Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Celebrities, Christians, and the Wisdom to Know the Difference

One may ask where might I have been? I might have been many places, and probably desired to be others, but the reality appears that I have not wandered (at least physically) from the home base of the Big Ham, AL. Finals are finally finished (at least for this semester) and I now find myself with an abundance of time. OK, not true, but the idea is quite grand. A tiny goal that I have set for myself over the next few weeks is to read for about 90 minutes each day (outside of my morning quiet times which I also hope to prove consistent with). These 90 minutes will be spent in my office reading theological material and since my job as the church BookStore manager requires me to investigate and approve doctrinally sound resources, I will not be neglecting my responsibilities, but rather, fulfilling them. I'm quite pumped about the opportunity to say the least. If it is true that some of the best laid plans were simply good intentions, the battle is half finished. I need to be held accountable to this goal.

Quoteworthy reading (if this is not an official literary term recognized by some literature guild whom I have never heard of, I reserve the right to coin the term. If it indeed proves to be accurate, so be it) comes directly from the text we are reading in regards to the negative impacts of the populist wing of evangelicalism that swept the Church in America during the 19th century and continues today:

"Finally, revivalism led to a new model of leadership. The pastor was no longer a teacher who instructs a covenanted congregation, but a celebrity who is able to inspire mass audiences." Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004. 260.

This one grabbed me. In age where the big-time preachers truly are celebrities
and I am encouraged to get my best life now, and it seems as though the only noteworthy evangelicals are those who can sell tickets to fill the Georgia Dome, I see why their appeal is so magnetic.

First, many invitations are for souls to come to Christ, to be a better husband, or to live as a liberated woman who does not burn her bra. Although worthy of exhorting the Church in this direction, the focus becomes the individual and not the I AM. These are calls for converts, whether to the faith for the first time, or a "re-dedication" if I may use the term (which I have problems with, FYI), however, Christ's commission was to create disciples of all nations. Granted, one may not become a true disciple until he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, but in a mass setting, discipleship is typically not on the mind of the leader. In fact, that's not his or her role. It will be up to the local bodies of believers that are represented to follow up. In some cases, major evangelistic associations come a year early, train lay leaders, and have such a follow-up system in place so that no soul falls through the cracks. Is this effective? More so than those meetings where no structured follow-up system is in place, but hardly a strong source of accountability for the new convert. Let me point here that this is not the convert's fault. He is simply following through with what he was exhorted to do: walk the aisle, pray the prayer, share his story, and then go home, teach himself the Bible and the doctrines of God, and grow up into a scholarly theologian. That's how it ought to work, right? Please.

The second appeal that these folks have on their mass audiences of is the fact that it is abundantly easier to listen to someone speak in vague generalities concerning mankind and then - as though something magical occurs - to feel as though he were speaking directly to the proverbial me. However, I need to be reminded that "the same experience of suffering are being accomplished by [my] brethren who are in the world" (1 Peter 5:9 NASB). Acknowledging that the Apostle Peter was directing his letter towards those who were suffering intense persecution at the time, the principle remains that I am never truly alone in any situation. I also recall a certain wise man who once said that there is "nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9). Therefore, if I rattle off enough circumstances or sins, eventually I will hit a nerve. Alcohol, drugs, lust, greed, busyness, worry, loneliness, guilt, motherhood, fatherhood, infidelity, pornography, abusive relationships, neglect, singleness, mid-life, being a man in an ever growing woman's world, being a woman in a male-dominated world, being a man who wants to be a woman in a gender confused world. Whatever the case, eventually I can scratch where you might itch and hone in there. Thus, what appears to be a miraculous gift of prophecy is really nothing more than chance. In addition, with a mass audience of several thousand people, emotions trigger from one another and what may result is simply an emotional response to an emotional appeal, without the truth of the Gospel truly renewing the minds of its hearers. Although there may be legitimate conversions and convictions occurringng all across the stadium as the leader chimes that "they are coming from the balconies" and the 18th refrain of Just As I Am is sung, really the likelihood is that there are people with legitimate questions about their eternal security and no one truly available to help them.

In one personal experience, I was to be a counselor for an evangelistic meeting that was appealing to 2,000 or more people. The counselors were instructed to rise and walk forward when the invitation was given in order to be down front when those who desired to know more could communicate with us. On the surface, fine. Underneath, the message that we were communicating was that there were hundreds coming forward, why can't you? There was no distinguishing mark between counselor and counselee and thus the masses were duped. I have questioned my role as a counselor for such meetings ever since.

Finally, although this does not exhaust my beefs, for space-sake I will cut myself short, as mentioned before, the problem I have with mass-attended meetings is that the focus becomes the individual rather than the I AM. More specifically, the focus becomes the speaker, the glorification of the worm. "Oh, so and so, spoke so eloquently. He was on fire tonight! She just had a way to speak directly to me." And in turn, it becomes more of a name recognition deal than anything. DL Moody once related a story where he had finished preaching his sermon and walked to the back of the church in order to greeattendeesrs on their way out the door. One woman came to him and said "That was the best sermon I have ever heard." He replied, "Thank you, you are the second person to tell me that. The first was the Devil." As a future preacher, this reality scares me to death. Knowing my own sinful desire for recognition and the praise of men, I fear that I too may end up seeking to find my worth in the things of this world rather than to know that I have "accurately [handled] the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15c).

Oh Father, might You protect me from such sinful wickedness! Knowing that my very nature gives me a bent towards that direction, I ask that by Your Spirit's power You might enable me to choose otherwise. Help me to recognize that You are the giver and sustainer of life and that my true purpose is to exhort others in the word of truth, placing emphasis on accuracy, not creativity. May I only seek Your praise so that I may truly be a good and faithful servant. You know my heart, and I trust that You will reveal the offensive ways within me.

By Your grace, I come. Amen.


TJ said...

I hear your arguments and I do not disagree. But you do make me wonder a certain point. When God really does move in a significantly sizable assembly, what system could be put in place that would work to begin a discipleship process for those whose hearts and souls are stirred? Is there one? Does this mean that large assemblies have no real hope of being effective? Or can they be if the speaker is not well-known and renowned? Again, I'm not arguing. I do agree with you on the points you've mentioned. It's simply that those points brought these questions to my mind and I wonder if you have your own form of answer for them.


KC Armstrong said...

Large assemblies can be effective regardless of who the speaker is, but it requires more work on the organizers part for the before and after. There must be some sort of tracking system in place to personally follow up with those who have made one decision or another. When this is one church planning one event, this tracking system becomes much easier. If it is a “community event” where many churches have sponsored the event, this becomes increasingly difficult, but not impossible. There again, more work required on the part of the organizers. There must be some sort of personal touch to link decision makers with a local body of believers where they can then be held accountable as well as encouraged to mature in their new relationship with Christ. Without this, they fall through the cracks, having started the race, but not getting past the first one hundred meters.

There again, let me know stray to far from my original point. It is not so much the size of the assembly, but the message itself. If the message is simply a watered down version of “Come to Christ and your life will be peaches and cream” it does not matter if there are 100,000 in attendance or if this was a one-on-one personal evangelism conversation. Either way, the message is flawed, but it sure is easy to listen to. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (whose link appears to the right), has said “preaching is not a human invention but a gracious creation of God and a central part of His revealed will for the church…The church has never been faithful when it has lacked fidelity in the pulpit.” (Why Do We Preach? A Foundation for Christian Preaching, Part One)

Seeking fidelity that I might rightly divide the Word of Truth,