November 19, 2009
Angry Preachers or Gospel Musicians?
What types of witnesses are our churches forming?
There wasn’t much that could have distracted me on the way to the train station on a recent Saturday evening. After two days at an outdoor music festival—in the rain one day and under the blazing sun the next—I wanted nothing more than to return to our apartment for a long shower and some blessed quiet. Lollapalooza was a blast, a great opportunity to see some new bands and observe Chicago’s diverse youth culture. I might have stayed for the day’s final acts, but I’m a pastor and my ringing ears and tired legs needed a good night’s sleep before Sunday morning.
Before I’d walked even a block from the festival, I bumped into a small crowd whose attention was fixed on two men speaking loudly to the bedraggled onlookers. One held a handmade sign that read—I kid you not— “TURN OR BURN!” He spoke into a bullhorn, warning the young people of God’s coming judgment and listing in vivid detail the sins that would lead them to an eternity burning in hell. The other man held an open Bible and vigorously debated anyone who disagreed with his companion’s portrayal of God.
For the past two days, I’d watched these young people pursue beauty and friendship and community. Groups of sunburned 20somethings had made their way from one stage to the next, avoiding mud puddles and speaking with awe in their voices about their favorite musical experiences of the weekend. And now, as they left the safety of the festival grounds, they were immediately confronted with Jesus. Or at least two of Jesus’ representatives.
A few in the crowd poked fun and tried to fluster the preachers. What really caught my attention, though, what overruled my fatigue, was another response. Despite this generation’s reputation as cynical and sarcastic, many of the young wore visible sadness on their faces. Some pleaded with Bullhorn Man for a different portrayal of Jesus. A few people asked Bible Man if his God had any love for them. One young man was on the edge of tears as he tried to convince the men to lower their voices, to show kindness in their words about Jesus.
Ten minutes of this street theatre was enough and, quenching my desire to punch Bullhorn Man and Bible Man, I continued toward the train. As I often do after encountering this version of Christian witness, I angrily questioned why these men did what they did. How could they possibly think their language and posture was helpful? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he felt compassion for the harassed and helpless crowds—sheep without a shepherd—and asked his disciples to pray for more workers for the harvest? My irritation only increased as I thought about how the irreligious and marginalized of his day were attracted to Jesus. Whether or not they would have accepted his easy yoke, certainly these festival goers would have been intrigued by the alternative life Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated.
Here’s the thing: Bullhorn Man and Bible Man don’t exist in a vacuum. Their theology and evangelistic practice comes from somewhere. My guess? These men belong to a church that believes salvation from Hell is the primary motivation for a relationship with God and views direct confrontation as the most effective evangelism. What appears to me a gross distortion of the Gospel and an incredibly ineffective means of proclaiming that Gospel are to these men natural responses to the preaching and community life of their church. Their spiritual formation, like mine, has been significantly shaped by their Christian community.
What types of witnesses are our churches forming? What public representation of Jesus do we create through our preaching, worship, liturgy, service, and fellowship? While I seriously doubt members of our church are shouting through bullhorns and waving homemade signs, can I rest assured that we are living as captivating and confident witnesses in Chicago to the Gospel of Jesus?
As I descended the stairs to the train platform, I was greeted by more music. Two men had set up a keyboard and an electric drum and were entertaining the waiting passengers, many of whom had just come from the festival. The musicians played skillfully and sang a Gospel song with the unambiguous refrain, “In the Lord I put my trust.” Here the small audience of festival goers smiled and clapped generously, their obvious appreciation for the musicians a total contrast to the emotions elicited by the street preachers. “Those guys were really good,” I heard one passenger say once we boarded the train. “Yeah,” replied his companion, “They told me they write all of their songs.” The crowd had engaged Bullhorn Man in anger and distress, while the Gospel musicians provoked conversation out of admiration.
If the street preachers were formed by a certain church culture, so too were these musicians. The dramatic differences in the Jesus they witnessed to were a sobering reminder to me of the public ramifications of our theology and practice. Does our preaching and worship lead to fearful confrontation or creative engagement? Are our churches forming angry street preachers or skillful Gospel musicians?