Posts Tagged ‘evangelical subculture’

What exactly is witnessing?

September 27, 2011

I grew up in a Southern Baptist youth group that stressed the importance of witnessing. In fact, I can easily summarize the main message of every retreat and youth camp we went on as follows: Don’t have sex (or do those things that tend to lead to it). Don’t drink or do drugs. Do witness. I was a goody-goody so the first two weren’t a problem. But the third thing was a big deal. At least a few of my friends and I witnessed. Or wanted to. The problem was that we were young and immature and didn’t know how to do it well.

I know witnessing isn't handing out this.

One of my youth group friends was Mark, who was really into heavy metal of the ’80s hair-metal variety. He had long hair and wore spandex like he was in Mötley Crüe. (As you might imagine—if you’re old enough to remember—he switched allegiances from Satan’s music to Stryper when they came along.)

One time, Heavy Metal Mark and some other youth group friends were going to the mall to witness. “Witnessing” in this context meant handing out gospel tracts to complete strangers. They invited me to go with them, and the idea made me deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, owing to some combination of guilt and peer pressure, I was seriously considering it.

My sister Susan was mortified. She said, “If I saw someone like Mark approaching me in the shopping mall in order to talk to me about Jesus, I would run in the opposite direction!” I don’t know if it was my sister’s words, but I begged off. I don’t believe handing out tracts to complete strangers in a shopping mall really counts as witnessing, and it may actually cause harm. It feels pushy, impersonal, and condescending: “You, Mr. Unsuspecting Passerby, are obviously a sinner in need of God’s saving grace. Since I, unlike you, have all the answers, let me give them to you in the form of this boilerplate tract.”

As Stephy Drury has frequently pointed out over on her funny, insightful, and more than slightly depressing blog “Stuff Christian Culture Likes,” evangelical Christians can know they’re doing evangelism wrong if their efforts actually avoid fostering genuine relationships with people. This rules out, for instance, sloganeering on billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

To this day, I’m deeply afraid of doing it wrong. I’m afraid of turning someone off to Christianity. I’m afraid of being one of those people.

You know… those people. Like Heavy Metal Mark. Or, worse, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around knocking on your door at the least convenient time. Or Mormons. I was running on the greenway just last week when a couple of white-short-sleeved-shirt-and-tie Mormon missionaries passed me on bicycles. I can’t help but admire their commitment—even if it is to a deeply distorted, heterodox version of the gospel. In fact, a large part of me hates that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, potentially leading people away from the orthodox Christian faith.

But who am I kidding? Another part of me hates that they’re out there—trying so hard in their own way to witness—because it reminds me that most of the time, I am not! Or can I safely say that we are not—”we” meaning United Methodists (but I’m sure this applies to plenty of other Christians). Most of time, we don’t even think about it! Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to their credit, think about it. A lot. Witnessing is a part of their DNA in a way that it ought to be a part of ours but isn’t.

Let’s face facts: we United Methodists are lousy at witnessing!

We are at least talking about it more. We changed our Book of Discipline 15 years ago to say that the church’s mission is to make disciples. We changed our membership vows a few years ago to emphasize witnessing: we pledge to serve Jesus and support the church through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and—you guessed it—witness.

But how do we do it? What does witnessing look like today?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Because when I ask many of my clergy peers, they’re more apt to tell me what it isn’t—for example, it’s not handing out tracts to strangers at malls. Or they describe something that sounds exactly like marketing. Or they make witnessing seem very passive. As if it weren’t something we had to do at all, just something we had to be.

I’m not buying it. What is it really?

Twin sons of different mothers

January 13, 2011

Musing on yesterday’s blog post about this guy’s effort to promote something he’s calling “One Day, No Religion,” I had an obvious thought: This whole “New Atheist” movement is a mirror image of a kind of evangelical Christianity that drives me nuts. The kind that’s glib, with its bumper-sticker sloganeering; that doesn’t try to listen to differing points of view; that is filled with righteous indignation; that feels constantly put upon by outsiders.

How different are these billboards, really?

This one is brought to you by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

This is one of the tamer billboards in this ad campaign.

Now, with these billboards and events like “One Day, No Religion,” the atheists have their own ticky-tacky marketing campaigns and protest movements. I assume they’ll soon sell atheist T-shirts and tchotchkes at their own bookstores—or at least an online equivalent. They probably already do. Just wait: soon the poor, put-upon atheist kids will gather round the flagpole before school!

It’s adorable, really…

But I also feel some pity. I mean, I’m sure there are atheists out there whose atheism is hard-won, intellectually rigorous, and properly nihilistic (as opposed to insufferably optimistic). These efforts demean and trivialize their faith.

I know how they feel!

“True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In”: A review

November 23, 2010

"True Story" will help many Christians better understand and articulate the Christian faith.

A couple weeks ago, I preached on witnessing. One of the promises we make as members of the United Methodist Church is to serve Christ through our witness. This fifth part of our membership vow was only added a couple of years ago at General Conference—likely the result of justifiable concerns by the more evangelical wing of the church that we’ve placed too much weight on service as a means of witnessing.

Of course we bear witness to the love of Christ when we love, serve, and do any work for God’s kingdom. In fact, our actions are the most important way in which we witness. At some point, however, we have to say in whose Name we do all this good work, right?

As I mentioned previously, I’m sure the prospect of sharing our faith with words makes many people uncomfortable—in part because we don’t know what to say, and in part because “witnessing” has been done so poorly by so many over the years, the whole concept has been tarnished. As I discussed in my sermon, we don’t want to shove our faith down anyone’s throat. We don’t want to disrespect people of other faiths. And we don’t want to come on self-righteously. Read the rest of this entry »

About that tricky passage: “Wives, submit to your husbands…”

November 15, 2010

I love "Leave It to Beaver," but the role of iconic mother and homemaker, played beautifully by the late Barbara Billingsley, doesn't come from the Bible.

Sometimes it seems like we Christians are reading different Bibles… And I’m not talking different translations.

A lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine last week focused on a popular evangelical speaker and author named Priscilla Shirer, who preaches a message of “biblical womanhood”—not to be confused, please, with feminism. The big problem, she believes, with the state of marriage and family today is that uppity women have usurped their husband’s God-ordained authority by becoming pastors, for example, and working outside the home. Women need to find their place all over again.

This message is nothing new, of course. In the Victorian era of the mid-nineteenth century, the forces of industrialization, mass marketing, and a burgeoning middle class combined to create the ideal of the stay-at-home mother and homemaker. As middle class families had more discretionary income, the stay-at-home mother represented a new niche to which marketers could sell their wares. From what I’ve read, their efforts were a little like Starbucks today: make consumers feel a little wealthier than they really are, and they won’t mind spending money on items that might otherwise be considered luxuries (like a $4 cup of burnt-tasting coffee).  Read the rest of this entry »

Evangelism isn’t a four-letter word

November 11, 2010

Clearly, in my sermon this Sunday, I’m going to have to help the congregation overcome the very real and completely understandable apprehension we have about “doing evangelism,” which is more or less synonymous with “witnessing.”

Here’s a trailer for a Rob Bell video about “bullhorn guy”—you know, the street preacher with the bullhorn who imagines that he’s witnessing effectively. I see guys like this at the corner of North Avenue and Techwood every time I go to a Georgia Tech football game. One point I’ll stress on Sunday is that just because so many people do evangelism poorly doesn’t excuse us from doing it at all.

At the end of this blog post by Scot McKnight, followed by much commentary, evangelical writer Joe Carter proposes ways in which he believes we (evangelical Protestant) Christians can do evangelism better, which I share with you on this blog so that I can remember it later. 🙂 I really, really like #5. Anyway, here goes…

1. Immerse oneself completely in God and and his Word and surround yourself with his Bride. — Our evangelism should come as a natural outgrowth of our love for God. We have no problem telling people about the great movie/product/restaurant we discovered because we are genuinely excited about them. If we get that excited about God—and not just about what he’s done for us—then evangelism will become second nature.

2. Be able to clearly communicate the core message of the Gospel – Most people in our culture have no problem wrapping their minds around the fact that God loves us (why wouldn’t He? We’re wonderful!). But they have a hard time understanding the concept that we are deserving of hell. We need to relearn how to explain to people that it’s about God, not about what he can do for them. Everyone knows God exists, no matter how much they try to deny it. What they don’t know is that they are in need of redemption. If we don’t get that point across then we have failed them.

3. Get to know the people you are trying to bring to Christ – You don’t have to know them for years, but for goodness sake’s, at least learn their name. Let’s show that we care about them as people and not just as a disembodied soul that will be sent to hell when they die if we don’t intervene. Let’s show that we are excited about seeing them for eternity in the New Jerusalem by being able to give them our attention here on Earth.

4. Let’s show that evangelism is a longterm process – We may merely be the ones that are sowing the seed. But if its within our ability, we should be helping them to grown in their faith—or at least helping them to find someone who can carry out the task of making a disciple out of them.

5. Forget “techniques” of evangelism; focus on being disciples who evangelize – The focus on techniques arose out of industrial-era fascination with effectiveness and teachable routines. Some of it was helpful, most of it was counterproductive. Forget trying to learn some five point process (like this one!) and spend time in spiritual disciplines that make you a better follower of Christ. From there, go where the Holy Spirit leads and do whatever he tells you to do.

Faithfulness to our calling

October 28, 2010

I’m at Simpsonwood Retreat Center this week for a conference on “church planting” and church revitalization. So far, I’ve learned a few interesting things, including how to access a free online resource that offers exhaustive demographic information on local populations for all churches within the North Georgia Conference. A friend of mine led a discussion about her experience starting an innovative storefront church in an affluent Atlanta area that offers high-church liturgy mixed with a jazz brunch. Her words inspired me to reflect more seriously on what successful evangelism looks like in our culture.

What bothers me, however, is the continued emphasis on having a “vision” for one’s church, and implementing the vision through various leadership principles that have been lifted from any number of corporate best-sellers and then “christianized.” Even if the principles themselves are good (and many are, if a little common-sensical), they feel kind of shallow. It doesn’t help that the conference’s theme verse (Proverbs 29:18, from the KJV: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”) is better translated, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).

I can only imagine how different the conference would seem if they substituted the word “prophecy” for “vision” in all of these talks. You might think we’d become Pentecostals!

If you want to get theological, a conference like this is in danger of a kind of Pelagianism that overemphasizes what we pastors need to do in order to be successful—never mind that we’re only successful as the Holy Spirit does through us and our congregations. (We could actually stand to be a little more charismatic in that regard… I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Holy Spirit all week.) Instead of focusing almost exclusively on what we pastors must do, why not also focus on what we pastors must be?

I know enough about what’s in my own heart to imagine that most of my fellow clergy struggle with some of the basics. Here are some of them: Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Praying and developing habits of disciplined Christian living. Loving the people Jesus has put under our care. Being responsive to the Holy Spirit. Being faithful to our calling. Being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. Being free from anxiety. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

When I shared some of these thoughts with a conference speaker, he said, “I assume I’m talking to a group of clergy who already get that. Are you saying I should have offered an altar call?”

He was joking. I think.

The point is, I’m all for disciple-making. I feel convicted that I have more work to do in the area of evangelism and in leading my congregation in that area. But disciple-making is a two-way street. Even as we make disciples, let’s not forget that we ourselves must continually be made into disciples. Unless we’ve already “gone onto perfection” (and I don’t know anyone who has), we’re all works in progress.

I don’t know how many clergy are in the North Georgia Conference. Many hundreds, at least. Can you imagine all of those women and men on their knees every morning in prayer, reading scripture, seeking God’s guidance and direction, trying their best to discern God’s will and be obedient to Jesus?

I bet that would make as positive an impact for the kingdom as any 22-step plan!

Regardless, we need to trust in the Lord, knowing that, ultimately, the only true measure of success is Christ saying to us on the Last Day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

A favorite band is blacklisted

September 20, 2010

I was heartbroken to learn this week that a major Christian college invited and then un-invited one of my favorite bands to play on their campus. Calvin College, a Reformed college in Michigan, un-invited them for the same reason I’m reluctant to say the band’s name in a church setting: they’re called the New Pornographers.

But I hasten to add, “They’re not pornographic! They don’t endorse pornography.” The name comes from something that televangelist Jimmy Swaggart said many years ago, calling rock and roll the “new pornography.” I’ve seen the band in concert several times now. I have all their albums. A couple of years ago, in fact, I had tickets to see them on the very same night I had my annual evaluation by the Staff-Parish Relations committee. I explained to the chairperson that I had tickets to an unnamed concert, and could I be evaluated first, so I could duck out early and make it to the show. And of course that was no problem. Read the rest of this entry »