So I am visiting my parents and my pet bird today in the city I grew up in, and I went to church as usual. The church in my hometown just got a new senior pastor who is one of those hip, trendy pastors. So far, my friends and I who attend this church have some concerns about him.
So the pastor two points in this sermon today: 1) we should be concerned with world missions and 2) we should be “witnessing” in non-cognitive ways. You’ll see what he means by these in a minute.
Now to be fair to the pastor, I don’t really know his full philosophy on missions. He was giving a sermon, and he had time for one example. His example of missions was that “wealthy” Christians in the West should give money to groups like World Vision that provide for the immediate physical needs of poor people in other countries. So his target for evangelism is not a wealthy Western professional who lives next door to him and isn’t impressed with food. His target for evangelism is someone who is starving in another country, who is at a disadvantage when it comes to education and poverty. And his preferred missionary is not someone who has studied to know how to persuade using knowledge, it’s someone nice and kind who is bringing food to starving people and then presenting the gospel to them through an interpreter as they eat the food.
The example the pastor gave for witnessing to non-Christians was to pray with them. He said that there would be less room for “hate” (his actual word) if Christians spent more time praying with non-Christians. The first thing I thought of when he said this was Mormon missionaries establishing the truth of their religion with people by praying for a “burning in the bosom”. Regarding his mention of “hate”, he didn’t mention gay marriage specifically, but I think that is the most reasonable context for the word “hate” in this culture. If we prayed with people and started caring for them and being nice to them (no mention of sin and repentance, note), then our “hate” for them would decrease.
So I want to make some basic points about what was said and what was left out.
At no point in this sermon or any any other sermon I have seen delivered by this pastor has the issue of how we know truth, or how we demonstrate that something is true, ever been addressed. I have not ever heard this pastor give a sermon on how he knows that God exists, how he knows that the Bible is reliable, and how he knows who Jesus is.
I was very careful today to pay attention to how the pastor was getting the audience on board with what he is saying. And I think I’ve hit on his method of persuading. It’s not to make arguments and to supply evidence, or even to quote the Bible in context. He relied a lot on hipness and emotional resonance with his audience. I think he expects us to accept what he is saying because he is able to 1) share illustrations from his life experiences (farming, this time), or 2) name rock bands like “Cold Play”. So his approach is more like “I’m just like you, so you should believe what I’m telling you”.
His two strategies for evangelism above seemed to be 1) giving money to Christian groups who can then travel to other countries to discuss Christianity with people who are receiving gifts from them and 2) offering to pray with non-Christians. I do not think that merely expressing theological opinions and then handing someone food or clothing is a good strategy for evangelism. I think it is permissible, it’s just not the way I see it being done in the Bible. I realize that there are going to be cases where someone accepts Jesus on the basis of this sort of evangelism, and in the best case, they might even go on to become a great Christian scholar who understands the truth of these matters so well that they can present it to non-Christians with authority. That would be the ideal case. But I think when I read the New Testament, the appeal to non-Christians in evangelism is an appeal to truth, based on the historical event of the resurrection, for example. I asked a friend of mine who knows the Bible well, about whether giving charity to people is ever a method of evangelism, and he said he couldn’t think of any. His preference for this evangelism-by-charity makes me wonder about people who have non-Christians living right next to them in the West, or even in secular Europe, who nevertheless choose to go to places where they can use the leverage of financial goods to get into conversations with people about spiritual things. It’s easy to go to a foreign country and talk to someone uneducated who can’t challenge you because they want the food you brought. It’s harder to evangelize your neighbor who is an atheist and a medical doctor – you would have to read books, and demonstrate the truth of things. Maybe that’s why so many people prefer the former to the latter – it’s easier.
His second method of evangelism (praying with non-Christians) seems to me to be impractical. It seems to me that it would work on people who do not have questions, and who are looking to decide theological / spiritual claims by their emotions. Prayer is not able to establish the historical fact of the resurrection in a debate situation, for example. You should pray before and after making a case for the resurrection, but you should at least know how to make the case for the resurrection to a non-Christian. Again, I am not familiar with a case in the New Testament in which a non-Christian, non-theist was ever approached with prayer alone. I know that Paul reasons from the Scriptures with people (Acts 16-17), and Peter appeals to the resurrection (Acts 2). His approach is more like what Mormons do, because they can’t demonstrate truth using arguments and facts. If this guy can only use Mormon techniques, that’s disturbing – like he has reduced Christianity to a flavor of ice cream that you either like or not, depending on your feelings or whether people are nice to you. Prayer is not used to demonstrate the truth of anything in any other context in real-life. Why is he trying to use it with Christianity? Is Christianity not the same as any other area of knowledge?
Now, I sense that this pastor has a concern for the poor, and I agree with him that charity is Biblical, and even that we can give money to big organizations like World Vision to help the poor in other countries, (although I don’t like World Vision). But I think where I get annoyed is that this is his only stated method of helping the poor. But I prefer a different method of helping the poor, namely the method that you see in countries like Hong Kong or Chile. That method is free market capitalism. And all you need to do to push that method is to sit with an economics book, learn what policies drive economic growth, and then push them in the public square. I’m being frank here. I think it can be demonstrated that foreign aid, for example, accomplishes little or nothing to help the poor, and often hurts the poor. What we need to do is to trade with these countries, promote economic growth in these countries, in the same sustainable, organic way that growth occurred in countries like Hong Kong and Chile. But what I get from this pastor is a kind of naive “Michael Moore” anti-corporation vibe. I think I can say without being proved wrong that we will never here any presentation from him that addresses the need to learn economics in order to promote the policies that will drive organic, sustainable economic growth in these counties, (e.g. – micro-loans, free trade, etc.). I do think it’s important to give to charity, though.
Advice for this pastor
If he read this post, then my advice to this pastor would be to take a two-pronged approach. If his concern is evangelism, then I recommend that he speak to some non-Christians in this country, and then when he sees that they have questions about God’s existence, gay marriage, the resurrection, abortion, sexual ethics, religious pluralism, miracles, evolution, creation, the reliability of the NT documents, etc., then he can do something different than Mormons do – he can embrace apologetics. Then he will be able to do missionary work right here in the West, with the educated professionals that God providentially placed right next door to him and right next door to his flock, too. Also, instead of worrying about how much we “hate” others, maybe he can offer Christians some advice on how to explain and defend religious liberty, which is under attack from the very groups he implies, in my opinion, that we are “hating” Also, it might be good for him to bash McDonald’s chicken nuggets less, and to defend the unborn more, in his sermons.
Second, if his other concern is to help the poor, then I recommend that he focus on promoting economic growth and individual charity. I think the big problem I have with this guy is that everything he says is so childish and simplistic. I agree we should want to help the poor, and that we should be charitable. But I think that when you are talking about poverty in other countries, then we should do everything possible. And everything possible certainly includes becoming educated about economics and the policies that are known to lift poor nations out of poverty. This is what people who are really interested in solving the problem would focus on. If you’re going to talk about poverty, then talk about it based on knowledge. Don’t leave it at a kindergarten level.