The funniest thing currently on the Internet…

April 28, 2008, 4:01 pm; posted by
Filed under Articles, Featured, Mike J  | 6 Comments

…can be found here.

It\’s funny because it\’s true. Anyone who has listened to Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis has left either disappointed and angry with every Christian they know (themselves included) or wondering what the heck just hit them. Sometimes both.

I study revivalistic worship at Drew University. Revivalists are accused (and not without some merit) of perfecting a certain recipe for worship:
1. Scare people with the torments of hell that await them.
2. Offer Jesus as an antidote to those torments of hell.
3. Watch as the converts roll in.

This way of preaching works. It did for Charles Finney 200 years ago and it does for many preachers today. Many people are converted by this type of preaching.

The only problem with this recipe is that it rarely produces mature Christians. Certainly, it gets more people to “sign their name on the dotted line” for Jesus, and whether this truly makes them Christian or not I do not presume to say. But it demonstrably fails to produce mature Christians.

People who experience worship in this way generally fall into one of two categories. They see the paramount importance of the decision for Christ, and so either they decide that there\’s no need to go much deeper, since the important stuff is done; or they come down the aisle again and again, always anxious, never sure that the last time really “took.” Such Christians never know the joy God designed for us to know in Christ.

Campolo and Wallis and their ilk might not like this assessment, but I think of them as being a lot like those revivalists. They use the same recipe as above; only step one is different. Rather than scaring us with the torments of hell, these prophets scare us in other ways: “The poor are dying, you know.” Campolo once famously said, “I have three things I\’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition. Second, most of you don\’t give a s***. What\’s worse is that you\’re more upset by the fact I said s*** than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Just like a revivalist scares his audience and offers an antidote, so speakers like this scare their audience and offer the antidote as a more socially-oriented form of Christianity.

Of course Campolo is right. We should not forget this. The fact of hunger, the fact of poverty ”” and not the mere facts but the human faces behind them ”” are vital to God. Wrestling with questions like these is foundational to our Christian identity. We simply cannot be content while such problems exist in the world.

Yet there is something about their technique, borrowed as it is, that produces the same results as those old revivalists. They tend to produce progressive Christians overwhelmed with social problems, who operate from a place of anxiety, even anger, and rarely know the deep joy of Christ.

Speaking as a somewhat progressive (somewhat conservative) Christian, I would love to see the church proclaim a different message. God is doing something in the world: bringing in His Kingdom, begun and incarnated in Jesus. We are privileged to be a part of it. Inasmuch as we do take part in it, we will know the joy of Christ and touch the world with his love. Inasmuch as we do not take part in it, we cheat ourselves. But we do not have to be scared that God\’s work somehow depends on our whipping ourselves into spiritual shape ”” if we fail God, he yet remains faithful.

In short, I would love to see Christianity proclaimed as a life to be lived, progressively discovered, with many layers. The Christian life is so beautiful, so profound, so challenging, such an adventure. Almost every day I find something new I am holding back and I have the joy of turning it over to God, or trying to. I am grateful and content with what God has wrought in me so far, and grateful and content that my future is in his hands and that he will do more with me in ten years than I can imagine now. That is the Christianity I love, not a series of terrifying decisions where I live in constant alarm over the state of my soul or the state of inner-city Philadelphia.

I do not have to be bullied into walking down an aisle of conversion. I do not have to be bullied into walking into a “bad” neighborhood and sharing Jesus\’ love in an incarnational way. Preachers do themselves a disservice by bullying their congregations. We live in an angry, drab, gray world where people are imprisoned by their ways of living and don\’t even know it. What is needed in such a world is not more bullying, but beauty. What is needed are preachers who can speak transparently, who recognize the Kingdom has its own beauty that can speak to this world if we will but let it.


6 Comments to “The funniest thing currently on the Internet…”

  1. Dsweetgoober on April 29th, 2008 9:38 am

    I agree with some of what you say but I can’t swallow the statements that men Like Finney, Edwards, Moody, Wigglesworth and others produced no mature Christians—as though The Great Awakening never happened or was a figment of our imagination that dissipated to leave the real work of the ministry to tepid flowery preachers who somehow changed the world with three points and a poem.

    Jude wrote this: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference. Others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” And Paul adds this “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ…knowing therefore the terror of the LORD we persuade men:…”. It takes all kinds which is why Paul said “I have become all things to all men that I might win the more.”

  2. Mike J on April 29th, 2008 10:32 am

    I agree with you to a point as well…

    I especially think Finney was misunderstood somewhat, and not the emotional manipulator he was made out to be. So I steered clear of mentioning him, though I confess that Moody I’m not so comfortable with. Finney was involved in many social causes too, and at any rate I think his approach was somewhat different than Moody.

    Keep in mind too that I’m not arguing for any one style of preaching, not three points & a poem, not necessarily flowery language. Even uncomfortable truth should be spoken transparently. There is a difference between speaking uncomfortable truth and forcing your listeners to wallow in the awfulness of it all and then offering them a lifeboat out of it.

    So I still think preachers undercut the potential growth of a Christian when preaching is a series of scaring and saving people. It doesn’t breed the contentment and joy that should be at the heart of the Christian life…just my thoughts.


  3. Dsweetgoober on April 29th, 2008 11:38 am

    Yes, I agree. And I freely confess that Jonathon Edwards decried the movement his preaching spawned toward the end of his ministry feeling that too many people were copying the success of his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” while neglecting the weightier matters of the Gospel like mercy and love.

  4. Steve on April 29th, 2008 12:04 pm

    And then there was the Apostle Paul himself, who came to Athens and “reasoned in the synagogue,” disputing with philosophers who, it was said, “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:16-34). To them, he delivered a weighty, high-minded message, proclaiming to them the true nature of a God as yet unknown, and citing as proof of His existence the resurrection of the Christ.

    The response? Sneering. A few with minds more open condescended to “hear [him] again on this subject.” And a few became followers.

    I’m as happy as anyone to bop Tony Campolo on the nose, and I very much agree with your points, but isn’t there some similar danger in arguments from reason and beauty — that the truth of the Gospel will be mellowed into another toothless theory, more philosophy than passion, with its face the pathetic, cowardly Archbishop of Canterbury?

  5. Mike on April 30th, 2008 3:53 pm

    Steve, thanks for bopping Tony on the nose!

    Pathetic and cowardly is pushing it for Rowan Williams, though. He’s an academic with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies. He is careful, well-reasoned and nuanced–yet ill-suited for a pr, soundbite kind of world. One can ruminate on sharia law in an academic journal no one will ever read, but it becomes something quite inappropriate when sharia-pushing Muslims are killing people under your spiritual oversight.

    I would say the same thing as I did before–preachers have to be transparent. They have to be honest. They have to tell people when their ways are leading them to death instead of life. But they do NOT have to do that with graphic depictions of hell. They do NOT have to do that by browbeating people with how awful the world is.

    The Gospel has its own power to melt and persuade the human heart. I understand my job as a preacher to put the Gospel on display as clearly and transparently as I can. It is my task as a leader to live out the Gospel before my people, to show what a life lived with God looks like, and to give witness to that each week when I speak to them. That has its own power to change people when energized by God’s Spirit.

    In short, I’m not asking for a disembodied theory without passion. I want people to see me and see a young man passionately dedicated to living out the Christian life, and to see all the good that results when we give ourselves to that.

    My main concern is with crisis, not passion. My concern is preachers who constantly plunge their people into crisis moments–whether it’s revivalists or Campolo–and then offer a lifeboat. Then the same preachers wonder why their people are constantly anxious–about the church budget, about the lack of prayer in schools, about the plight of the poor–anxious, but unable to act in a meaningful way.

  6. Dsweetgoober on April 30th, 2008 5:41 pm

    There are some “slash and burn” preachers which I have sat under who keep their congregations in “crisis mode”, as you say, and that actually does hinder maturity in my opinion.

    Their egos will not allow a service without a massive respons so they end every service with an altar call specific to their message, but the invitation gradually grows and grows until they’re saying— either explicitly or by implication,—“If you don’t come forward to this altar call I don’t even know how you can consider yourself to be a Christian!”.

    Eventually they bully enough people forward to be able to say to themselves and others “God really moved tonight!” but the result is confusion in the young believer who can never get any momentum because what ever grew last week is slashed and burned to start over again this week. Sad, but true.

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