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Evangelism and making the sale

We watched the film The Big Kahuna a few nights ago, per my dad’s recommendation. Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito play Larry and Phil, two seasoned marketing reps for an industrial lubricant distributor. They’re at a sales conference in Wichita with Bob — a young salesman and born-again Christian — under their wing. The goal of the conference, at least for Larry and Phil, is to snag the Big Kahuna, a potential client whose account could successfully clinch both their careers.

The movie is based off a play, so it takes place mostly in one location, the hotel room, and virtually every second is filled with dialogue. Through this we learn more about the lifestyle gaps between the three men — Bob with his conservative Baptist background, Phil (Spacey) with his business savvy and colorful language, and Phil (DeVito) who is a liaison of sorts between the two.

When Bob gets invited to a private party where he’s sure to get some face time with the Big Kahuna, Larry and Phil send him out with specific instructions on how to land the account. When Bob returns later, they are shocked to hear that instead of soliciting his business, Bob used the opportunity to “talk to him about Christ.”

Infuriated, Larry lambasts Bob for wasting such an opportunity; he’s particularly peeved over Bob’s use of “lead-ins” to guide the conversation toward religion. Bob defends his actions. To him, talking about Jesus is just as important as selling lubricant is to Larry. This comparison doesn’t fly with Larry, though, as he offers the following observation:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down’. That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.

This, I think, is where Christians miss the point of sharing our faith with others, and it’s why I have a hard time with certain evangelism techniques. There’s one in particular that involves asking a series of predetermined questions with the goal of getting the person to admit that they can’t get to heaven with accepting Jesus.

I just get a weird feeling about it. I try to place myself in the other guy’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like to have a Christian use this technique on me. What would it be like to think you’re just having a normal conversation, and slowly realize you were being prepped for a sales pitch? Then, what are you supposed to say once the pitch has been made? “Well, you stumped me. I guess I’m a Christian now.”

I think I’d feel pretty disappointed, maybe in a sense even cheated, if this was really all the message of Jesus was about — if the beauty and significance of His life and death and resurrection could be reduced to a set of tenets to be objectively accepted or discarded.

What are your thoughts? What experiences have you had, either as a Christian sharing your faith, or a non-Christian being on the receiving end? What inherent differences exist between selling a product and “selling Jesus”? Is it appropriate to even make such a comparison?

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Filed under: Faith, Movies, ,

27 million slaves

More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade.

– International Justice Mission website

Drea and I have a friend from college who spent six months in the Philippines last year working with IJM, an organization that fights modern-day slavery. I had the privilege of being on Alan’s email list during the time he was there, and was more than once moved to tears from hearing about the horrible realities of slavery and child sex trade that are taking place in the Philippines. Alan was involved in some amazing work; he was able to use his previous business experience and education to help find employment and job training for women who’d been rescued out of slavery. He’s now back in the States, working towards a Masters in Public Administration so he can continue working in the human rights field. Alan is, quite frankly, the man.  His testimony for the Lord has been an extraordinary blessing to me, and has challenged me to become more informed about injustice in our world, and how my being a Christian has everything to do with it.

I mention all this because today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. It’s true that there are 27 million women, men, and children — more than the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade — who are enslaved around the world right now.

Maybe even more horrifying than that statistic is the fact that many of us are more connected and complicit with human trafficking than we might realize. We endorse and sustain the practice of slavery by buying products from companies who use sweatshop labor or otherwise deny their employees the right to a fair wage, or even their personal freedom.

My understanding of human trafficking is unsophisticated at best, but I’m trying to learn more, particularly about what practical steps can be taken by us normal folks to put an end to it. President Obama has proclaimed January 2010 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. What better time than now to consider ways that you — and we — can help end an injustice that has gone on for far too long? Simple awareness is a great first step.

If you’re interested in digging a little deeper, I’d heartily recommend Eugene Cho’s blog, specifically these posts:

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I thought and re-thought about posting this today, based mainly on my desire for this blog not to become a place for guilt-mongering or excessive soap-boxing. (There’s enough of that out there already.) I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but I’m motivated/haunted by Desmond Tutu’s exhortation: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I don’t take that to mean having to upend your entire lifestyle for the sake of supporting a cause; I think it just means knowing what side of history you stand on, and standing firm.

Filed under: Current issues, Faith, , , , , , , ,

Book review: “Religion Saves”

I first heard of Mark Driscoll in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. (Miller playfully referred to him as “Mark the Cussing Pastor”.) While I hear he’s toned his language down a bit, Driscoll is still a famously outspoken and controversial pastor and author. His church, Mars Hill, is a “theologically conservative and culturally liberal” congregation in Seattle. Driscoll also co-founded the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting group.

When I heard through our blog friend Kate McDonald that LitFuse Publicity Group was doing a “blog tour” of Driscoll’s new book Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions, I decided to hop on board. I love reading and exchanging thoughts on books, and I figured this would be a fun way to share my thoughts, and to find out a little more about Driscoll.

Religion Saves is essentially a series of loosely related sermons in written format. Driscoll tackles nine of the most frequent questions asked by Christians today — ranging from predestination to birth control to the emerging church — and devotes one chapter of the book to answering (or at least providing insights to) each question. While he ties the nine questions together with the theme of the misconception that “religion saves”, the chapters obviously cover a wide range of topics and could easily be read independently of one another.

Before we dig in, I have to say that I had a hard time writing this review. To begin with, the book’s configuration as a series of mini-expositions on various topics makes it difficult to discuss as a whole. (As such, I’ll attempt to reflect briefly on each chapter.) Secondly, I have mixed opinions of Driscoll and his views; I found much to heartily agree with and much to humbly disagree with in this book. And thirdly, I don’t claim expertise on any of these topics, so I share my thoughts with that disclaimer.

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Question 9: Birth control. Extremely helpful as an introduction to the different kinds of birth control, and their implications for the Christian belief in human life’s sanctity. I think Driscoll employs unflinching directness and gracious tolerance where each is appropriate.

Question 8: Humor. Easily (and fittingly) the funniest chapter in the book. Driscoll is a master of understatement and witty sarcasm, as evidenced by his indiscriminate jabs. (Nobody is exempt; he makes fun of liberal environmentalists, redneck NASCAR fans, goody two-shoed homeschoolers, and guys with bad breath.) He also draws interesting insights on humor in the Bible, and its place in the Christian life and even the pulpit. I agree with Driscoll in that given our common state as sinners, we all need to take ourselves less seriously and learn to laugh at each other’s (and our own) shortcomings.

Question 7: Predestination. Essentially a defense of Calvinist/Reformed theology, with surprising generosity toward Arminians. A useful introduction, but I still remain unconvinced of either “side” of this issue as an essential Christian doctrine. I believe both in God’s foreknowledge of who will be saved, and in our free will in either accepting or rejecting Him. I only consider this a contradiction in the sense that the coexistence of predestination and free will is too large and complex an idea for me to get my mind around. The presence of both entities in Scripture and in my personal experience makes possible my faith that God’s design is cosmically perfect in its inclusion of both, however imperfect my understanding of it makes it seem.

Question 6: Grace. Driscoll presents this as the most difficult Christian doctrine for him to accept. (I’m the same way; the idea of a perfect God extending grace to a people who are chronically ungrateful for it is beyond me.) It’s a beautiful discussion of the word “grace” itself, as Driscoll highlights the multitude of different types of grace that God sends our way. If we ever erroneously perceive grace only as God’s initial forgiveness of our sin, Driscoll helps us to see that this is only one of many heaps of undeserved blessings for every stage of life and faith.

Question 5: Sexual Sin. A hard look at the perversion of sex that characterizes our culture. While he doesn’t mince words about the sinfulness of some of our practices, Driscoll spends considerable time on the psychology, and even spirituality, of sex. He sheds light on the root problem of sin that causes sexaul perversion, as opposed to reverting to the near-hysterical rebuking and callous judgement typical of many Christian leaders when discussing sexual sin. There are worthwhile insights to be found here, ones I hadn’t previously considered.

Question 4: Faith and Works. In addressing the delicate interplay of faith, works, and salvation, Driscoll echoes J. I. Packer’s discussion of the doctrine of regeneration — that is, we are saved not by good works, but for good works. In this light, it makes even more sense that you can’t have one without the other.

Question 3: Dating. I’m married, so pshh, I don’t need to read this. (Teachable heart fail.) I actually learned a lot from this chapter. The history Driscoll provides on dating/courtship over the last hundred years is helpful. When we hear grievances against the dating practices of “these young people nowadays”, it’s usually from older folks who wish things could be like they uesd to. Driscoll’s relative youth might remove suspicion of generational arrogance as he implores his fellow young people to date wisely. He’s old-fashioned on this topic, and I’m with him. (Yes, the male should pursue the female. Yes, he should be clear in stating his intentions to her.) He also mentions the opposite dangers of legalism and free license in the context of dating, which is helpful as well.

Question 2: The Emerging Church. This was the chapter I was most intrigued to read. Turns out it’s one of the most helpful conservative perspectives on the emerging church I’ve come across. Namely, it’s even-handed and fair — dispensing praise and deep concern where each is due. Because of Driscoll’s previous involvement with emergent leaders like Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren in the 1990’s, we can infer that he has enough personal experience to draw informed conclusions. His commentary is well-researched and organized, and especially helpful in its differentiation between missional/house churches and emerging churches.

Question 1: The Regulative Principle. I had no idea what the regulative principle was until I read this chapter. Turns out its about worship — specifically, Driscoll says, about “how we should worship the God of the Bible”. He introduces us to two prevailing schools of thought regarding Christian worship: the “green light” normative principle (“worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands and may include others so long as Scripture does not prohibit them”) and the “red light” regulative principle (“worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands or that are a good and necessary implication of a biblical text, but nothing more”), and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each. He tells us a little about how his church, Mars Hill, worships — specifically their urban location, missional philosophy, inclusion of technology and social media in their services, and value placed on faithfulness to Scripture. He closes the chapter with a plea for unity in this area, recognizing that whichever of the camps you’re in is less important than doing what the Bible says, and not doing what it prohibits.

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Driscoll’s style and general point of view are unique, hard to categorize, and will probably offend just about everybody at some point or another. Conservative evangelicals won’t like his cynical jabs at Christian subculture; progressives and emergents won’t like his traditional Calvinist leanings or inerrant view of Scripture. He writes provocatively and to-the-point, which is refreshing in a sense; there are no trite, churchy clichés to be found here. His tone could be percieved as flippant or self-righteous if not for his frequent admission of his own sin. This is also refreshing, and lends legitimacy-bolstering sincerity to many of his arguments.

My main gripe about this book is its general ambience. We’re all familiar with the comparison of human brain types: left vs. right, objective vs. subjective, rational vs. creative. I would assert that engaging both types is useful and beneficial to Christian faith, and particularly Christian instruction. After all, what good is knowing doctrine without allowing yourself to be moved by it? Conversely, what good is the emotional awareness of a Higher Being without knowing anything about Him? Thinking about Religion Saves in this context makes me realize it is a very left-brained book. It’s full of propositions and assertions to be accepted or rejected. The goal seems to be to educate and persuade, not necessarily to stir or inspire. If both left- and right-brained approaches are worthwhile, the latter is noticeably and regrettably absent. While I think Driscoll makes some good points, I can’t say that this book was a particularly enjoyable read. I just didn’t find his writing style particularly engaging; at times it felt a bit like reading a textbook.

Admittedly, I may be asking the unreasonable; I’m not exactly sure what a right-brained approach to this book would look like, given its stated intent to address specific questions in an organized and systematic way. It is what it is. Your satisfaction with the things you learn or experience in this book will depend on your expectations. If you’re looking for a page-turner or something to appreciate for its literary value, this wouldn’t be my first choice. But I think anyone wishing simply to learn more about these specific topics will find this book helpful.

* Be sure to read other people’s reactions to Religion Saves on the blog tour at LitFuse!

Filed under: Books, Current issues, Faith, Funny, ,

I’m back, suckas!

First things first: my bad. It’s been almost three weeks since I last posted. I know nobody’s suffering from my unintentional blogging hiatus, but I try to post something at least once or twice a week for my own sake, to keep the old brain working. I feel like a big collective “you suck” from the blogosphere is warranted.

But enough about how much I suck; let’s talk about how the past few days have un-sucked. There’s something about a three-day weekend that makes you feel like you haven’t worked in months. It’s freaking great. This was one such weekend. We were planning to meet up with Tom and Renata in old town Annapolis on Friday, but we all decided it would be too crowded, so we fooled around at the Annapolis Mall, seeing how far we could launch Hayden and Jack down the concourse in their strollers. (This was right before the mall closed and there weren’t many people around.)

As we strolled through the children’s section at Borders, we came across this book about the Obamas’ new dog. It was released April 23, nine days after Bo arrived at the White House. Among other things, it (fictitiously) recounts little Bo stealing the President’s letter-opener and being there for Michelle Obama’s organic garden opening. This crap happened like, yesterday! Then again, I guess it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to write a children’s book (as Strong Bad would attest).

On Saturday, Drea and I ventured down to National Harbor and enjoyed walking the waterfront shops and sitting on the docks. It’s a huge place — condos, retail, hotel and convention center, and apparently a Disney resort and children’s museum coming soon. We ate Potbelly subs for lunch (so good) and checked out the American Market. It’s a charming place to walk around, and we want to come back with a few friends and take the water taxi over to Alexandria.

I played a wedding Saturday afternoon before we headed to my parents’ house to hang out with my uncle and cousin who were visiting from Houston. A fabulous barbeque dinner was followed up by our family’s new favorite game of “loaded questions”, where everyone in the group writes their answers to a certain question and one person has to guess who gave the answers. It gets pretty fun.

We went to church on Sunday and afterwards headed to Jason and Shannon’s to swim in the pool and eat Jason’s dual masterpieces — salsa and Texas style barbeque. A few of us ended up staying late, talking with Jason and Shannon around their kitchen table until after midnight. It was one of those luminous moments that reminds you how real everything is. Life is real, struggles are real, God’s redemption is real. Our friends are freaking awesome.

Late last week, I decided on a whim to reread Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I read it about six years ago when it first came out, and it definitely encouraged/convicted me in different ways the second time through; I guess life has changed a bit since 2003. I think Don’s words are incredibly beautiful and true, and I’m immensely looking forward to his new book due out in the fall.

So yeah, it’s been a good weekend. Hope yours was likewise. More to come soon!

Filed under: Blogging, Books, Faith, Slice of life, , ,

Rethinking foreign missions

The other night I was reading through my old journal from a few years ago, specifically the entries from a missions trip my sister and I went on. In the summer of ’05, we joined a group of college kids on a trip to Southeast Asia to share Christ and teach English to middle schoolers.

Reading those pages brought back a flood of memories of the weird juxtapositions that defined that trip for me. Being so far from home had me alternating between barely-contained excitement and acute homesickness. The landscape was simultaneously beautiful and ugly; from a single vantage point you could see a lush green mountainside and a stream of sewage running down the street. Being surrounded by a language I didn’t understand was exhilarating at times and unbelievably frustrating at others. Most significant though, was the juxtaposition I saw in the local followers of Christ: unshakable joy in hard circumstances.

Seeing Christianity lived out in such a different (read: difficult and dangerous) context had an effect on me. How humbling it was to realize how easy I had it, that I didn’t have to worry about the government breaking into my house and arresting me, or doing worse, for being a Christian. That I didn’t have to live in constant fear for my family’s safety, that I had everything I needed (and then some) to live a comfortable life. And yet, despite their hardships, those Asian believers probably had the most sincere faith and love for Jesus that I’ve ever seen. I took stock of their simple joy and contentment in knowing Jesus, realizing then I had more to learn from them than I had to teach. Truth be told, I think that trip benefited me more than the people we came to serve.

But isn’t the point of going on a missions trip to help those in need, not learn something for yourself?

About a year after the trip, I read a book by K.P. Yohannan, the founder of a wonderful organization called Gospel for Asia, in which he discusses how the foreign mission field has changed over the past half-century. His book is essentially a defense of the native missionary movement, stating that since the Gospel has now been planted by Westerners in many of the world’s most remote cultures, the time has come to mobilize native missionaries to spread the Gospel to their own people. He recounts the effectiveness that natives in his home country of India have in reaching their people, compared with short term Western missionaries who aren’t familiar with the language or culture.

Upon reading this, a lot of things about my trip became clear. I kept remembering a particular day when we read a condensed “Creation to the Cross” story to our class of 7th graders with the help of a native Christian woman. As she translated the story into the local language, I noticed that she had a connection with the kids that I didn’t have. She spoke their dialect, ate their food, knew what music they liked, shared their life experiences. After reading K.P.’s book, it all began to make sense.

It seems that there’s an emerging shift in the way Western Christians are thinking about short term missions, which is really exciting to me. I came across a thought-provoking article the other day (by way of another great article) that resonated with what I had experienced in Asia: that short term missions trips usually benefit those who go more than the people already there, and that we North American Christians have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the third world.

Rather than regurgitate the ideas presented in those two articles, I’ll wrap things up with an excerpt from one, in hopes that if you’re a Christian with a heart for foreign missions, you’ll read them both. It’ll be worth it, I promise!

I believe North American Christians need to start taking seriously our responsibility to the  people of the third world – and visiting another country can be an appropriate place to begin. But we need to ask each other: What is the purpose of the trip? Are we going through the motions of helping the poor so we can congratulate ourselves afterwards? Or are we seeking to understand the lives of third world people – to recognize and support their strengths and to try to understand the problems they face and our role in them? Are we ethnocentrically treating the people of the third world as tragic objects to be rescued – or as equals to walk with and learn from?

– Jo Ann Van Engen, “Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?”

Filed under: Books, Current issues, Faith, Travel,