Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Matter of Trajectory

Take a look at the following (fictional) church signs (Sorry if you attend a "New Hope Baptist Church. I couldn't change that part of the sign), and ask yourself the following:

1. Is this sign appropriate, or has it crossed a line?
2. Can God use it?

Let's tackle the questions in reverse order:

2. Can God use it?

The correct answer is "yes." Not for some, not for all but the last, but for every sign. Yes, God can use such strategies to bring a person to repentance! We serve a Sovereign God who accomplishes salvation through jealous brothers, wicked pharaohs and kisses of betrayal. He can use all things for His glory and to accomplish His purposes. Could someone get saved at a youth group activity that is centered around wickedness? Provided the gospel is communicated (which will probably seem odd and out of place), we have to answer in the affirmative. For salvation is not up to our strategies or even our purity, but is up to a Sovereign God powerfully working through the proclamation of the gospel. This should remind us of two truths:

      1. The results do not justify the action.
      2. A gospel proclamation does not mean the event is suddenly pure.
It doesn't matter how many people came or how many people got saved. These are not indicators that the Lord was pleased with our activities. Jesus said that some will say, "Did we not prophesy in your name?" and yet they will be confined to hell, for they never knew Him. Certainly, the believer can also disobey the Lord and yet the Lord will allow others to be ministered to in the midst. Neither does the fact that the gospel was proclaimed "white wash" the activity/strategy. Yes, Paul was pleased that the gospel was proclaimed, even if with ill motive. However, we should not assume that also means the Lord was pleased with their ill motive. He will judge and they will stand before Him for it. I fear for many pastors who seem to ignore the fact that they will stand before God for more than just the numbers they attracted or even the number of people who got saved. They will stand before God for their faithfulness to Him, faithfulness in character and proclamation.

1. Is this sign appropriate, or has it crossed the line?

If your your screen is small enough that every sign did not appear at first, you were probably shocked to scroll down and see the last sign. Of course, that's wrong! you probably thought. You maybe even felt the same way about sign three. Actually, once you saw sign three, it may have impacted how you felt about sign two. This is the point of trajectory.

Sign four has crossed a definite line. If you don't believe so, you should resign from ministry and repent immediately. You've obviously drunk the "win them at all costs" koolaide and unless you see the error of this method, the cost may be your own soul. Any youth pastor who held this kind of event should not only be fired, but should be arrested. (I have no idea if a youth group has ever tried this, but I wouldn't be surprised. However, I do not think this is really any different than a pastor standing in front of his congregation and seeking to connect with his audience by speaking gleefully about a poster of a famous actress in a swimsuit. [Which happened in a church on Resurrection Sunday!] This pastor is also using sinful lust as a way to "win over" his audience.)

Sign three becomes problematic as well. What would be the purpose of pointing out cheerleaders in your youth group? Does this contribute to the popularity garbage of the jr/sr high caste system? Are you not trying to attract pagans to your youth group through their sinful desires? Isn't this using the girls of your church as an object? What does this say to the girls who aren't cheerleaders, or the cheerleader who thinks she's the exception because "she's really not that pretty?" And no amount of "verbal wizardry" can sanctify this situation. You can't say to yourself, Ah, but I mean beautiful in a 1 Peter 3 sort of way. These girls have beautiful character. I'm speaking of true beauty! No, when you know the reader will misunderstand your statement (or it comes to your attention that it is easily misunderstood) it is not appropriate to keep it. (Many pastors today seem to love playful use of innuendo and double meaning. When this is used to arouse sinful passion, this is wrong.) Sign three is evidence of wrong thinking (at the least) and such strategies should not be employed. (I have never seen this sign either, but I have been at a restaurant with another youth pastor [not ours!] who told a local boy he should come to his youth group because he has a lot of pretty girls. Now, why would a youth pastor, who should be seeking to preserve the purity of his girls and should be speaking against being unequally yoked, ever sick a pagan boy on his girls?)

Sign two could probably be answered either way. It's one thing if the pastor simply knows that Sally is Ryan's acquaintance and her presence may allay his fears of not knowing anyone. This could be an innocent statement from the youth pastor. However, if he is aware that Ryan has a "crush" on Sally and he is trying to manipulate that desire to get the kid to come, he is once again objectifying a member of his youth group. He also sends a double message, for it appears that he would approve of the boy having a relationship with Sally. The answer is not to be double tongued either. He should not have the option of making this boy think he should pursue a relationship with the girl, and then run over to the girl and encourage her not to pursue a relationship with the boy. In fact, if the youth pastor later becomes aware of the fact that Ryan has a greater appreciation for Sally than just acquaintances, he should abandon such a strategy to attract the young man to the youth group.

But I first started coming to a youth group because I was attracted to a girl, you may protest. That's not what I'm talking about. In fact, during a recent communion service, several men in our church shared they were motivated to pursue Christ by their attraction to a Christian woman. As they pursued the woman, they met her Savior and were won over to the Lord. This fact gets us back to question two, God can use any means to bring a person to faith. However, this does not mean it is right for a pastor to use whatever means available to do the same. Might a young man come to a youth group because of lustful passion for a girl and yet he encounters Christ? Praise be to God, it happens all the time. Should a pastor knowingly manipulate these passions to try to get the young man in the door? Never.

Sign one seems innocent enough. Teens are insecure and self-conscious already. There's nothing wrong with easing someone's fear of being alone and scared by appealing to relationships they already have. To say, Hey, we have a lot of kids from your high school in our youth group. You probably recognize a lot of them is a pretty innocent statement in it's own. However, even this statement could be said with wrong motive. Are you trying to win the kid over that other members of his cliche come to your youth group and find it cool? Are you trying to appeal to his social status and convince him that his pursuit of popularity can be enhanced by joining your group? You see, the words are not isolated in a vacuum. They are connected to a motive and that motive is connected to the speaker's heart. If the motive is not pure, neither is the statement.

And here comes the question of trajectory...

If the maker of sign four is also the maker of sign one, do you have less confidence in the innocence of sign one?

If a youth pastor employs sign four as a strategy to win people, this is not the beginning of his indiscretion. Yet often a church (and more tragically, the youth pastor, himself) will only look to the obvious error and not look toward the root. If a pastor gets to the point where he is using sex (or greed or gossip or any other sinful lust) in such a way to appeal to his audience, the root is sick, not just the fruit. So often, however, we are tempted to simply draw a line around certain behavior and slap the pastor's wrist when he crosses such behavior. The problem is, if the root desire is still the same, you haven't addressed the heart problem.

For instance, suppose a pastor is really dumb enough to issue a youth group wet t-shirt contest. Hopefully, his church (and parents!) are offended by this and sit down to speak with him. The youth pastor "repents" and issues an apology (usually just a generic "sorry" instead of a confession of sin...but I digress). He promises not to do that again. However, because no one has helped him search the heart issue, he might continue to employ the strategies in the first three signs. He may still be appealing to sinful lusts as an attraction strategy, he just may not be as blatant and explicit.

Once the shock of his error passes by, the church will probably relax and think the problem was taken care of...until it returns.

And it will return, because you haven't severed the root.

This is where trajectory can tell us a lot. And should remind us all, pastor or not, that we must deal with the underlying heart problem, not just the manifestations. When a pastor exhibits such blatantly sinful strategies, the church is not serving herself, her pastor or her community when she just confronts the actions. For the sake of his soul and his witness, she should love him enough to examine the trajectory and get to the heart.

(If you attend Grace, I praise God for your faithful work to seek my sanctification as well. Keep it up!)


Darby Livingston said...

Great post and great points, Danny. I have one observation. It seem strange to actually see it on a sign, but we know the gospel has always traveled through existing relationships, and that's exactly the most effective way for someone to be brought to Christ - through the invitation of a friend or family member. Don't know how that jives with the point of sign one, but thought I'd throw it out there.

danny2 said...

I agree totally. And that's why it's a matter of the motive of the heart.

A personal invitation from a friend is powerful...and that could be all that the sign is presenting.

However, the sign could also represent someone trying (even unwittingly) to appeal to fleshly motives, such as status or popularity. in that sense, the appeal is not to a personal relationship, but to a personal gain.

could/should i drive by a church and assess which they mean by their sign? no. however, if they have been appealing to fleshly impulses in other ministry areas, is it more likely their motive is poor in this sign too? i think it's probable.

Darby Livingston said...

That's why a sign with simply the name set in stone is better. :)