Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Aus (um) Lecture, 2016

The Aus Lecture on Evangelism
Delivered at The Craft of Preaching Conference, Luther Seminary, Oct. 3, 2016

Given that tonight’s event is described as a lecture, Michael and I figured there probably should be at least some small part of the evening that has the feel of being a lecture.  So, this will be that lecture part that you had coming to you.  So prepare yourselves to receive a talking to.

Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but I am going to say the word . . . EVANGELISM.  The Aus Lecture (in which you’re now sitting) is intended to cover some aspect of Evangelism, which is surprising because—in my experience, growing up Lutheran, and now an Episcopal priest—Evangelism is a word that makes the people I know very uncomfortable.  Combine the word Evangelism with the word Lecture, and boy oh boy, you’ve got a party!

Michael and I never made the claim to be evangelists.  We were just two guys who wrote songs about Jesus and played concerts for a living.  On the other hand, it is true that for 30 years we traveled around the country and the world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ . . . which really does sound like evangelism, come to think of it.  We even made our first concert tour riding bicycles . . . which really sounds like Mormon evangelism, truth be told.

So, what I’m trying to say here is mainly this: We never set out to be evangelists.  But we did sort of back into it, in a way.  Or, more accurately, looking in our rearview mirror, it seems clear to us that we were in fact “doing evangelism,” and it didn’t seem scary or intimidating at all.  So maybe the first thing one has to do when considering taking on some of that evangelism stuff is to get rid of the images you have in your brain of people with angry signs and bullhorns, or people walking around the neighborhood with scary little tracts that have pictures of flames and screaming sinners in torment.

Set aside the images that come into your mind when you hear the word “evangelism,” and try replacing them with images that go with what the word means: The English word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word euaggelion. In the noun form, the word means: “gospel” or “good news.” In the verb form, it is to “announce” or “bring good news.”

If you remember nothing that we say or do tonight, I hope you will remember the definition of evangelism.  To announce good news.  And then, the next question might just be, “How do I do that?”  I’m glad you asked.  Though I don’t know how you do that, I can tell you how we did that, back when we were traveling around playing our little songs.  Or, more accurately, I can tell you what we’ve identified as the three main components of how we’ve done that . . . through the miracle of hindsight, of course.  The three important parts of what we did through music consisted of Content, Communication, and Community.  (Whenever you list three things in a lecture, they should all begin with the same letter.)

We’ll get to Content in a couple minutes when I tag-team over to my trusty assistant Michael D. Bridges, but I want to focus on the Community and Communication parts first.

First there is Community.  There’s an old saying, anything worth doing is worth doing in community.  Now, granted, that old saying might only be 10 seconds old because I just made it up, but if it isn’t an old saying then it should be.  (In memes, we should attribute it to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill.)  But it’s true: Anything worth doing is worth doing in community.

The importance of music in building community is sort of obvious when you think about it.  Church services have opening hymns; baseball games have national anthems and 7th inning stretches; blowing out candles is preceded by singing Happy Birthday.  Getting a group of people to sing together is a sure-fire way to get a community of individuals gathered into one.  (Whereas blasting rock music from overpowering speakers is not . . . just saying.)  When a bunch of separate individuals all sing together, a community forms.

And you can get a sense of what builds community by looking at the opposite.  Think of the things that keep people isolated from one another.  For instance, a band keeping listeners in the dark (could there be a more apt metaphor?)  In our experience, being able to see the people is just as important—if not more so—than having them see us.  I know that’s not the way it’s usually done (and the spotlight union would have something to say about this, I’m sure), but just imagine if you and I were having a conversation and I was shining klieg lights in your face like a film noir interrogation.  Or flip it around and ask yourself how valued you feel if I have spotlights on me while we're trying to have a conversation.

Plus, keeping the lights on in the room enables people to see each other (i.e. form a community).  We once played in an auditorium in Michigan that was v-shaped, meaning the people on one side of the room could not see the people on the other side.  (Think, “The Dating Game.”)  What this meant, in the moment, was that any interaction was lost to half the room.  “Hey, young person in the 20th row on the east side of the wall, cool hat.  Sure wish people on the west side could see it.”

And the main point of ALL of that about Community is this: A group of people who feel united and on the same page feel supported in that moment in time.  People who have arrived as strangers sometimes end up leaving as friends.  Sometimes they end up married, truth be told!  (The Lost And Found Matchmaking Service has been remarkably successful.)  We maintain that a Community gathered is more fertile ground for a message of hope and salvation, and more ready to receive . . . The Communication.

In our experience, Communication needs certain components to work.  Speaking for just ourselves, we’ve found those components to be something like music (duh), humor, transparency, and respect.

The first three (music, humor, transparency, which do not begin with the same letter unfortunately) are kind of obvious, if you’ve seen a Lost And Found concert.  Even someone who hated our music would recognize that we tell jokes, play songs, and act like ourselves during a concert.  Music, humor, transparency.  But the respect aspect is something that took us a long time to understand, because it never occurred to us that we were doing it.

Well, here’s what I mean by that.  At some point, after a concert, a pastor came up to us and said something like, “The reason I think our kids enjoy coming to your concerts is because you treat them all like they’re already in.”  He meant a combination of “already saved,” and “already a part of the group.”   We didn’t see that as even being a thing until he pointed it out.  Because . . . well . . . they are in.  We are in.  It’s like we all got an invitation to a party.  You came.  So did we.  How weird would it be if we talked to you—at the party—like you weren’t invited or didn’t come?  Weird, right?  When people feel included and respected, they are more apt to listen.

In the course of our travels and participation at various gatherings across denominations, we have seen lots of communicators communicating.  Some effectively, some not.  Ideally, you have a good communicator with good content.  Sometimes, you see a bad communicator with good content, which is just kind of sad, and you hope they get better because the content was so good.  Conversely, we have seen presentations where we say to one another, the best thing about that presentation was that they were unable to clearly communicate those awful ideas.  And, of course, the most frightening combination of all is an effective communicator with scary content.  That’s the kind of person who can convince an arena full of young people they are all going to hell, by using a series of humorous anecdotes and emotionally gripping narratives.

And speaking of an arena full of young people going to hell, approaching a group like they are out and you are in often leads to a little phenomenon we like to call The Prayer of Condescension.  When we’ve provided music at events that are Primarily Denominations Other Than Lutheran (or, PDOTLs), the leadership often gathers before the event begins in order to pray The Prayer of Condescension.  The crucial starting point for this prayer is the idea that the kids are not in.  The kids do not have what they need to be loved by God.  The kids are—quite bluntly—destined for hell.  UNLESS . . .

Exactly.  Unless the speaker is effective in delivering the message that will turn these kids around.  And so, the Prayer of Condescension goes something like this:  “Father God, we just come to you tonight asking for a clear pathway to save these precious kids from burning forever in hell . . .”  And then it’s a list of everything that could go wrong, lest God forget to anoint those things to work properly, like the sound system, and the worship band, and the temperature of the room.

The goal of the Prayer of Condescension is that impediments would be removed so that the kids out there will be able to receive OUR wisdom.  Because, the group of youth pastors and organizers have the thing these kids need, but the kids don’t know it.  We have the message of salvation, see, and the kids, the outsiders, just need to get what we’ve got, the tremendous wisdom that only we possess.  So, Father God, just let the sound system work, and the kids’ texting machines not work.  Just let my words be clear, and everything else just be silenced.  Let those outsiders become insiders like us, the wise ones gathered in this dark Convention Center concession stand, where popcorn butter and spilled soda soaking into our shoes are making our steps stick slightly to the cold cement as we walk to the brilliantly-lit stage where, Father God, your focus also will be.  Amen.  (Roll fog. Cue deafening worship band.)

And from that point, Michael I just pray that the speaker is a bad communicator, because—as we’ve seen—the content is definitely going to be harmful.  And this is why Lutherans, and others, have a hard time imagining doing evangelism.  The starting point for that kind of evangelism—the kind that assumes everyone is going to hell if we don’t get out there and stop them—is that some people are insiders, and some people are outsiders.  And if you think that way, then you are forced to develop a really effective and convincing argument to explain why someone needs to get saved.  Which we don’t have, because that is not how we think about people, or about God.

We were once playing at a small youth gathering in Michigan with a our friend Bart, who is—or who was—a Baptist speaker.  And being a Baptist speaker, Bart took every opportunity holding a microphone to do an altar call.  But his style was different from most that we’ve seen.  Because Bart always took an approach that was more an enticement than it was a threat.  Sort of more “come and be with the God of life” than “don’t go and burn in hell.”

So this little youth event was being held at a Lutheran church.  And on Sunday morning, during the worship service, Bart used the sermon time to try and, you know, get a few kids saved.  And, toward the end of his talk, he invited all the kids who wanted to get right with God and live a new life of joy and peace to come forward to the altar so he could pray for them.  Every single kid in the room got up and joined Bart at the altar.  Because every one of them considered themselves to be in need of God’s forgiveness.  And every one of them considered themselves to be IN.  What our friend Bart did not realize was that what he was really doing was what we all call Confession and Absolution.  (And we do it every Sunday morning, Bart.)

From what we have seen, the first thing to remember about evangelism is that everybody is already in.  You’re not trying to bring them something they don’t already have.  You’re just reminding them of what God has already done for them.  Evangelism is good news, right?  And if you’re telling someone a bunch of stuff that doesn’t sound like good news, then you are not doing evangelism.  The Good News is always good news.

Here endeth the lecture.

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