really surprised. It’s something I’ve basically heard my entire life. I’ve probably said something very similar at different points in my life. But as I read it in that context, it made me stop dead in my tracks. Perhaps it was the writer’s use of the descriptor “most”. Is the act of telling another person the story of Jesus the most loving thing we can do. That is, is the act of sharing certain information with other people actually what constitutes love?

I’ve been wrestling with this idea the last few days. I genuinely do think that the act of telling, sharing is implicit in how the Gospel spreads. Humans are verbal creatures, and every human culture has storytellers. It’s in our DNA to share stories with each other. My question is, though, does the Gospel go beyond the act of simply transmitting information?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that, yes, it must. If we are simply telling people they are sinners in need of a savior, but refuse to engage in actual, tangible things that demonstrate love to people, do we love them? A number of years ago, the book The Five Love Languages was all the rage (I believe it still sells quite well). In the book, Gary Chapman lays out the simple proposition that there are five ways in which people give and receive love – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Now the book itself is geared more towards marriage relationships, but as I think of the relationships I have with friends in my life, and I realize that the same principles can apply in just about any relationship.

The thing that I notice about all of them is that they truly cost something for the one attempting to show love to the other person. It takes effort to encourage someone. It is difficult to spend quality time with someone when I have a busy schedule to worry about. The list goes on. Love isn’t the easy thing. A lot of the time it’s the thing I’d rather not do. I would rather stay at home and watch the game on Saturday rather than help a single mom move into a new apartment. I’d rather go to the pub with my friends rather than volunteer to tutor the kids for the single father.

So as far as what is the “most loving” thing to do, I guess I come down to the answer that there simply isn’t a simply answer. What is most loving to my neighbor depends on my neighbor’s needs, and it depends on me being open to pour myself out. I tend to think that simply sharing information about Jesus, as important as that is, is often seen by those we are trying to share with as the easy way out – drive-by evangelism in a drive-thru world. The Gospel becomes simply another sales pitch, and we become little more than the salesman at Best Buy trying to sell an extended warranty.

This, of course, isn’t a new problem. Saying one thing and doing another is part of the human condition. The truth that Christ brought when He came is that He didn’t simply say He loved humanity. He demonstrated through His miraculous works, His tender compassion, and ultimately through His death on the cross. The question is will we truly follow Christ. Are we willing to take up our crosses for the sake of those who need to be loved? Or will we be content to simply think that sharing information with people is enough.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

1 John 3:18-20

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I just finished reading Radical by David Platt. I really like the book and agree with about 95% of what he has to say. I found this particularly refreshing:

As a result, Christ commands the church make the gospel known to all people. If this is true, then the implications for our lives are huge. If more than a billion people today are headed to a Christless eternity and have not even heard the gospel, then we don’t have time to waste our lives on an American dream. Not if we have all been commanded to take the gospel to them. The tendency in our culture is to set around debating this question, but in the end our goal is not to try to find an answer to it; our goal is to alleviate the question altogether (157-158).

For more on Platt, check out my review.

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This post is offered to raise some questions on the subject of evangelism in general and open-air preaching in specific.  Questions that I have been pondering – off and on – for some time.

As a student of church history and the communication of the Gospel, it is apparent to me that many of the scenarios taking place in today’s public arena are new.  This does not make them wrong, it just makes them new.  Whether it is an itinerant preacher on a public campus or believers preaching to the crowds who file into a sporting event – this scenario of evangelism/preaching is unprecedented in both general church and biblical history.

I say it is unprecedented, not because men and women have never publicly proclaimed the Gospel – they have, so this is not new.   What is new, what makes it unprecedented is the relationship between preacher/evangelist and his audience. What is new is the starting position of the audience, the presuppositions they bring to their hearing of the Gospel… in this sense the contemporary scenario is unprecedented.  A least in the history of the western church.

From a pragmatic perspective It makes me wonder what is the intended outcome of open-air preaching to the masses?  If the masses do not share a biblical worldview, if they do not share a foundational morality, what is the expected outcome of preaching biblical prohibitions?  If they have “been-there, done-that” as far as the concept of judgment or  Hell is concerned, is that threat going to have any effect?

This leads me to a theological perspective; why preach law and condemnation to people who are incapable of responding anyway?  If we were commanded to do this, doing so would make more sense to me even if it were not pragmatic and appeared theologically nonsensical.  Those issues would not matter if there were command or precedent in the Scripture.

Yet, from a biblical perspective I cannot find any parallel example or command.  There are examples of public preaching in the Scriptures to be sure, but all the examples I can think of either involve preaching to a people who have a common worldview (e.g.,  prophets preaching to Israel, Jesus preaching to the crowds, Paul in the synagogues) or preaching in a context where the audience expects such a thing and is predisposed to consider them (e.g.,  Paul on Mars Hill).

Even more problematic is the fact that such preaching, as it is often carried out, seems to be inconsistent with the command to be salt and light, to be an aroma of life, to be ambassadors for Christ, to live in such a way that even unbelievers glorify God because of our contribution to society.  Scripture is full of metaphors like these that illustrate how the church is to strive to be viewed by outsiders.  And setting out to preach to complete strangers in such a way that is guaranteed to just make them mad, or in such a way as to just be easily ignore, does not fulfill any of these metaphors.

I do not want to assign or discuss motives, I exhort you to refrain as well.  I have no doubt that those who preach at me as I head into a game are very sincere.  I have no doubt the banners they wave about Hell and sin and Jesus and death are designed to show the love of Christ.  I understand that they see themselves as agents of God proclaiming the truths of Scripture.  Maybe they are – hence raising the question.  Yet, is that really the kind of glory and attention God is seeking?  Is this really the aroma he wants his church to emit?

As far as I am concerned the jury is still out.  But as I ponder these questions I am being influenced by these facts: 1) open-air preaching to stranger-pagans who are not interested in the message has no biblical example or command and 2) we are to behave in a manner that, in as much as possible, causes the world to thank God we are here.   And I just do not see how open-air preaching is consistent with either of these.

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I was editing my church’s listing information on Google when I came across this:

Google business listing

This is designed for businesses.  Plumber?  Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.  Hardware store?  No, all customers come to the business location.  Simple.  I put “No” for our church.  Somewhat because we are still stuck in the business church model of the last 100 years, but mostly because I’m having a hard time bringing myself to say Yes.

This past Sunday I preached a first-person sermon from Jonah (you can listen to it here if you want):

 
icon for podpress  Jonah - Called to Go: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

During my sermon study I always try to examine my own life in light of what I am going to be preaching and you can’t help being changed when you spend the necessary time and depth that a first-person sermon requires.  Jonah was called to go to Nineveh.  One of the extraordinary things about Jonah is that the book is the only latter prophet whose message is presented in narrative prose.  One of the functions of the literary genre of narrative is that the audience naturally identifies with one or more of the characters.  A talented narrative writer is adept at drawing the reader into the story, not just to be surrounded by it, but to become a part of it.  Part of the function of the book of Jonah was to do that for the people of Israel: to see themselves in Jonah.  To see their rebellion against God was a rebellion of the heart, a rebellion against His very nature.

And so I did.  I saw… I see myself in Jonah.  And I can’t even claim to have any enemies.  Jonah didn’t want to go to those he detested.  I don’t want to go to those I am uncomfortable around.  I know that my God is compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, patient.  Maybe that’s why I’m still allowed to be where I am… to do what I do… even though I don’t want to go.

I think it’s time that I– that we– started to say “Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.”

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From the AP Newswire Report:

Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998.

Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50.

[...]

Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion for its 24 million people. In practice, authorities crack down on Christians, who are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. The distribution of bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution, defectors say.

For North Koreans, a personality cult surrounding the country’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son and current leader Kim Jong Il serves as a virtual state religion.

“Kim Jong Il is above the country’s law … and in North Korea what he instructs is like Jesus Christ’s words in the Bible,” says Son Jung-hun, a human rights activist who has become a devout Christian since his brother’s death.

Read the whole thing.

While his death occurred in December 2008, we are only now learning of it, and we mourn for our brother in Christ. As Jesus taught, Christians will be persecuted for their faith, with many paying for it with their lives. And since we are, regardless of geography, all part of the Temple Jesus’ rebuilt in three days, we should all mourn when stones within that Temple suffer. Those of us here in the West should also realize that the freedoms we enjoy are a blessing from God, and pray that all could worship Him, serve him and preach in His name in the open.

Shalom.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Oops!  Wrong Tale…

While it was nice to have a long vacation, in some ways, it is always nice to be back home.  Another nice thing about taking a break is that it tends to recharge your batteries and help you see some new and old things in different lights.  And speaking of lights…

yep- it's VegasMy son Jordan and I were in Vegas last Saturday night, at the end of our 19-day journey, and we had the evening to do a walkabout up the LV Strip, just for the sheer spectacle (and to have a couple more conversations, along the lines of lesson at Caesarea Philippi).  So, with the temperature in the triple-digits and the humidity nonexistent (with the sun going down), we headed up the strip.

Early on, we passed a line of young latino men and women wearing signs advertising “LIVE GIRLS TO YOUR ROOM IN 20 MINUTES OR LESS”, clicking business cards together, trying to hand them out to all the folks passing them.  [We'd already discussed the importance of using the "Suzi rule" - my wife's long-time advice to me that when you walk around in a big city, you avoid making eye contact or answering folks on the sidewalk who are trying to get your attention.]

Just past these peddlers, there was a man, probably in his mid-40’s, with a T-shirt that said (in big letters) “JESUS LOVES YOU”, and beneath it, in smaller print “and I do too…”  He also had a small stack of paper in his hands, though they were booklets which had on the cover “You don’t have to live like this“, along with a smaller logo and print identifying them as being from the Central Christian Church of Las Vegas.  I smiled at him, and gave him a small nod and wink, which he returned to me.  He actually stood out, somewhat, because he wasn’t trying to push his fliers into peoples’ hands, but he handed one to people who stopped by him and at least seemed to be paying attention.

child abuseA couple blocks later, we crossed the street to take a look at the fountains in front of the Bellagio.  Unfortunately, much of the corner was clogged, with people spilling out into the street, because there was a small entourage of street preachers with megaphones, hollering at folks (who did their best to walk around them, since they were blocking the way through what was probably the busiest intersection on the strip).  In addition to the bullhorn guys, they had four or five little kids with them, with “repent or perish” shirts on, shoving tracts into folks’ hands as they walked by (not all that differently from the guys in the “LIVE GIRLS” shirts).  The guys with the megaphones were doing a great job shouting the Roman Road at folks, along with all of the great $10 words like “propitiation”, “substitutionary atonement”, “salvation” and every other Christianese phrase that would do a Dutch Reformed heart proud.

I later thought it was funny that my son chose the caption for our photo (above) in Flickr: “Sometimes you wish folks would stop being on your side…”  It was sad, but true – and it didn’t require an 18-year-old to notice the stark difference between a Christlike witness and those just being “Jerks for Jesus”.

About four hours later on the way back down the strip, I noticed that the gentleman with the “You don’t have to live like this” fliers was having a discussion with two of the “LIVE GIRLS” guys, and none of them paid attention to us as we walked by (they were speaking in Spanish, so I don’t know what was being said).  In some way, I wondered if the “LIVE GIRLS” folks weren’t the actual audience to which the older gentleman was wanting to speak to, in the first place.

Teller Like it Is

And it’s not just Christians who notice this.

Penn & Teller, a comedy/magic duo somewhat famous for their dark humor (their Vegas ads proclaim “fewer audience injuries than last year…”) are also famous for being atheists, as well – and fairly vocal ones at that.  Even so, I recently read an interview (language warning) with the talking half of their act, Penn Gillette, who also narrates a Showtime program that “debunks” various religions and charlatans (except for Scientology, because the network won’t let them, and Islam, because they value their lives):

You do go after Christians, though … Teller and I have been brutal to Christians, and their response shows that they’re good ****ing Americans who believe in freedom of speech. We attack them all the time, and we still get letters that say, “We appreciate your passion. Sincerely yours, in Christ.” Christians come to our show at the Rio and give us Bibles all the time. They’re incredibly kind to us. Sure, there are a couple of them who live in garages, give themselves titles and send out death threats to me and Bill Maher and Trey Parker. But the vast majority are polite, open-minded people, and I respect them for that.

And what’s funny is that he’s pretty much spot on when evaluating the Christian blogosphere, as well. Many are incredibly kind, and it’s just sad that there are a (very vocal) few of them who live in garages, and give themselves important-sounding titles (like “Pastor-Teacher”) and lie and speak eternal death threats against those who won’t follow the narrowly legalistic, eisegeted systematic theology they claim to follow. Which is probably where the saying comes from that it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch.

And it’s not just Vegas.

When I got home this weekend, I saw this story which pretty much mirrored what I saw out in Las Vegas – again a tale of two witnessing Christians, but in a different city.

Apparently, there was a “gay pride” event (let’s just call it a mini-Vegas) at which a guy was simply planning on handing out Bibles and talking to folks who were interested in speaking to him.  The organizers of the event sued him to prevent him from showing up, but the court threw out their suit.

So, this guy, his wife and son showed up

wearing yellow T-shirts printed with the words “Free Bibles.” They pulled rolling suitcases full of Bibles and attracted little attention, stopping only to hand out Bibles or to engage in conversation when asked. They encountered a few challengers and bemused glances from festival attendees familiar with the court case, but attracted little attention until a gaggle of television cameras began to follow them.

“We’re not interested in preaching, and we never were,” Johnson said. “We’re not here for all that stuff in the news. We’re the ones that meet and have honest conversations with people, and we have our own rules that we go by as far as conduct is concerned.”

Johnson said he believes that homosexuality is a sin, but he insisted that he is not forceful about his message.

Meanwhile, a Jerk for Jesus decided to show up, as well.

[He] attracted far more attention than the [Bible Guy] as he stood on a box with a sign that read “You are an abomination to God, You justify the wicked,” preaching to a jeering crowd. [He] attracted shouts of disapproval and arguments from passersby. Eventually, Pride attendees stood in front of him with signs that read, “Standing on the Side of Love.”

And, just to demonstrate the inherent legalism within both his preaching and his orthopraxy, the second man “brought a decibel meter to prove, he said, that he was acting within the law by not being disruptive.”  (… and they will know we are Christians by our decibel meters not pegging out loud enough to be called ‘disruptive’.)

As I thought of both cities and both types of Christians – the humble and the boorishly proud – I was reminded of one of Rich Mullins’ favorite quotes (paraphrased from Wilhelm Stekel)

An immature Christian wants to die nobly for a cause, but the mark of a mature Christian is that he wants to live humbly for one.

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Way back in 2006, Mark Driscoll was interviewed prior to speaking at the Desiring God conference that year.  One of the interview clips can be found here, but I’ll quote the salient part:

When [missionary] Hudson Taylor shows up in China, and dresses in Chinese dress, and learns Chinese language, and eats Chinese food, and gets a Chinese haircut, everybody says, “There’s a good Christian.” When we do that in punk rock culture, people think it’s capitulation. I think there’s hypocrisy there. That’s why we’re not reaching Americans. We have a double-standard that we get stuck on the style and we forget the substance of the Gospel.

A missionary family (we’ll call the couple George and Mary — names changed for safety/anonymity sake) was recently at my church.  The people group to whom they minister are very disinterested in reading.  So much so that it is not uncommon for houses in that part of the world to lack indoor plumbing but have satellite television.  Another example — to be considered a best-seller, a book has to sell only a few thousand copies.

While their ultimate goal is translating the Bible — this people group does not have the Scriptures in their language — George and Mary realize that in the short-term, they need to set a primary focus on spreading the Word through other media (though, even this is not simple, due to laws in their region).  As George was describing the unique challenges that they face, he noted that their desire was to be — parents, cover your children’s ears — relevant.

A horrified gasp went up from the congregation when he used such a dirty word.  Actually, I’m kidding.  His choice of that word summed up what they were trying to do, given the culture of the people with whom they are dealing.  His point was that their message to those people is not “get your act together, get interested in reading, and then we’ll deem you worthy of telling you about Jesus”.

I doubt that anyone would fail to laud George and Mary’s efforts.  So why, exactly, does any mention of relevance in our culture get poo-poo-ed on so quickly and thoroughly by so many?

Are people in our culture less unsaved?  I keep seeing an image of Westerners showing up at the pearly gates, and St Peter does his best Maxwell Smart* impression, saying, “Missed it by that much.”

* (the Don Adams version — I’m old)

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They like Jesus but Not the Church, by Dan Kimball, is based on the premise that we live in a post-Christendom culture. To be sure the States are not nearly as post-Christendom as Europe and Australia, yet you can hardly deny “The American culture no longer props up the church the way it did, no longer automatically accepts the church as a player at the table in public life, and can be downright hostile to the church’s presence” (pg. 18).

Dan Kimball bases his impression, not on the details and analyzed data of a Barna-esque survey. Instead he got out of his office and started studying in coffee shops. There he met and befriended non-Christians and as he interacted with them discovered that they had a mostly favorable view of Jesus, but an unfavorable view of Christians and the church. The list of charges against the church became the outline for the chapters of the book. According to Kimball, emerging generations think the church pushes a political agenda, is judgmental and negative, oppresses females, and is homophobic. The church is arrogant in its claim that other religions are wrong and is full of fundamentalists who take the Bible literally.

Speaking in generalities (not taking the list point by point) the issue is that of perception and image. Kimball “repeatedly heard in all the interviews for this book that we are people who pick out all of the negative things of the world and then protest them” (pg. 98). To be sure, there are negative things to be protested, but Kimball’s point is that Christians are known more for what we oppose (often politically) than what we stand for spiritually. One online review of this book illustrated this point famously by pointing out that one of those he interviewed was a lesbian – since none of those he used as case studies were believers one wonders why this is relevant. Well, we all know why it was relevant to the reviewer, and that proves Kimball’s point.

Kimball does point out that the positive impression of Jesus held by those he interviewed is often based on partial knowledge. He calls this the Pop Culture Jesus. “This Jesus is a friend who stands up for the poor and needy and is a revolutionary for the oppressed. This Jesus focuses his message on love not hate” (pg 55). These impressions are true as far as they go. But as Kimball points out they are biblically lacking – and while he’s at it, Kimball gives his impressions on how many Christian groups also misrepresent Jesus.

As his solution Kimball modifies the classic Bridge Illustration. In the original there is a massive gap between God on one side and a man on the other. The gap is sin and can only be bridged by Christ. Kimball’s theology at this point is thoroughly orthodox so he is in no way messing with the “gap of sin” nor the method for crossing it. He does modify the familiar tool by adding another chasm, another gap. This time the gap separates a man and the church and the gap is our Christian subculture and projected misconceptions. In this sense there is an additional step, a step that the early church or even the Apostle Paul never faced. This step requires that we must overcome people’s negative connotations (whether correct or otherwise) before they will be willing to consider the other gap. Or as Miroslav Volf put it (although his brother-in-law Peter Kuzmic claim Miroslav got this from him) – “Sometimes we must start by washing the face of Jesus.”

This is a good book. And although I do not track with everything Kimball professes, he’s on track as he gives examples of how to interact with the emerging generations without compromising the truth. If you are interested in connecting with the emerging generation I recommend this book.

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