I have a confession to make.
I sort of have a thing for Christian television.
It’s kind of like a drug for me.
Your drug of choice might be CSI or Dancing with the Stars or maybe Survivor. Mine is bad Christian television shows. I know this sounds crazy, but I love watching TV preachers. You can ask my wife, I’m often literally sitting at the edge of my seat waiting to see what insane idea is going to come out their mouths next. Now, not all of them are crazy. There are some great men and women of God on television, but I don’t watch them. They’re just not as entertaining to me.
One of the shows that I just can’t turn away from is called Way of the Master. In a lot of ways, I think it’s a great representation of the evangelical obsession with making converts. The show exists to teach people how to convert others to Christianity using a technique called “confrontational evangelism.” The way it works is that the hosts (Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron) will go up to strangers on the street with a video camera and microphone and conduct an impromptu interview with eternal consequences.
It goes like this every time: Have you ever told a lie? Yeah, I’ve told a few white lies before. Have you ever stolen anything? I think when I was kid I might have stolen a candy bar. Have you ever looked at a woman lustfully in your heart? Sure, I guess so. Well, according to the 10 commandments you’re a liar, a thief, and an adulterer. Jesus says when we die he is going to judge us all by the 10 commandments. Based on your response do you know where you’re going to go when you die? Apparently, hell.
And then, if the person hasn’t punched the interviewer in the face, they’ll offer to lead them through a prayer of salvation.
The problem with this is at least two-fold. First, Jesus never ever held the law over anyone’s head. Ever. In fact, it was his very refusal to conform to this Pharisaical approach to the law that resulted in his crucifixion. More over, Jesus never said that at the judgment seat he is going to judge us by the 10 commandments. You can go look through all four gospels; it’s not there. Jesus, does however, tell us exactly what we will happen at the judgment seat and it is nothing like these street preachers would have us believe. In a passage I have quoted on this blog many times before, Jesus says,
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The second problem with this sort of evangelism is this, and not only is it tied directly to the first, but I would argue that it is one of the most fundamental misunderstandings that evangelicalism has about the faith; Jesus never ever ever said “go and make converts.” He said “go and make disciples.” These are two very different things that lead us to very different ways of living. In fact, these are 2 entirely different gospels.
Making converts reduces the gospel to nothing more than a sales pitch. It simply requires us to make an intellectual decision, say a few magic words, and then we can go on our way, tucking our faith in our pocket not needing to pull it out again until judgment day. In doing so, we have robbed the gospel of all of its transforming and redeeming power, leaving it no different than a self help book on Oprah’s list of favorite things.
This type of evangelism is about adding notches to our convert belt, but more tragically, this type of Christianity is an inward faith. Sure we might tell someone about it once in a while, but it stops there. There is no real need to transform the world around us because this sort of Christianity begins and ends with a legal transaction. All this sort of faith is concerned with is whether a penalty has been paid for so that we can get out of here and on to heaven.
Too often, evangelicalism stops at the cross and never takes us on the transforming power of the resurrection.
What we are called to be and to make is disciples; and being a disciple is very different than being a convert. Being a disciple requires much more that intellectual ascent, it requires our entire life, and making a disciple requires just as much. Being a disciple means being like Christ and Jesus didn’t come to get people to buy into his sales pitch. He came to redeem and transform all of creation; to put his people back in right relationship with their Creator. Before He ascended he left us with the call to go and do likewise, to become his agents of grace in the world, doing the work of redeeming and transforming all of creation.
This work can’t be accomplished simply through a sales pitch. It must be lived out for all to see, not just in our personal lives, but also, and especially in how we interact with the world around us. This is why Jesus describes the end of all things the way He does. Yes, the doctrines of the church are important. They shape and form how we live our lives, but in the end Jesus will not be standing in heaven with either the 10 commandments or a check list asking us: Do you believe in the virgin birth? How about the parting of the Red Sea? What are your thoughts on baptism?
Instead, he will look us each in the eye and simply ask: “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you give me anything to drink? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was a stranger. Did you invite me in? I was sick and in prison. Did you come and visit me?”
This is the work and power of the gospel. This is the life we are called to live. This is true evangelism. It is a life in which we rise up out of ourselves and reach out to extend God’s grace to the world. It is a life that doesn’t stop at the cross, but continues on to the transforming and life giving power of the resurrection. If we stay at the cross, then we are left with an incomplete gospel. If we never make it to the cross, then we have no gospel. But if we continue on the resurrection we encounter a living God beckoning us live the resurrected life with him.
I believe that if the church is to be who and what she needs to be in the 21st century, she must abandon her obsession with making converts and rediscover her calling to make disciples. Discipleship is a lot harder than conversion. It means understanding that “winning souls for Jesus” happens through love and listening, not arguing and condemning. It means establishing a relationship with people, rather than abandoning them at an altar. And it means feeding, loving, and taking care of others regardless of whether or not they “make a decision of Jesus” or listen to our gospel.
It won’t be easy, but this is what it means to be the church.
Grace and peace,