How far is too far in using creative methods to “reach” people?
Tom Ascol has been posting some good posts about some of the more extreme forms of sincere, but outlandish pragmatism to be found in the cause of church growth and evangelism. In the comments, the inevitable question appears: OK- how do we know when the line has been crossed? How much is too much in the cause of church growth and evangelism?
In the years that I have critiqued evangelicals, I’ve written a lot about the “wretched urgency” that drives much of evangelical methodology and practice. At the foundation of much of that wretched urgency is a set of justifications that we’ve all heard many times before. Any of these sound familiar?
“If it reaches even one person, it was worth it.”
“I like my way of doing something better than your way of doing nothing.”
“The Bible says you should become all things to all people, and that’s what we’re doing.”
“If the world is going to entertain them into hell, we can entertain them into heaven.”
“I believe that God can and will use anything we do with evangelism as our goal.”
“The Bible gives us the message. It’s up to us to find and use the most creative methods.”
“There’s a lot we can learn from successful businesses in the secular world. Just do it for Jesus.”
I usually get a number of letters each year castigating me for raising any question at all about anything done in the cause of evangelism. They will remind me that it’s war, and in war the point is to win the battle. Armchair generals- that’s me- are worthless, whereas people fighting the good fight- that’s the guy with Frosty the clown doing the Lord’s Supper- are what we really need.
So how far is too far? I don’t think that’s a question beyond the powers of the average blogger. Consider these few offerings as a start for someone else’s longer and more serious post.
1. If you can’t picture Jesus doing it, you probably shouldn’t do it.
I can picture Jesus having a party, praying, teaching, telling jokes, healing, crying, turning over tables and many other things. I can’t picture Jesus driving a tank into a room to make a point or wearing one of Ed Young’s shirts.
My BHT buddies are tired of hearing me ask “If I spent three years with Jesus, would I do this?” but that’s the clarifying question. Log some serious time in the Gospels. Jesus is a creative teacher. He reaches people and he takes risks. But when the Pharisees said “Do a miracle and we will endorse you,” he said “No.” When the crowds were ready to follow him for a free meal, he taught his most difficult lesson. He taught the narrow way, and he invited you to walk it as well. Yes, Jesus was out of the box, but that was because he was on his way to the cross, and you will recall what he said: If you aren’t willing to come the way of the cross, you have no part in him.
The creative things that Jesus did do are very instructive. Washed any feet lately? Touched lepers? Conversed with trashy low-lifes?
Get a Jesus-vision in control of your creativity.
2. If it obscures the centrality of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, don’t do it.
Newsflash to Bob Ross: Joel Osteen talking about about positive thinking for 30 minutes and then mentioning the Gospel (kinda) for 30 seconds isn’t a Christ-centered ministry. Duh.
If your children’s ministry tacks on the Gospel like a commercial or announcement of the sponsor of today’s picnic, you’re in left field. Wave at me. I’m in the bleachers in the Reds cap.
We don’t just mention Jesus and the Gospel; what we do is all about Jesus and the Gospel. Be honest. If you are saying “Today’s three ring circus is brought to you by people who think Jesus is cool, and there’s a brochure at the table on the way out,” what are you doing?
This isn’t to say that everything you do is just about Jesus. My home group is going to watch “Walk The Line,” and talk about how the story is a window to Jesus and the Gospel. You can do a lot with a determination to put Jesus and the Gospel as the focus. You aren’t just left with three hymns and an offering. Put it all together around Christ.
3. If you aren’t producing followers of Jesus Christ, what are you doing?
If you are producing consumers or fans or people who think you are really cool, you may be successful and popular, but I’m wondering if you are doing what matters. Our command is clear: make disciples, teaching them everything Jesus commanded. We can’t change the definition of disciple into “guy who really likes the body surfing at the 9 p.m. youth service” and have any integrity.
The Jesus-movement produces Jesus-followers. Wow. What a concept. If you spent $70,000 to entertain people, did you produce Jesus followers, or fans of your show? Answer the question. It’s important.
Some things we do just move people along toward a place where Christ and the Gospel are communicated more directly. That’s great. But we need to know the difference a word game and a genuine missional effort to bring people closer in.
Meet people where they are. Then where to?
4. If you brought idolatry into the picture, you did a bad thing.
I am all about being missional, but one reason I study the culture is to know what’s the culture and what are the idolatries of the culture. One is the language I’ll speak. The other is what I’ll avoid.
Example: I will use media, but I won’t build a youth ministry around video games. I won’t say, “we’ll just put all the Bible passages on the screen. Don’t bring a Bible.” I won’t say, “My next sermon series is on how to have a bigger house and another SUV next year.”
Our church had a Dave Ramsey seminar with a couple trained to teach debt reduction and sound financial principles. In the process, they talked a lot about Jesus and the Gospel. That was a good thing to do. If we had a seminar on “How to Get Rich Selling Short In The Stock Market” we’d probably draw a crowd, but there would be this idolatry problem there. “How to meet Chicks” could be a good one as well.
Just a note: According to the Bible, this is a constant problem. If you pragmatists think you’ve avoided it because you hand out a card with the Four Spiritual Laws on it at the end of the Wrestling Match, you’re wrong. Our tendency to justify cultural idolatries is something we have to face. That’s why Paul asked the Corinthians if he needed to come visit them with a stick.
Listen to Mark Driscoll speaking on “Good Sex” to understand how we do cultural communication and confront culture at the same time. (And remember, you’re not Mark Driscoll and don’t try to be, but learn the lesson.)
5. The Glory of God means God is seen clearly, truthfully and Biblically. Keep that in mind when you say you’re doing whatever “for the glory of God.”
God isn’t glorified by everything we do. What we do is commanded to glorify him. Intentionally. That means God gets the big parts, most of the lines and nothing makes sense without him.
If God becomes a clown, a disembodied voice, a divine comedian, good feelings or a large stuffed animal, He’s not being glorified. God isn’t’ glorified just because I say that’s what I want to do. God isn’t glorified by what I think is cool. God is glorified when the cross and the mediator are seen clearly, exalted and magnified. That’s what he thinks is cool. (See the Gospel of John for details.)
Doing all kinds of nonsense “for the glory of God” is as big a cop-out as I know of. It’s juvenile. If the New Testament is about any one subject, it’s about how God is glorified in his Son and the Gospel of our salvation. Can we get that point, and can we understand that the Glory of God as our central theme is going to make a big difference. The reason some churches look and act like a cross between a pep rally and the opening of a new Wal-Mart is because what’s being glorified is US, our agendas and our desires. God is the one who “blesses” the whole mess and makes it all a “good witness.” Or so we say.
Listen, I’m not trying to stifle your creativity. I think we need to use the creative opportunities in our culture to communicate the Gospel, reach people, serve real needs, and bring a witness that is relevant and bold. But there are questions that have to be asked. There are pieces that have to be in place if it’s about Jesus and his Kingdom and not just about us. The Jesus-focused, God-glorifying, Gospel-communicating center and substance are not automatically just THERE just because we are sincere, creative, enthusiastic or spent a lot of money.
I’m not trying to lay some “only what Dr. Macarthur approves” trip on you. I’m not about a regulative principle that comes with a dress code, an approved book list, a Steve Green children’s CD and “Do It Like The Puritans!” bumper stickers. I don’t want to tell your drama team they can’t recreate the prodigal son or your youth group that they shouldn’t act like real teenagers.
I’m simply suggesting that there are questions to ask to determine if we are where we ought to be, doing what we ought to do in the way we ought to do it. It’s not complicated. It’s basic, and it takes the courage to go against the flow, staying in the mainstream of loyalty to Christ above all.
And before I sign off, BY ALL MEANS be just as questioning of what the “traditional” church is up to! We do all kinds of things in the “traditional” church that ought to be discarded for all the reasons listed above. The truth cuts both ways. But the Gospel at the center, and let the chips fall where they may. Are ALL of us willing to let Christ be glorified in his people?
The Gospel is relevant. Our methods can’t be irrelevant, but they have to allow the relevance of Christ to come to the forefront. Look for that balance in what we do. It’s doable, and we don’t need to fight about it. We simply need to be humble enough to understand how a creative, cross-cultural, missional church planter who used all kinds of methods and approaches could say, “I knew nothing among you but Christ, and him crucified.” That’s what we want.