Thursday, April 17, 2008

Telling, Yelling, or Conversing?

I just finished Dan Merchant's funny/sad book "Lord, Deliver Us From Your Followers." And if you grant the author grace in the many areas that he misunderstands biblical contexts, you will find that the central point he makes hits home much too solidly. I'm not going to review or summarize the book. You can read it yourself. What I am going to do is take off on one of his points to make some of my own.

Merchant builds his project (read the book and you'll understand) around bumper stickers and other "bumper-sticker-like" Christian logos. He rightly decides that this method of declaring the truth of God, and the story of redemption in Jesus is really not very helpful. I want to go further and say that "bumper sticker evangelism" in all of its forms is actually quite damaging to both the message and mission of Christ.

Here's the deal: The story of God's great love for His glory, and hence, the vehicle through which that glory is demonstrated - creation - is an amazing, lofty and noble story. It's greatest manifestation is of course, the Incarnate God - Jesus Christ. The Incarnation was truly an amazing, noble, transcendent event, first promised in Genesis 3:15, and fully realized that night in Bethlehem. God's careful superintending of all things so that His plan of redemption has been progressively fulfilled with perfect timing boggles the mind. And, the best part is that you and I, and our neighbors and our friends and our family can all partake in the life-changing benefits of God's love and grace offered freely to all who entrust their lives and eternal well-being to Jesus! Wow! So, how come we think we don't damage the majesty and depth of that story when we think we can open people's hearts and minds with something so inane as "No Jesus No peace; Know Jesus know peace"?

Bumper sticker mania as a philosophy of gospel outreach is significantly, yet subtly, damaging to the message of Jesus Christ. First of all, it is built on a faulty theological belief that man's will triggers God's rescue. That is, if we can just get someone who is driving down the road to see our snappy Christian bumper sticker, just maybe it will cause something to click in his brain, and he'll think "maybe I will give God a chance!" Bingo! God feels the tug on His heavenly leash, and comes running to ladle out forgiveness, and eternal life! Another driver heading for heaven! Bumper sticker evangelism (and all of its other forms, such as sticking gospel tracts in envelopes with bill payments, etc) believes that a decision of the human will - however created or manipulated! - obligates God to grant new life, and eternal forgiveness.

Actually, I wish that were so. I think I could come up with some great ways to manipulate the human will into a "heaven gaining" decision. But, truthfully, this theological "decisionism" has no biblical foundation. Turns out that those who don't follow Christ are actually incapable of faith. In fact, left alone they will always go their own way, joyfully rejecting the free offer of life in the Gospel. Paul said it plainly in 2 Timothy 2:23-26 when he described them as "held captive by Satan to do his will" unless and until "God grants them repentance, and they come to their sense, and escape the snare of the Devil." Paul was just following up on Jesus' bold statement in John 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him;" We only love Him because He first loved us! When the Spirit's power combines with the shared Gospel - according to God's sovereign timing - then and only then are eyes opened, faith gained, and new life granted.

Secondly, the idea of 'bumper sticker' evangelism does serious damage to the very mission of Christ. Here's how: At some point, evangelism took a step back from incarnational engagement. By that I mean we Christ-followers decided not to use Christ's method any more. Even though He came in the flesh and entered into relationship with us, becoming like us, walking our world, sharing our struggle in the brokennes of creation, we at some point decided to do evangelism at a distance. Enter the broadcast, the gospel tract, and yes, the bumper sticker. No longer do we have to sit with, listen to, care for, and walk beside those whose lives are still permeated by the darkness of sin. We can yell at them from a distance! And that is precisely where we've come.

I remember when evangelism became largely "telling." Growing up we would have training sessions, memorize points and steps and phrases and supporting verses. Then, we would be unleashed on the neighborhood assigned and go about "telling" them the basic facts. We started "telling" them they were really bad, and then we tried to tell them that our God was really good, and could make them good too if only they would acknowledge their bad and repent of their bad and have faith in the best good ... Jesus. And when we were done with our spiel, then we ask them if they wanted to participate in the event by praying to seal the deal. Is it any wonder Christians fast became known as those people who want to dominate everyone's life by laying down the rules for society, and as people who really didn't see people as people but as targets?

But, as bad as that style of "telling" evangelism is, it isn't nearly as bad as the "yelling" that constitutes the bumper-sticker variety. Every time I see some of these Christian bumper stickers they hit me as verbal violence. They yell at me "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Why not just add "you idiot!" And while I agree with the biblical truth condemning homosexuality, is this really the way we want to bring the truth of God's Word to bear on those who are held captive by Satan? Are they really the enemy? Do we really think that someone trapped in the lies of sexual perversion is going to be driven to repentance and faith by that bumper sticker? No, no, and no. What that bumper sticker - and all those in that vein - does is give the person using it the smug satisfaction that they are holding up God's truth without ever having to walk with, and listen to, and care for those Jesus put on flesh to rescue. He came all the way to us, but we prefer to let our bumpers do the reaching. And that just isn't anywhere close to the command He gave to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Him.

So, how ought we to steward the story of God's rescue in Jesus? Let me suggest some strategic words:

Realize who you are: a sample of God's redeeming grace, His "craftsmanship" (Eph. 2:10) designed to declare His excellencies (1 Peter 2:9).

Realize as well who people are: made in God's image, no matter how marred; they are captives, not enemies; they need rescue, not repudiation; they need to be completely reformed and given new life, and only God can do that ... through the Gospel.

Relate to people as people, not targets: relationship is the platform from which we best declare and describe the graciousness of God, and the reality of sin. Relationships see people as important, as valuable, as worth our time;

Respect those in relationship with you; be gentle in your correction, truthful in your instruction, respecting their minds, their sensitivities, their time, and their objections. Remember, the goal is for God to grant them repentance, not for you to trick or trap them, or close the deal with faulty promises and clever verbal devices.

Reverence God: Remember, this is His business you're about! Make sure your life story is conspicuously overwhelmed with His! In all your ways acknowledge Him.

Rely on God alone: There are 3 fears we often have when we think about entering into conversations with others about life, using God's story in Jesus (the Gospel) as our paradigm.

First, we fear personal inadequacy: But, remember, it is God's ability and power by which hearts are made new. Paul said he planted and Apollos watered, but God gave the increase! You don't have to be able to answer every objection or know every verse or interpret every Old Testament problem! You do have to share the story of God in Christ as you have learned it and experienced it. God does the heavy lifting!

Second, we fear the inadequacy of the Gospel: After all, isn't our day so much more complex? Don't we need a new and improved story? And aren't today's sensibilities quite offended by the death and blood and all that stuff? Nope. Rely on the Gospel. God uses it. Paul said the Gospel was God's power unto salvation (Romans 1:16,17). You can trust it!

Third, we fear societal hostility: Won't people hate me, and try to hurt me and ridicule me if they find out I'm a Christ-follower? Well, maybe, if you live in Eritrea! But have you noticed that there seems to be a time in our culture right now when it is cool to talk about spiritual things? After all, American Idol had their top 7 do a kicking arrangement of Shout to the Lord on national TV? Did anyone boycott the network? Did it kick up massive media dust? Nope. Face it, if you're hiding behind the myth that you'll "suffer" if you steward the story of God authentically and openly, you're dead wrong. Besides, God wants us to trust Him, to rely on Him. And we do that when we follow the example of Jesus, and "incarnationally" bring the message of God, through our very lives, in relationship with real people for whom we care, to bear on their lives in sincere and truthful ways.

Hope this helps,


Where did we stop understanding the intent of the Great Commission? When did we first separate "evangelism" from relationship as though God didn't send the message of Grace through a Person in the first place? Why have we almost universally downsized the gospel privilege into


At 6:41 PM , Blogger Abby said...

Thanks, Daddy. Inspiring as always.

At 12:13 AM , Blogger Ellen said...

yep... I agree with Abby on this one. Oh does that mean I have to take the bumper sticker off my car now? just kidding!

At 6:16 AM , Blogger TC said...

Just so folks don't think your daughters are the only ones who read your wisdom, I'll add my "well said" to Abby & Ellens. Really appreciate the mindset. My experience tells me that folks respond differently to personal interactions with real live, thoughtful, humble, caring Christians vs. the disembodied "moral majority" portrayed by the media.

Co-founder of Hegg-Timers,

At 4:27 PM , Blogger Ro said...

Well, I'll just add that David Hegg is one of my heroes, and that I hope that a lot more people besides his daughters read this blog. Thanks for clarifying something that has always bugged me but on which I couldn't quite put my finger.

At 1:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I really do appreciate that you took the time for such an explanation and were so open. While I don't understand the decision completely, I do believe that you and Cherlyn have searched your hearts. And, I do love your preaching and how it challenges me to think and act! I am a bit of an outsider and so I hope you hear this with my mind being open. I was wondering what the history of the church is for pastors in your situation and if you have seen or read things that give you direction to what God meant leaders to do in your case where you have two wonderful opportunities and nothing that leads you 'away' from one or the other. ?? What do we do when any of us are in this place? Or maybe you were saying if the door opens you must walk through? I'm sincerely asking for myself...... Kellie Brown

At 11:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am really glad you are excited about ministering to the students at The Masters College. As the Maintenace and Grounds Supervisor here at Grace Baptist Church, I am blessed with volunteers from the college yearly, and I love working with them. Plus, I studied there. David, I am looking forward to meeting you in January. :)


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