Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Marketing the Gospel III

There’s a fascinating article at Slate about popular megachurches/televangelists opening “branch” churches and instead of being ministered to personally, parishioners instead are preached to by a “hologram” or video of the televangelist from his home congregation. One pastor is even quoted as comparing it to franchising a fast food chain. His quote is especially telling, “I believe in my product and what they are trying to sell.” But I have to ask, is the product that particular preacher, the brand-name of the ministry, the best-selling book series? Or is the product Jesus? If the latter, then it doesn’t really matter who is delivering the message (“unschooled, ordinary men” Acts 4:13). If any of the former, then they fall under the criticism of Paul when he wrote to the Corinthian church, “One of you says 'I follow Paul,' another, 'I follow Apollos'... ” (1 Cor 1:12) And considering the cult of personality this creates, the article compares this to church planting by noting, "church-planting, as it's known, can be arduous and time-consuming, and there's no guarantee it will reproduce the home church's success, especially without the same charismatic leader at the top." (emphasis added)

What’s even scarier is what the article calls these “churches”: gigachurches.

Now I understand what they’re trying to do here. It’s a natural extension of the televangelist reaching out via the airwaves. So it begs the question, when you’re watching a church service on TV, are you at church? To answer that question, we need to define what “church” is. I’m not going to get deep into polity or bring up the importance of participating in the sacraments, but I fail to see how you can have a church without ministry. And you can’t have ministry without someone ministering. And you can’t have someone ministering through a television set. Just what am I supposed to do if I’m having trouble with my marriage, my purity, an addiction? Email a pastor a thousand miles away?

And you have the same problem with the numbers game. How can a megachurch, or gigachurch for that matter, meet a particular individual’s spiritual needs? The “small group” has been revolutionary on this front and there have been many books written on what makes a successful small group/house church/etc. But really, if you’re in a crowd of thousands when you hear the Gospel, how well can your spiritual needs be met?

I bring this up as last weekend was the annual Harvest Crusade in Anaheim. Name recognition is a big draw here. Not just Pastor Greg Laurie through his radio program, but also the set list of supporting bands such as POD, Kutless, Michael W Smith, and Randy Travis. Personally, if I was invited I’d be just as interested in the entertainment as the Gospel. Again, “you say you follow Apollos…” I wonder how many in attendance were in the same boat. So what does it take to draw someone to the Gospel, a strong headlining act? A stadium-filling, multi-day, multi-media event?

A coworker was proud to comment that 2800 people accepted Christ on the first night. That’s great, I guess. But how sincere can that really be when every other person around you is crying their eyes out and everyone else is encouraging you to make an Altar Call? Yet, when Peter preached the first sermon at Pentecost, those in attendance were obviously moved emotionally ("cut to the heart" Acts 2:37), but do we question their sincerity? Of course not. So I’m left to wonder, is this the best way to market the Gospel?

Personally, on this subject I hold to these scriptural truths and trust God to deal with the rest. "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples." (John 8:31) “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14) "As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18) “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit... There is one Lord, one faith…” (Ephesians 4:3-6) "The important thing is that in every way... Christ is preached" (Philippians 1:18) “Live such good lives among the pagans…” (1 Peter 1:12) bookended by, “whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) and “therefore, go an make disciples of all nations... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you...” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I wrestle every day in prayer with what this is meant to look like in my life. And that’s where the name of this blog comes in, “Public Christianity”. I can’t tell you how to do it, I don’t even know myself. But I know that we have to be public in our faith. Bold in our convictions. And above all, we cannot allow the world define our faith for us. If it takes a crusade or a bring your neighbor day, a small group or Bible talk, a video evangelist or an in the flesh minister to bring the Gospel to the public, to God be the glory!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Looking for Mr. Perfect

(no, not the pro wrestler)

So over the weekend Sen John Edwards admitted to having an affair and has been beaten to a pulp by the media. I know, I know, I’m trying to post less about politics, I really am. But the media coverage this story has received makes me wonder what it is that we want from our political leaders? This article from Slate, questions why Americans expect their political leaders to be so virtuous. At the same time I find it amusing to read criticisms on message boards of the current administration that call the president a “crack head” or “alcoholic” but would be quick to defend the president before him despite his adultery and previous marijuana use. So is there a difference between lying to the public (“I did not inhale”) and admitting to past wrongs ("I do not have a perfect record as a youth")?

And why do we expect our political leaders to be paragons of virtue anyway? Isn’t David, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and considered to be Israel’s greatest king a really bad example of how to run a country (and family)? So don’t we set our standards a little high? And does it really matter how “Christian” a candidate is when God is sovereign and establishes all authorities (Romans 13:1)? After all, it wasn’t an Israelite king who allowed Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem while Kings and Chronicles are not shy in describing just how bad the kings of Judah and Israel were. So God is certainly capable of using whoever is in a position of authority, no matter his or her beliefs.

At the same time, we should have some expectation of values. This is why I find the moniker “value voter” funny. We all vote our values. We should. If you value personal freedom above all else you’d vote differently than one who values security and safety more. In America, we live in a representative democracy. What that means is that our political leaders represent the people that voted for them. So it shouldn’t surprise us that leaders have faults, because we do ourselves. The struggle is over what values represent the majority of the people. Once upon a time those values were clearly Judeo-Christian. That is becoming less and less so. Some christians (intentional little c) fight this trend by focusing all their attention and effort on supporting christian candidates or christian platforms. I argue that instead we need to fight this trend by focusing our attention and effort on those whom our leaders represent. Not by telling them who to vote for, but instead encouraging them to truly live the Gospel, to be Public Christians. A lot of our social ills can more effectively be addressed by the lives we live than by the laws our leaders pass. If the 85% of us who claim to be Christian are truly living Christ-like lives, then it doesn’t really matter who sits in the Oval Office or which party controls Congress.

So our response to political scandal should be to question our expectations, trust God, be humble and forgive. But if we did that, this election cycle would be pretty boring wouldn’t it?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ballgame...

So we're now officially in the playoff race with the passing of the trading deadline. Just a couple no-name players got moved. I mean, who's this Manny Ramirez guy anyway? And Ken Griffey Jr? Who does he think he is, Ken Griffey Sr? Of course I'm kidding. But in the spirit of trying to get away from my obsession with politics, I want to instead focus on my greatest passion here on earth, baseball. And of course, I'll make it relevant.

In college, I was given the opportunity to lead a small group Bible study. I was filling in for the brother who would usually lead and he left me with this valuable advice, "do whatever you want." Of course, as a young Christian that was intimidating since all I knew was what we've done before. But I was tempted to think outside of the box. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes had Dave Dravecky as a speaker that same night. Besides the "pitch heard 'round the world," he was a well known inspirational speaker and was very open about his faith. In 2004 he wrote the book Called Up, which I still need to get around to reading. But like I said, all I knew was what we've always done before. So I regret to this day not going, and instead offered a re-hashed discussion on one of Jesus' parables which everyone had heard before.

There's another book that's recently been released that I want to get my hands on too, called Free Byrd by Paul Byrd and John Smoltz. Smoltzie you've probably heard of but if the name Paul Byrd doesn't sound familiar, do a Google search of Paul Byrd and HGH. That's right, you could lump him in with "roid heads" like Barry Bonds. But instead of being all surly to the public and press following getting busted, he's instead been openly repentant and just as open about how his faith has seen him through.

But this isn't just a book review either. Kathy Orton, over at her Praying Fields blog at the On Faith online community has several blog posts related to baseball including an interview with Luke Scott, pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

And if that doesn't inspire you to follow the pennant races, let me finish with a couple of songs. No, not Take Me Out to the Ballgame, written by a couple of guys who hadn't ever seen a game. But a couple more heartfelt and spiritual.

The First Ballgame
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1947

My sermon today
Said the Reverend Jones
Is baseball and whence it came
If you take the Good Book And you take a good look
You will find the first baseball game

It says Eve stole first
And Adam second
Solomon umpired the game
Rebecca went to the well with the pitcher
And Ruth in the field made a name

Goliath was struck out by David
A base hit made on Abel by Cain
And the Prodigal Son made a great home run
Brother Noah gave checks out for rain

Now ole St Pete was checking errors
Also had charge of the gate
Salome sacrificed Big John the Baptist
Who wound up ahead on the plate

Delilah was pitching to Samson
When he brought down the house with a clout
And the Angels that day made a double play
That’s when Adam and Eve were thrown out

Now Jonah wailed and went down swinging
Later her popped up again
A line drive by old Nebuchadnezzar
Made Daniel warm up in the pen

Satan was pitching that apple
It looked as though he might fan them all
But then Joshua let go with a mighty
And he blasted one right at the wall
Shoutin come along and let’s play ball

Life is a Ballgame
Sister Wynona Carr © 1952

Life is a ballgame
Bein' played each day
Life is a ballgame
Everybody can play
Jesus is standin' at home plate
Waitin' for you there
Life is a ballgame, but
You've got to play it fair.

First base is temptation,
The second base is sin
Third base tribulation
If you pass you can make it in
Ol' man Solomon is the umpire
And Satan is pitchin the game
He'll do his best to strike you out
Keep playin' just the same.

Daniel was the first to bat
You know he prayed three times a day
When Satan threw him a fast ball
You know he hit it anyway
Job came in the next inning
Satan struck him in every way,
But Job he hit a home run
And came on in that day.

Prayer will be your strong bat
To hit at Satan's ball
And when you start to swing it
You've got to give it your all in all
Faith will be your catcher
On him you can depend
And Jesus is standing at Home Plate
Just waitin for you to come in.

Moses is standin' on the side lines
Just waitin to be called
And when he parted the Red Sea
He gave Christ is all-in-all
John came in the ninth inning
When the game was almost done
Then God gave John a vision
And he knew he'd all ready won.