Monday, February 23, 2009

altar calls and tickets

Reset took off with a blast! Joe did a bang-up job (what is a bang-up, really?) portraying different “Jesus-es”. We could have easily come up with ten different models, but time is the communicator’s enemy. I’m looking forward to next week.

I’ve got a long tale here. You’re going to need some Earl Grey and a teapot. Ready?

One of the things I’d personally like to hit the reset button on is how evangelicals have reduced the mission of the Church to an “altar call” pragmatism. And weirder, an altar call mentality that’s more methodology than anything.

For those of you who unfamiliar with the altar call, it’s more a product of nineteenth-century American evangelists than anything, particularly Charles Finney. It’s so much a product of the evangelical culture that it’s virtually a sacred cow. Heck, I’ve used it many times. I’m certainly not against calling people to repent; I question the method…and confusing the method with the mission.

Charles Spurgeon, who had a serious heart for people who didn’t yet know Jesus, decried the use of altar calls and “enquiry rooms”. He felt it gave people a false sense of security and created a mediator-environment when people needed to be sent to Christ to wrestle with their brokenness.

Spurgeon wrote, “Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father's house, and never making him say, 'Father, I have sinned.' How can he be healed who is not sick? Or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised, and consequently a religion is run up before the foundations are dug out. Everything in this age is shallow. Deep-sea fishing is almost an extinct business so far as men's souls are concerned. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they come to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.”

He even expressed the dirty little secret of crusade-style evangelism:

“Very few of the supposed converts of enquiry-rooms turn out well. Go to your God at once, even where you are now. Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch!”

Which leads me to repeating my rant about having a Kingdom theology instead of a “get-your-ticket-to-heaven” theology. It bothers me when altar calls—“get-saved-so-you-can-go-to-heaven”—replace a Kingdom of God theology—the power and grace of God is breaking into our world now. And we’re the conduit.

If the world as we know it is all going to burn, if all we are interested in is getting people to heaven, if the only thing important is “saving souls”, then why do we pray for healing for people? It must be a sign that the Kingdom has come, that the future is breaking in on us now. Think about this: if caring for our environment, if fighting for justice, if wrestling with racism is not important because someday this is all going to be done away with, and the only thing important is people’s souls as evangelicals believe, why speak out against abortion if the souls of pre-age-of-accountability unborn infants are guaranteed heaven? Why lay hands on the sick if this life is a vapor and a better one awaits?

Why? There are two possible reasons.

One reason could be a quality-of-life issue. Doesn’t a person with advanced debilitating polio deserve a higher quality of life, if even for the sake of his or her family, their kids, their sense of contribution to society? Maybe. Someone could argue that Stephen Hawking’s intense form of ALS has actually given his brain room to run because of his debilitating physical limitations. Suffering through sickness certainly has unintended results, although Jesus never seemed to say to anyone, “Keep your leprosy. It will keep you humble.”

But I think there is more to the question than the quality-of-life answer.

We do it since we have hope that because of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore the declaration that He is the New Lord (because death is the one master that everyone bows down and submits to), He gave us the mission of bringing the Kingdom (Luke 4:18, 19; Matthew 28:18; John 20:21). That’s what a Kingdom theology will do, something I’m thrilled the Vineyard movement as a whole promotes. It affects the here-and-now more than anything else. We are the answer to someone’s prayer when they cry out the “Our Father”-prayer: “Let Your kingdom come now…let Your will be accomplished now…the way it always is in the dimension where You live, Father.”

Consider the following story as a metaphor.

Ernest Gordon—former dean of Princeton Seminary who died a few years ago—was the inspiration behind the classic movie Bridge Over the River Kwai and more recently To End All Wars. In real life he survived three years in the brutal prisoner of war camps of Southeast Asia during World War II where an estimated 80,000 prisoners died of starvation, dysentery, malaria and torture while building a railroad…almost four hundred men per mile of track.

Gordon tells an amazing story: Once at the end of the workday, a shovel was missing in the tool shed. The officer in charge was furious and announced they would begin executing each prisoner, one at a time, until the man who took it came forward. As guns were pointed at the first man in line, one of the soldiers stepped out and said simply, “I did it. I took it.” They viciously beat him to death in front of everyone. The next day the guards discovered that they had miscounted—all the shovels were there.

One of the prisoners remembered the Bible verse, “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Word spread throughout the camp…and the atmosphere changed. Men began to look out for each other, to treat each other like brothers. Gordon began teaching from the Bible. They started what they called the “church without walls”.

Gordon wrote:

“Death was still with us — no doubt about that. But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness and pride were all anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God.”

And oddly enough, the POW’s even created “normal” things like talent shows, lectures, debates, and readings…even a jungle university.

Think about it. Why would men who were facing certain death bother with that? If your comrades were dying around you of slow painful dysentery and maltreatment, if you’re working sunup to sundown on laying railroad tracks through impossibly difficult terrain in a hostile world blinded by madness, why have a lecture on Shakespeare?

Why? Hope. The scent of a future inhaled in the present. Hope.

That is a Kingdom metaphor.

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