Because life is a series of edits

Rock the River (and Why I Didn’t)

In Church, Places & Spaces, Thought on August 3, 2009 at 12:11 am

I hesitate writing this kind of post this soon back on the blog, but after reading the Facebook statuses ("stati"?) of many of my students – several of whom went to the Rock the River music tour here in St. Louis on Sunday – I feel compelled to do so. (Note: For any die-hard evangelicals out there, you might want to stop reading – this is gonna hurt.)

Full disclosure: I used to live in Colorado Springs, the evangelical Mecca of the United States (and possibly the world). I spent twelve years in the Springs – a city of 350,000 home to ministry headquarters for multiple, mostly parachurch groups like Focus on the Family, Compassion International, Young Life, at least a dozen Christian book publishers, half a dozen radio stations/networks, and one of the first organizations to take up residency in the Springs, The Navigators, with whom I was on staff.

So you know, I consider myself an evangelical, though I identify much more with the Reformed version of evangelicalism (click here for a brief explanation of what I mean).

If you know anything about The Navigators, you know that the organizaton has always had a strong connection with Billy Graham and his evangelistic crusades; Billy and Navs founder, Dawson Trotman, were the best of friends, and the Navs did most of the follow-up training after Billy would come through a town. Together Billy and Daws created created an evangelistic opportunity and then met needs for evangelistic and discipleship tools, many of which have helped thousands – yea, millions – of people in their understanding of aspects of the Gospel. Indeed, illustrations like The Bridge and The Wheel were once helpful to me twenty years ago.

But here's the rub: Graham's Crusades and The Navigators' tools (not to mention those of countless other organizations and evangelical churches) too easily reduce the Gospel to an incomplete presentation (at best), and little more than a self-help proposition (at worst). For an example of what I'm talking about, watch this presentation of The Bridge; it's called "Steps to Peace with God" and runs about three minutes, which is approximately how long we were told we had to share it with someone before they lost interest. (Note: If this isn't "hip" enough for you, try this one, entitled "Graffiti Video.")

The problem with either? Gone is any connection to actual history (i.e. the story of creation, Israel as God's Old Testament chosen people, or the Church as God's New Testament chosen people); missing is mention of the coming consummation (i.e. the ultimate redemption of all God has made). Instead, what presentations like these leave people with – indeed, what I had left people with – is simply the opportunity to "make a decision" and "invite Christ into their lives," though they have no real idea who Christ is, what was behind why he did what he did (hint: the answer goes beyond just John 3:16), or how any of it connects to the history or future of the world and those who have and will inhabit it as members of God's Church. (Click here for Franklin Graham's Gospel presentation Sunday afternoon for another example of what I mean.)

It's not that these Gospel reductions are necessarily wrong; it's just that they're painfully incomplete. True, they may have been semi-effective 50 or 60 years ago, or even helpful to a degree in the past 20 as part of an explanation of God's mission, but they are woefully limited and lacking in explaining God's redemptive-historical meta-narrative (overarching story) that our increasingly biblically illiterate population needs to even begin to process (let alone understand) what we're saying.

Which brings me back to my students: Rock the River is (and is being billed as) an event – a happening that kids can attend with their friends. And that's great: there's music from "some of the hottest Christian bands," a "relevant message," and, best of all it's free (an evangelical church's youth pastor's dream). What's interesting to me, though, is that a lot of kids I know who aren't Christians and don't make any attempt to live Christianly are still excited about going to this event. They know what it is and what it is about, but they don't seem at all put off by the possibility that what they might hear will speak against what they believe or how they live.

Why is this? Could it be that a propositional presentation of the Gospel is not connecting? Could these kids have already chosen to "make a decision" by simply saying no to the Gospel in its propositional form; thus, they can enjoy the rest of the evening (and their lives) without a second thought about God? They've answered the question they were asked to answer, so what's left to talk about? Let's rock!

I'm not trying to be critical, but I am reminded anew of the responsibility we as Christians have to expand our presentation of the Gospel to capture the beautiful story it is rather than reduce it to an equation that boils down to almost nothing. Jesus is not waiting for us to "invite him in" through propositional acceptance; rather, he chooses to say, "Come, follow me," which is his invitation to respond to the person of God and his story. And what a story it is – eternity past, present, and future…

Granted, there are those believing students who don't require huge events to grow their faith, but my experience is that even they are susceptible to confusion about them, especially when their youth pastors and youth groups seem to endorse/encourage/push them. Parents can also be enablers here, as the more "active" they see their kids being involved in "Christian events," the more convinced they are that their kids must be Christians, which is not always the case (and sometimes the furthest thing from it).

For other kids – those who, in their New Testament papers in my class, equate "sharing Christ" with "bringing friends to youth group" – an event like this is right up their alley – all they have to do is show up, have a good time, and let God (or at least the band member speaking on God's behalf, which can sometimes get interesting) do the rest. What could be easier to fulfill their end of the post-salvation proposition, often called "discipleship"?

Reformed evangelical scholar Mark Noll wrote, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." In a brash case of plagiarism and to finish my thought here, I might revise his quotation to say, "The scandal of the evangelical Gospel is that there is not much of an evangelical Gospel." Indeed, we get bits and pieces in here an
d there through our illustrations, equations, and propositions, but most of us (myself included) would benefit from a review of what the Gospel is in its fullness as God's redemptive-historical story – with promises, names, dates, places, and responses of those in the Scriptures (as well as our own) to God's grace.

Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life, used to say, "It's a sin to bore a kid." There's a reason kids today are bored with the Gospel: we've somehow convinced them it fits on a napkin.

  1. I appreciate your critique. having gone to events like these in my pre-Christ days, you described well my own approach at those times, even then I saw the message as irrelevant and was therefore not appropriately affronted, so I went for the free food and fun.
    I felt at the time the sense of impatience and lack of interest in ME, and more of a sense of “number hype”, something to tout when soliciting more $$. I was a bit jaded by my dad, and yet there was something still there I was detecting, I think.
    Having been the person giving the 3 min or less sales pitch, I can see that there is some way to do it without being entirely usury, and yet as Jesus has shown me more about what the Incarnation means (at least the historical contextualized aspects) the more I have moved towards “relational” evangelism, and spurned (if not unhealthy bitterness) this en masse style of evangelism that parachurch orgs like so much.

  2. Earlier this summer I read a book by a local author, Warren Cole Smith, titled “A Lover’s Quarrel With The Evangelical Church” and one of his critiques is one that you mentioned. He called the lack of a historical context American Evangelicals presently reside the “New Provincialism.” Essentially what happened before is irrelevant.
    I have, over the years, grown quite weary with the Evangelical methods of the American Evangelical Church. Particularly the idolatry surrounding numbers, as the previous commenter mentioned.
    A ministry is typically defined as successful by how many people have been reached for the Gospel. When I read these numbers I always ask where did the people come from? Are they new converts to faith or simply ex-Baptist, ex-Methodist, etc. And is the number accurate? Are those people active participants in the ministry of the Church?
    This sort of thing is personally making me quite amicable toward groups on the outside of the American Evangelical machine, like the Moravians and Quakers.

  3. I pretty much agree at every point.
    The Bridge illustration was particularly helpful to me in finally understanding the Gospel as God’s free grace offered in Christ–but, I had been raised in the RC church, so I already had the historical background, the story, down. I just didn’t understand the meaning of the story.

  4. your points are interesting and i’m sure are spot on in many circumstances. i submit that God is not confined by man’s “methods” and that the Holy Spirit uses innumerable ways to draw someone to faith in and following Christ.

  5. Some good thoughts here:
    “Although I hold firmly to historic evangelical doctrine, I thoroughly despise what the contemporary evangelical movement has become. That’s an important distinction. Evangelical doctrine and the evangelical movement are not the same thing. Nowadays they often look like polar opposites. The movement we usually label “evangelical” abandoned its own doctrinal foundation long ago. The average evangelical today couldn’t even tell you what the original doctrinal distinctives of classic evangelicalism were. In fact, post-modern evangelicals don’t really have any clear doctrinal identity.”
    Yep, and that’s a problem.

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