Interestingly, though, when they do go to church, they have very specific expectations for what happens when we get there. There are specific rituals and songs that they want to sing. Since it is usually Christmas or Easter when they plunk their skinny little asses into the pews, their desires are often met. That's right, my brothers are Creasters. Creasters are folks who only come to church on Christmas and Easter, usually tagging along with family members (parents) who go more regularly but often independently out of some vague sense like my brothers' that there are certain rituals that need to be attended to on a somewhat yearly basis. I think there are other people that show up out of curiosity or yearning and the fact that the country recognizes the holidays gives them a push to explore. Actually, I shouldn't speculate. There is probably a rich complexity of reasons why people can be classified as Creasters. I'm a little intrigued by it.
So, anyway, my brother Daniel believes that the pastor who preaches on both Easter and Christmas should only preach on one topic: the Good News. When Daniel wants the pastor to preach the Good News, he means the good news that "No matter what you've done, God loves you. See, he sent his son to die for you." He gets very upset if a pastor tries to get fancy and preach on some other topic, like the history of Easter celebrations or the four women in Jesus' lineage. He thinks it's a waste of a church full of people for whom that message is not run-of-the-mill and familiar to the point that they require something more innovative in order not to be bored by hearing the same thing again and again. It is a waste of an opportunity to tell people who don't know that God loves them that God loves them.
This is a man who doesn't go to church.
He wants people to know that God loves them.
Trust me, it's adamantly.
He wants people to know that God loves them.
So, a search of my blog will indicate that I've been pretty attentive to Rob Bell over the last year or so. OnMonday, I went to hear him speak when he came to town on his The Gods Aren't Angry Tour. The tagline for this talk is "Part anthropology, part history, part deconstruction - this is new material that Rob hasn't taught before, exploring how humans invented religion to make themselves feel better." From that, I expected a somewhat academic lecture (that's the report about how his last tour went) aimed at a mixed audience of Christians and any non-Christian co-workers they could arm-twist into coming. Certainly, I tried to get some of my secular friends to come with because I felt like I could assure them that it wouldn't be a bait-and-switch. I trust Rob to give them the freedom to think about what he said without trying to scare them into conversion. Unfortunately, we have a mid-term tomorrow so none of my school friends could come and another friend is two centimeters dilated and could give birth today or two weeks from now.
I suppose this is a reasonable place to talk about how I feel about evangelism.
Generally, I'm against it.
The Christian community has made such disgusting historical display of evangelism and the almost inevitable prostelytization that I would prefer to sacrifice it altogether than risk the harm it can cause to even a few people. Now, this is easier for me to say because I don't think the afterlife is the payoff for spiritual people. But, I know that there are a lot of people out there who will disagree with my priorities because eternity seems like such a long time and I really respect a lot of those people. Bob Lupton responds to this better than I ever could in his book, And You Call Yourself a Christian: Toward Responsible Charity:
"Do you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell?" one sharp young theology student retorted. I knew the rationale behind his question. If you believe that either eternal bliss or eternal damnation await every person after death, then the most loving act is to present the truth of the Gospel to as many people as possible and thus save them from everylasting destruction.
It's a compelling argument. The problem, of course, is that it leads to viewing others as souls instead of people. And when we opt for rescuing souls over loving neighbors, compassionate acts can soon degenerate into evagelism techniques. Pressing human needs depreciate in importance, and the spirit becomes the only thing worth caring about. Thus, the powerful leaven of unconditional, sacrificial love is diminished in society and the wounded are left lying beside the road."
My church interacts a lot with people who have been wounded by sometimes well-meaning Christians who saw them as a soul rather than a person or who were just looking to add to the notches on their batismal fonts or who counted how many people showed up on Sunday morning rather than whether the people that showed up were getting closer to Jesus. (Yay to Bill Hybels, by the way, for addressing that last particularly difficult problem in his own church.) Spencer Burke talks about those folks as being innoculated against Jesus by being exposed to only a token amount of Christianity injected by an often cold and sharp needle. Often, what they hear from the evangelism message is that Jesus will only love them if they change to be more like the Christians in that particular church. That is not the Good News. So, if the evangelists' goal is to save souls, their work is counter-productive in a huge percentage of cases.
However, there are a lot of people out there who are lonely. Who believe they are worthless. Who want to talk to God but flinch because of the previous times the Church has slapped them. They are leading the lives of quiet desperation that Thoreau talked about.
I want them to know that God loves them.
I don't care if they go to my church.
I don't care if they call themselves Christian.
I don't care if they say the magic words and get baptized.
I care that they have a community.
I care that they believe that they are valuable.
I care that they be able to talk to God when they need to.
I want for them life in all its fullness and I don't care how they find that.
So, although I don't evangelize, I do talk about God a lot and I talk about going to church and I tell people that they are always welcome to come with me and I invite them to go see Rob Bell. Because I think I have found ones of the ways to have life in all its fullness and if my machete-hacking through the jungle of experience that has been my life makes someone else's life a little easier, I shall not have lived in vain, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. I also usually tell them that I believe they're going to Heaven no matter what, so they should feel free to refuse or accept my offers without worrying about how it will affect our friendship. I hope I'm treating them like people and not like souls to be bartered and traded by doing this.
So, enough with the aside about evangelism. I was talking about Rob Bell. And my brother's expectations as a Creaster. And my desire for all people to know that they are valuable enough to be loved.
I wish that more lonely, anxious people had been there because it was a slam-dunk Easter sermon.
Now, I could be wrong. But the Vic certainly looked like it was full of young, hip Christians, many of whom I knew and myself included. The theater seemed to hold the proverbial choir that was being preached to.
It's a weird feeling. I don't want Rob or this emerging church movement to become a Billy Graham tent revival, but he speaks so eloquently, and with such respect for the humanity and intelligence of his audience that it's like I feel the reverse of my brother's Easter morning disappointment. Instead of the pastor missing an opportunity to look people in need in the eyes and to tell them without doubt that God loves them, I feel like people in need missed an opportunity to have their eyes looked into because all the seats were taken by folks who didn't know their seat would be better sacrificed to someone else.
Although I didn't realize it until now, I guess my response to that has been to talk about it a lot. You know, "I went to see this cool speaker last night." It's created some interesting conversations with folks, especially over the drinks we needed after our last mid-term. I suppose hearing the Good News from a friend while putting back a Long Island Iced Tea (yuck) is probably better than hearing from stranger who just seems like any other televangelist on the surface except for the funky glasses and allusion to Gordon Gano (which absolutely flopped, pretty much proving my hip young Christian theory). "I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record." Perfect rhythm and and inflection.
I can only hope to be so cool.