Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wrestling with Radicals (LE3)

(*LE = Lifestyle Evangelism)
A recent court case in Tennessee centered around a baby's name and identity. The parents had named their child "Messiah", but a judge ordered them to change it. Why? Because Jesus is the Messiah. A higher court judge over-turned the order, and the baby gets to keep his name as Messiah.

(Imagine the thorny problem of enforcing the original ruling: if "Messiah" was banned, how many Spanish-speaking people named "Jesús" would be in even more trouble?)

The issue of how we present ourselves to the culture around us is equally important as we continue to look at Lifestyle Evangelism. Author Joe Aldrich paints several different approaches to culture that many (if not most) Christians have wrestled with.

Radical Difference
"The first response to human culture is rejection… because of their emphasis upon only a radical difference, they have a message but no audience." (page 61)
Christians who adopt this approach to culture have sometimes gone to the extreme of ignoring the world around them, huddled in little fear-based enclaves and reminding each other of the peril of losing one's faith. We've all met them. Some of us have, at times, been them.

And it's true: Christians are called to be "radically different". But I would like to suggest that "different" cannot be expressed if we are "aloof" or simply "absent". Salt has no effect unless it comes into contact with something needing salt. (Matthew 5:13-16)

"Evangelism that does not flow into the real world (subculture) of the unbeliever can become a raiding party, a foray into enemy territory, followed by a quick retreat to safety; instead of being a neighbor who loves." (page 69)
The "hit and run" evangelist that I wrote about in AWK-werd would fit that description.

And the problem, as Aldrich points out, is that Christians who approach culture in this way have managed to be radically different from the world, but nobody cares -- except for them. They have a message, but nobody's listening. Or, when they attempt an evangelistic "raiding party", they do little more than create a new pet peeve for their "audience".

Radical Identification

Honestly, most of the Christians I know -- including myself -- struggle more with this end of the spectrum. Anyone who has played in the "secular" music scene (my own pond) has wrestled with the feeling that Aldrich's words might be or may become true of us:
"These Christians, sensing a need for radical identification with human culture (the world), fail to maintain the radical difference… They have an audience but no message." (page 61)

I don't think I'm the only one who has wondered about this. In order to follow the example of Jesus, the friend of sinners (Luke 15), we have to radically identify with the culture around us. However, it's not an uncommon thing for me to look at the people around me, and wonder, "Am I making a difference here, or am I just fooling myself?"

It's helpful for me to remember the questions that George Mercado used to evaluate the outreach events that our youth group put on:
  1. Did any non-Christians come?
  2. Was the Gospel clearly presented?
  3. Did anyone become a Christian?
  4. Did anyone at least leave with a positive impression of Jesus Christ? (ie. are they one step closer?)
Not everyone gets to be present when the "sowing" turns to "reaping". Sometimes, we have to continue to live out the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-20), and recognize that we called to sow seeds. Others may reap at a later time (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

But it will always be wise to question ourselves: if we have an audience -- do we have a message? (And when was the last time we shared it?)
(Of course, what Aldrich could not have foreseen is the number of Christians in the early 21st century who would opt to change the message to make it more politically correct socially acceptable.)
Critical Participation

Aldrich suggests a third way which will allow us to avoid the extremes:

"...critical participation. A dual citizen in heaven and earth, this believer knows that God has him involved in a redemptive mission with cultural implications." (page 62)

"A balance between a critical transcendence (radical difference) and a concerned cultural participation (radical identification) must be maintained." (page 63)

Thinking back to my friends Jack & Diane, I wonder if the ability to figure out what Aldrich's "critical participation" looks like, might have been a key element that would have prevented them from throwing their faith away. In Aldrich's book, the emphasis is on evangelism.
But I have to wonder if wrestling through Radical Difference, Radical Identification, and Critical Participation is a process that every Christian needs to experience, for the health of their own faith first.
And then, they'd be equipped to share their faith.

Monday, September 16, 2013


"I just got saved," she announced out of the blue.

I was minding my own business two days ago, just concentrating on reworking a section of our grocery store as per the schematic sent to us by head office.

It was my last day on this job, and the last thing I was expecting to hear from one of our recently-hired newbies -- dressed in the white lab-coat of a meat-cutter and pushing that odd circular metal cart -- was anything to do with salvation in Christ.

"And I got invited to church tomorrow," she continued, holding a tract in her hand, which she showed me with great enthusiasm. I didn't recognize the tract itself (some standard issue), but I did recognize the church's name as one of the local "health and wealth" variety.

I didn't know how to respond at first. Was she serious?

"He stopped me in the Produce section," she said, as a sly smile began to cross her face (note to self: probably not serious). "He told me a really lame joke -- what do you call a cow lying down in a field? Ground beef. -- and then told me I needed to be saved and gave me this. I told him that I'm not a believer, but he wouldn't leave me alone until I said some prayer thing written in here. Then he invited me to his church."

And she continued on her way back to the warehouse, pushing her metal cart ahead of her. With one last glance over her shoulder, she laughed and said, "Hallelujah, I'm saved." (werd)
Interesting, as I'm blogging through Lifestyle Evangelism, that I was handed such a glaring example of how NOT to evangelize:
  1. My co-worker prayed a prayer which meant nothing to her. And she prayed it under duress.

  2. She thought the whole thing was a joke, and had a good laugh with as many co-workers as she could share the story with, throughout the rest of her shift.

  3. The person who "evangelized" her probably went to church yesterday and announced that he'd "led someone in the prayer of salvation" at a local grocery store.

  4. Did they clap for him?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Professionally Weak (LE2*)

*LE = Lifestyle Evangelism

In his chapter Avoiding Evil instead of its Appearance, Joe Aldrich provides a fascinating quote from the British Anglican theologian John Stott:
"We are to go as He went, to penetrate human society, to mix with unbelievers and fraternize with sinners. Does not one of the Church's greatest failures lie here? We have disengaged too much. We have become a withdrawn community. We have become aloof instead of alongside." (Our Guilty Silence: the Church, the Gospel, and the World, page 62)

Wow. As I mentioned in the previous post, there appears to be nothing new under the sun -- Christians have always and continue to struggle with relating their faith to their circle of relationships. As I continue to read Aldrich's Lifestyle Evangelism, I actually find myself thinking back to an old blog post of mine, Wormwood's Apprentices, which also dealt with the diabolical resistance to sharing our faith.

In Stott's quote, and as developed in Aldrich's chapter, I sense another layer of "nothing changes, if nothing changes". There have been many "reasons" given by Christians for abdicating their role in being salt and light in the world. Explanations. Excuses. Justifications.

Aldrich spends a chunk of this chapter exploring one of these reasons obstacles from within the church; what he called the professional weaker brother.

St. Paul talks in Romans 14 about the "weaker brother", which is where the term comes from. We are called to be patient with them, to encourage them as they grow, and to not do/say/participate in anything that would cause them to "fall". In other words, to cause them to give up on their faith. They will not be weak forever, of course, because they will mature in their faith.

The professional weaker brother, writes Aldrich, is something completely different. There is actually nothing "weak" about them at all. They are quite strong in their convictions and in their faith. And in their opinions of what "good Christians" look like, talk like, and definitely who they are allowed to associate with. And they will use the "weaker brother" approach to guilt trip enforce other Christians to abide by their legalistic rules. And avoid meaningful contact with non-Christians. Aldrich writes:

"Paul cautions the believer to be sensitive to the weaker brother and guard against offense... It is my observation that it is not the genuine weaker brother who distorts the gospel by insisting on conformity to the culturally prescribed legalisms of an unbalanced Christian lifestyle. It is the professional weaker brother, the self-appointed... self-righteous individual who blows the whistle on Christians penetrating the non-Christian community with the Gospel." (page 49)

It is amazing that a passage like Romans 14, which was written to provide pastoral care for genuinely weak-in-faith people, could be twisted into a bully club to beat Christians into slavery to man-made cultural no-no's.

In Aldrich's chapter, it is clear that these professional weaker brothers wreak havoc on evangelism. I can vividly recall the (swift and merciless) reaction of my local church to my first fumbling attempts at being a musical missionary (ironically, the same year that Lifestyle Evangelism was originally published).

Fast forward to 2013, and I also have to wonder if the jarring disconnect between following Jesus' example of hanging out with needy (if socially undesirable) people, and the rigid and judgmental attitude of the professional weaker brother may account for so many Christians walking away from the faith entirely.

They can read about Jesus' life, and the criticisms He faced from the Pharisees (ie. Luke 5:29-32, 7:36-50). And they have read or heard or have been 'confronted' by legalistic people with a creepily similar attitude and approach to the Pharisees. And they know, instinctively, that something isn't right.

The worst thing is, not only is evangelism affected, but even the faith of Christians is a casualty of the professional weaker brother.

If we have to choose, I'd suggest choosing Jesus as our example and mentor.

And let the chips fall as they will.
(Cautionary note: it's almost too easy to point out the problem of legalism. The next post, as I work through Lifestyle Evangelism, will put all of us on the hot seat, to some degree. And that's a good thing sometimes.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lifestyle Evangelism (LE1)

Okay, this is an older book. Not ancient, written on papyrus, mind you. Certainly not vintage enough to have been published on one of Guttenberg's original movable-type presses (circa 1450).

Originally published in 1981, Joe Aldrich's Lifestyle Evangelism can be considered something of a classic. Spotting a paperback copy in a tiny used-book store a few weeks ago, I immediately (a) wondered where my original copy had gone, so (b) I bought the used copy.

Without blogging chapter-by-chapter throughout the book, as I re-read Aldrich's material, it prods and provokes questions, insights, and further reflection.

For instance:
"For many, evangelism is what the pastor does on Sunday morning as he throws the lure over the pulpit, hoping some 'fish' in the stained-glass aquarium will bite... Week after week the pastor evangelizes the evangelized." (page 17-18)

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result
No matter how many times Lucy convinced Charlie Brown that -- this time -- she wouldn't pull the ball away, she always did. And unable-to-learn-from-experience Charlie Brown would, yet again, end up on his backside, humiliated and probably a tad bit bruised (and I'm not referring simply to his ego).

A decade earlier than Aldrich's writing, books like Brethren Hang Loose had lamented the exact same thing: people's expectations that evangelism was the pastor/speaker's job. All that was required of the average congregant was to invite people, and perhaps provide transportation to the church/event.

And another generation of Christians excused themselves from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

And, I am beginning to suspect, part of the fruit of that decision was that they (we) didn't grow in our own understanding of our faith -- or how to communicate it, either. In other words, we began to experience spiritual entropy by "letting the pastor do it".

Joe Aldrich wrote lamenting the same thing a decade later; Christians loved his book, just as they "loved" Bob Girard's ten years before. Apparently, however, little had changed in the interim.

Today, of course, we often read laments about the exact same problem. Apparently, we Christians are "all hard to teach".

Listen to Aldrich again:
"A [further] cause of a weakened evangelistic enterprise is an imbalance between the verbalization and the incarnation of the Gospel. Christians are to be good news before they share the good news. The words of the Gospel are to be incarnated before they are verbalized." (page 20, emphasis in original)
It almost goes without saying that we've all heard, read, or perhaps even said it ourselves: "We need to be incarnational". No argument with (as others have articulated it) "showing the gospel before telling the gospel".

But what stuck out to me as I read this chapter was: "Don't we already know this? Didn't Aldrich write this in 1981?!?"
So here's the inevitable question:
Why has nothing changed? Why are we coming to the same conclusions over and over, and yet nothing appears to be different?!?
There is more to unpack as I continue to re-read Lifestyle Evangelism, but I can't help but wonder if St. James might have already given us a very important hint about why nothing changes:
"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do." (James 1:22-25)
Comments, thoughts, observations are more than welcome!

Other posts in this series:
Professionally Weak (LE2)
Wrestling With Radicals (LE3)
Now It's Getting Personal (LE4)
Bold Humility (LE5)