Category Archives: Ministry

Bait-and-switch evangelism

“Okay, I’ll go back. But no Jesus stuff this time.”

What exactly does it take to make a 4-year-old declare that she’s all done with Jesus stuff? Bait-and-switch evangelism.

Here’s what happened.

The Tragedy Begins

It’s the day before Easter. And, unexpectedly for the northwest, it’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon. So, my little girls grab their mom and head down the street to a church that is hosting an Easter carnival. Holding hands, they skip down the sidewalk with images of Easter egg hunts, candy, and cheap carnival games dancing through their young minds, never knowing what is really in store for them.

(This would be a good place to picture a dark cloud suddenly drifting in front of the bright, spring sun, casting a shadow across our happy scene. Or, just imagine some ominous music playing in the background. Either way, you get the point.)

Arriving at the church, the first thing they see is a big booth set up for face painting. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never understood the allure of face painting. But, for little girls, The thought of having someone smear cheap paint all over their faces in a way that vaguely resembles a flying bug is nearly irresistible.

So, they stop. And the tragedy begins.

Because, of course, this is the Gospel booth. And, from the Gospel booth there is no escape. It’s kind of like the Twilight Zone.

The Gospel Zone

Almost as soon as the girls sit down, one of the volunteers launches into the Gospel story. And my girls sit through it patiently. They’ve heard it before, but they’re too polite to interrupt. And, from the enthusiastic presentation, my wife suspects that they might be the only new people the church has seen all afternoon. She doesn’t want to ruin the fun. So they listen to the story.

Twice.

That’s right. Apparently they weren’t sure that my girls caught everything the first time. And they really wanted it to stick. So, as soon as they were done with the story, they launched into it again.

The Twilight Zone does not surrender its victims easily.

Emerging from the Gospel booth almost 30 minutes later, they discover that the carnival is over. No more candy. No more games. No Easter egg hunt. They’ve missed it all.

Bait-and-switch strikes again.

The Old Switcharoo

SwordsmanSr via Photobucket

Bait-and-switch evangelism is any time we tell people that they are getting one thing, and then we slip them the Gospel while they are there. Want some candy? Sure, come and get it. Oh, by the way, you’ll have to sit and listen to this story first.

Are we trying to make little kids hate the Gospel?

Why do we do this? Deep down, are we that afraid that they won’t want to hear? Do we doubt the power of the message that much? Do we think the Spirit can’t handle things?

And, what are we subtly communicating to ourselves and to other people about the Gospel when we do this? I’m afraid that we’re hinting that we really don’t think that the Gospel is all that. If I’m really convinced that I have the most amazing story that will transform your life forever, I’m not going to invite you over to my church for a football game and then try to slip it in between commercials. I’m going to invite you over to hear the story.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with parties, carnivals, football games, or any of the various ways that churches can connect with their communities, share life together, and allow the world to see a redeemed community in action. That must be done. And, along the way, we will have opportunities to share the Gospel as an organic expression of living in community together. But, that’s very different from the bait-and-switch.

When we trick people into hearing the Gospel, we annoy them and we undermine the very message that we’re seeking to promote. I’m sure it works at times, but pragmatic effectiveness is not an adequate measure for appropriate Kingdom living.

The quote at the beginning of this post? That came from my daughter one year later. A full year after her experience at the Easter carnival, she remembered what happened the last time she stepped into the Gospel zone, and she wasn’t about to let it happen again.

No more Jesus stuff for her.

The bait-and-switch at its finest.

Guns and the Gospel: a match made in…somewhere

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. To the NRA, I became a proponent of concealed hand guns, to win gun rights advocates.

What do you think? I recently received an email from someone at a church that is planning an outreach event that combines the Gospel and guns. The church is reaching out the community by offering a concealed handgun license course. But, the real purpose of the course is to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise come to church and use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. So, ultimately, the event isn’t really about guns, it’s about the Gospel. The guns are just to get them in the front door.

My first reaction to this was not terribly positive. But, I had to stop and double-check myself. I didn’t grow up around guns and have never really understood the need for the average person to carry a concealed handgun. So, I have to consider the possibility that my reaction to this event has more to do with my personal biases than legitimate concerns.

My second reaction to this still isn’t terribly positive. At the very least, I don’t like bait-and-switch evangelism. Maybe that’s not what is being planned here. But it sure sounds like the kind of event where you invite people to something that sounds fun, and then you sneak the Gospel in the back door. Sure it’s a church event and people probably expect that they’ll need to endure the Gospel so they can get to the good stuff. But is that really how we want to do things?

But, more to the point, the way that we present the Gospel matters. And, I can’t think of any way of hosting an event like this without connecting the Gospel to a whole raft of issues surrounding gun rights advocacy and conservative political ideology, not to mention all of the images and associations that people have with handguns, none of which have anything to do with the Gospel. Do we really want to align the Gospel with things like this?

To be clear, this has nothing to do with the question of gun rights in itself. That’s a separate issue, and one that I don’t want to get into here. This is a question about where and how we share the Gospel and how that shapes the way people hear the Gospel.

What do you think? Is this just a cultural issue? I’m just a pampered city boy from liberal Portland, so I can’t really understand what’s going on here. Or, are there legitimate concerns in connecting the Gospel and guns in this way?

Will you be my groupy?

I’m sad. I don’t have any groupies. Not even one. No one wears my “Marc Cortez” t-shirts, even though the logos are pretty cool. And I still have several boxes of Marc Cortez bobble-head dolls in my office. It’s distressing. (Though I have to admit that the dolls are a tad creepy when they all start nodding in unison.)

I’d even settle for some flunkies. Or, better yet, minions! Just think what I could do with a minion or two.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a few criticisms of how our “celebrity” culture has infected the church. The concern seems to be that “fame” is a virus, or maybe a parasite. And, Christian leaders who seem to be pursuing fame are necessarily headed down a fatal path.

You can’t have a humble celebrity.

But, is that really the case? What about people like John Stott or Billy Graham? They certainly attained a level of stature that most would associate with being a “celebrity.” At least, no one can deny their fame. And, they weathered the storm reasonably well.

Now, I’ve heard some argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with being famous but with pursuing fame. If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.

But, that doesn’t seem quite right either. If you have a cause worth agitating for, an agenda worth promoting, or a soapbox worth standing on, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your opportunities? And, if this means branding, marketing, and (heaven forbid) networking, shouldn’t you do precisely that? To do otherwise seems irresponsible.

In a fame-driven culture, can fame itself be used as a tool for getting your message out? Or, more accurately, can it be used without destroying the one who uses it?

I wonder at times whether our critique of “celebrities” stems from the fact that we aren’t famous. Resting comfortably in obscurity, it’s easy to throw darts at the famous faces. It may even make us feel better to argue that obscurity is actually a better, holier, and more responsible place to be anyway.

None of this is to dismiss the significant problems and challenges of living in a fame-driven culture. We’ve seen too many celebrity Christians fall to ignore the real dangers. If fame is a tool, it’s a dangerous one.

But, so is my lawnmower. And I still use it.

If I had to pick, I’d say that the problem isn’t necessarily with being a celebrity, but with being a groupy. Once you’ve become someone’s groupy, you’re much more likely to follow along with whatever they say/do, often defending them against all criticism, despite how reasonable such criticism might sometimes be. But, is that their fault? Maybe we should stop critiquing celebrity-ism and pay more attention to groupy-ism.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think I want any groupies.

Does anyone want to be my sidekick?

The Tragedy of Bioethics

[This is a guest post by Dr. Joe Gibbs, a Family Physician on the faculty of the University of Chicago (NorthShore) Family Medicine Residency. Dr. Gibbs recently attended the annual conference of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, at which Jerome Wernow presented some thoughts on theology and bioethics. Jerome is a friend, adjunct professor at Western Seminary, and regular commenter on this blog. So, I thought Dr. Gibbs’ comments would be of interest. He originally posted this on his blog, and has graciously permitted me to repost it here.]

At last week’s CBHD conference, a few of us were treated to a unique “Drinking-from-a-firehose” experience.  Jerome Wernow gave a talk with the eyesplitting title, “Bioethics:  Facing a Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.”  Intrigued at the title in the conference brochure, but having no idea at all what it might refer to, I slid into a seat in the classroom where Dr. Wernow was to speak, prepared to be befuddled.  Instead, in the space of about about twenty minutes, those of us in the room were given an alluring glimpse into a poignantly beautiful picture for doing bioethics that alters what I see when I look at a patient.

I will attempt to present gleanings from the rich feast that was Dr. Wernow’s talk.  The early 20th Century Russian philosopher Nicloas Berdyaev wrote,  ”There can be no moral life without freedom in evil, and this renders moral life a tragedy and makes ethics a philosophy of tragedy.”  As anybody who has witnessed the anguish of those who seek an ethics consult can attest, as anybody haunted by the dark questions our modern technology raises would agree, in bioethics all decisions are fraught with tragedy;  ethics consultants are actors in one-act medical dramas that are tragedies.  And tragedy is neither lessened nor assuaged when good and evil alone are used in bioethics’ calculus.  Our knowledge of good and evil is damaged, the product of a lie (“your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil“); it was in the very act of grasping for the tree of that knowledge that we were banished from the tree of life.  When we approach people whose stories have taken a catastrophic turn and we wield only the calculus of good and evil, our bioethics is left lifeless, empty, and tragic.  According to Wernow, to address tragedy we must turn to mystery, to “Mystery-revealed:” Christ, in whom is Life.  The question we ask as Christians doing bioethics is not just, “What is good?” but “How do I bring eternal life into this tragedy?  How do I bring the mystery of Life into the abyss?”

There was an amazed silence in the little classroom when Dr. Wernow finished.  Unfortunately, that is all I can leave the reader with.  I am not even sure that in my pathetic summary I presented Dr. Wernow’s vision remotely accurately;  his ideas poured out quickly and passionately, I could take only skeleton notes, and he has not as yet published an article or book that sets out the implications of the “Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.”  But I sure love his vision of bioethics-as-drama instead of as sterile philosophical specimen;  and I can embrace the quest to bring the Mystery of Life into tragedy as a robustly and profoundly Christian way to engage and immerse myself in the tragedies of a fallen world.

The Trials and Temptations of Pastoral Ministry

What are the biggest challenges of pastoral ministry? That can’t be an easy question to answer. Too much depends on who you are, what kind of weaknesses (and strengths!) you possess, and where you’re ministering. Nonetheless, seasoned pastors can tell us a lot about what they’ve seen and where we need to be careful.

So, check out Art Azurdia‘s comments on the Trials and Temptations of gospel ministry. It’s a clear and concise presentation of 11 key temptations that many (every?) pastor faces at some point. I know that in my ministry, depression (especially after a particularly difficult night of ministry), frustration, and doubt have often been constant companions.

Can I worship with you, please?

Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.

But, she made a lot of noise.

You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.

And, Audrey was always happy at church.

Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?

Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.

No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.

She could worship, but not with us.

.

Orderliness vs. Openness

As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.

After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?

But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.

Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?

 

The Open Gospel

Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.

But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.

I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.

 

Distracting God

My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.

But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?

I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.

Loudly.

How clear is the Bible on gender roles?

I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.

It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.

But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?

This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.

The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.

And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.

So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.

I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?

Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

Do pastors really need to know the “background” of the Bible?

In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.

I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.

Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.

But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.

When Parents Ask the Wrong Questions

“I can’t believe she disappointed us like this. She’s only fifteen! What was she thinking? What are we going to do now?”

I may not be the most intuitive person around, but even I could tell that he was angry—body tense, jaw clenched, voice shaking. But, it was a special kind of anger, the kind driven by love and fear, lashing out from a frustrated desire to protect. The anger of a parent.

 

Barely pausing for breath, he continued to vent, “How am I supposed to explain this to her mother? This is going to be my fault. I just know it!”

I was at a loss. Four years at a Bible college hadn’t prepared me to face the wrath of a frustrated father. But I still should have seen the next one coming.

“Where have you been through all this? Why didn’t you see this coming? What do we pay you for?”

Why do they always blame the youth pastor?

Parents have a lot to worry about: drugs, sex, crime, grades, attitudes, bad influences, music, movies…on and on the list goes. Is there a harder job on the planet? So, I understand the fear that nestles in the back of every parent’s mind. And, when fears are realized, they quickly turn into anger. I get that. I don’t like it when the anger turns in my direction, but I still understand.

After many years in youth ministry, I think I’ve talked with parents about every one of these issues. We’ve spent hours agonizing and strategizing over how to help their kids navigate these hazards and sail successfully into a hard-earned adulthood.

In all these years, I’ve heard a lot of question. But, even more important than the questions I have heard are the ones that I haven’t. In all my time in youth ministry, I never once had a parent say, “I’m concerned that my child doesn’t really understand the Gospel. Can you help make sure she really understands the power of God’s love and grace?” And, I’ve never had a concerned mother or father come up to me wanting to know “Do you think my son/daughter is really growing in his love for God?”

Not once.

I faced countless questions about who they were dating, what they were doing with their bodies, and how they were performing in school, but no questions about the Gospel or their heart for God.

None.

If you’re a parent, that should scare you.

The enraged father I mentioned above was upset because his daughter had gotten a tattoo. A tattoo. He’d never approached me to talk about his daughter’s spiritual well-being. Apparently that wasn’t worth an office visit. But a tattoo? That’s something else entirely.

The Gospel should change the way that we approach our families, our children. We don’t need to ignore the important issues that I mentioned above, but they shouldn’t be our only, or even our primary, concern. Instead, we should be ultimately concerned about whether we are doing everything that we can to make sure that our children understand the Gospel.

What gets your attention? Do you spend as much time talking about the story of God’s faithfulness as you do on math? Are you as concerned about your child’s heart for God as their newly discovered love for the opposite sex?

Does the Gospel matter at home?