There is a trendy term these days to describe churches that are so friendly and welcoming to newcomers that they never get around to telling them the truth about sin, hell, and separation from God. It’s unpopular, ugly, and in-congruent with an emotionally fragile culture.
I grew up in the Bible-Belt and attended several different churches that unfortunately, instilled in me fractured theology that I would later struggle with in college through academic atheism. In one church, the approach to the unbeliever was to weaponize the Bible and stubbornly proclaim without ever listening. That church eventually disbanded over an argument about what color the carpet should be. They preached justice at people and God gave them what they asked for.
Another church on the opposite end of the spectrum took the approach of programming, production, and personality. Considered a mega-church, this place was extremely popular and welcoming. They used Sunday School curriculum that was basically just retelling famous Bible stories and attempting to attach a clever idea to a completely unrelated passage. The less they talked about Hell, God’s wrath, and all of the extremely difficult things Jesus said, the bigger the congregation got.
Unfortunately, these experiences created some bad habits and false mindsets that I am still trying to unlearn and correct. When I share the Gospel from a stage, I always have this moment for about 30 seconds in which I am standing under bright lights, and I can’t see the audience but I know they are there, and up until this point it’s been fun and games but it all leads up to this point—the moment that my love for strangers severed from God, becomes so overwhelming that I must tell them the awful, terrible, disgusting truth of their predicament.
I’m not a great speaker, in fact speaking in general still feels new to me. I spend so much time convincing myself that if I just speak smoother and more eloquently, if I just word the Gospel clever enough, it will make things more palatable.
When we think like this, it’s like a surgeon not wanting to cut the skin in order to save a dying heart.
We lie to ourselves and spin a tale of reaching people with love.
In the book of Mark, chapter 10, verse 21, Jesus meets a wealthy man that comes to him asking how to enter heaven. Jesus does not talk about opening his heart and accepting him. The Bible says Jesus looked at him, loved him, and THEN said: “You lack one thing, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
This was not a soft answer to the man’s question. This was honest and devastating, but the Bible says Jesus said those words after looking at him and loving him. The Bible says the man was disheartened by Jesus’ words, and left distraught.
People routinely dismissed, rejected, and countered the truth when it came out of Jesus’ mouth, so why do we think we can be more persuasive than Him by changing or omitting the truth?
The Gospel is both merciful and redemptive, and simultaneously just and condemning. It is good news to some, and an indictment to others.
We cannot fully understand the magnitude of God’s Holiness, the perfection of His Justice, the infinite circumference of His Love, or the depths of His Mercy, unless we first let our eyes adjust to the pitch-black, formless dark that we exist in every single second we are on the criminal end of God’s wrath.
Let us not yell from the street nor sing around the campfire before we look at people, and love them.
Let us take our 30 seconds in the lights, staring into the dark mass of strangers, and tell them the truth, hoping that the Holy Spirit will do all of the talking.
The thought of doing magic for someone and not even personally being there really intrigued me. Recently, while at an event in Texas, I called a friend to try it on.
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The second day in Honduras, we began our mission with a place in the city called Ministeria de Vida. Vida is a rehabilitation center for men. Most of the guys there are at the end of their line: extreme addiction, no friends or family, no food or money. Their vice had taken everything from them. As we approached the locked gate made of aluminum siding, we stepped into a compound. In the center was the house in which they all bunked. The upper floor had bars for walls, each covered with a blanket for some semblance of privacy. To the left, a workshop for carpentry in which they painstakingly make acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and furniture by hand. To the right, an outdoor gym in which dumbbells were made of cement-filled coffee cans. Behind that was the pavilion in which would all meet together moments later. These details are important to illustrate the severity of the problems these men face. This was not a place filled with pillows, fluorescent lights, and therapists.
The time had come for everyone to meet, and they began by singing praise songs and praying. Within minutes, a man had stepped forward to the invisible altar and collapsed. No one paused. Voices continued and eyes remained focused. The man began violently weeping on hands and knees, holding his head as low as his body could get it. He was sweating and crying so deeply that by the end of the song, he literally lay in a puddle, and the pastor took him away to care for him.
I had witnessed a man’s fragile will, fall off of the pedestal and break into a thousand pieces. It was beautiful. Our instincts as people and Americans are to help others in distress. At some point in our life, we will wander off the trail and into the darkness further than we have ever gone. It is at that moment that we cannot be helped by someone else. Our only hope is that God reaches in and guides us back.
Many times, that guidance requires full dependence, and God can only extract that dependence by letting us fall apart within. When this man fell apart, he did so before God. His breaking was the opportunity for God to rescue him, not me, or someone else. That’s why it was beautiful.
As is often the case, God reveals the true nature of my surroundings with humility. It was clear then that despite having come to visit, I was already checked in as a person in need of rehabilitation. This would be a valuable reminder to speak to them as such, and not as some American boy who has everything together. And so I did not tell and lecture, but I pleaded and begged with them to follow Jesus.
As we drove away in the truck, and they locked the gate behind us, we watched as scores of people ran to a small opening in a wall only 1 block from the gates of Vida. They reached up with money, and a hand from the hole fed them with small bags of drugs. The road led straight in to the gates of Vida, and only steps away was darkness, waiting with an open hand.
*Note: I write to myself as the first reader. Not directed at one specific person, rather, all people, including myself, in general.*
Many people have gone on mission trips. They’ve become a tradition for people in the Bible-Belt. I’ve been on a lot of missions: several domestic trips, Canada, Nicaragua, and most recently, Honduras. I spent a week in Honduras with just a couple other guys. The trip was more of a relational mission for the purpose of bringing my own team on future trips. We were stationed in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras-- commonly known as the “Murder Capital of the World.” I expected the week to be intense, heavy, and full of excitement. My mind was racing in wonder of all the things I might see and experience. I was excited about the prospect of being a leader of a missionary team to such a place. So naturally, God chose to start the week off by reminding me what his style of leadership entails.
Day 1, we swept and mopped floors.
Just like my first job working at Dairy Queen, all of my gritty, laborious skills at mopping floors came rushing back. Mopping pattern, rinse technique, and even bucket placement. For about 1 second, I was bummed that our first assignment was cleaning. After that 1 second, I was happy and thankful.
I grew up in the shadow of numerous “leaders.” Sometimes, it was a job with a boss. Sometimes it was a job at a church with a pastor/boss. Sometimes, it was on mission trips. I’ve been mistreated by many of the leaders God has placed over me in my life. During those times, I would get angry and wonder why someone, whom I had thought was good and pure, was put in a position of authority over me.
The reason there are bad leaders is because of pride. We often mistake good leadership for qualities like charisma, personality, communication skills, intelligence, experience, etc. Watch the Presidential debates and you can see all of these things highlighted and emphasized. But biblically, none of these things are necessary ingredients for true leadership. Jesus was the epitome of true leadership. Jesus’ greatest quality was humility. He met his own standards.
So, as I arrived in Honduras, set to prepare myself for being a leader, I was thankful that my first task was mopping floors. Traveling and performing full-time, being the guy on stage speaking to the audience sets one up to feel important and powerful. Mopping floors is not glamourous. Tyrants don’t do their own laundry and dictators don’t wait tables.
The leader is first in line, and all other behind follow. Just like when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he was walking all the way back to the person last in line, and serving them, making them first. The next people in line follow Jesus, and soon, the line transforms into a circle, and a circle has no beginning or end.
The best leader is the first to serve.
I am a Perception Artist, which means I distort the angles at which we see, feel, hear, and understand. Perception is a fascinating thing because it allows something to be two things at once. Here is an amazing story of coincidence that deals with perception, and it really affected Andrea and I in a really positive way.
Recently, I was running errands in town, having just come from the gym. Covered in sweat and smelling like weightlifting, I decided to make a pit stop at Academy Sports to look at some toys. It was on the way, I wasn’t planning to buy anything…unless it was marked down to a price Andrea wouldn’t get mad at me for. I’m in the aisle, comparing the intricacies of carabiner keychains and Nalgene bottles, when another man steps into the aisle to look at flashlights. This story is RIVETING, isn’t it? After a minute, the other guy casually asks me, “What do you play?”
“What?” I said.
“Are you an athlete? What sport do you play?” he questioned.
“Oh, uhh, no I’m not an athlete and I don’t really play a sport, but thanks!”
He then told me he asked because he manages children’s recreation and music camps overseas. He basically attempted to witness to me as if I was a non-believer. The exchange turned into a conversation and we both discovered that we were both in non-traditional ministry, raising support and moving towards becoming missionaries. It was extremely cool to meet a stranger that shared so much in common with me. He had to run, but before he left, he mentioned how raising support was difficult for people not doing the normal thing. He and his wife just met with a friend, a rich business man in Virginia that had a passion for supporting unique ministries and that he was going to talk to him about a meeting.
Wow. Just like that, God seemed to show me just how uniquely he could open doors. A very similar situation happened recently in which a complete stranger, after meeting us for one day, prayed and said he felt God leading him to give to us. I didn’t even ask. Sometimes God does the thing we least expect!
So, we exchanged numbers and agreed to try and connect soon. After our last event, this past weekend, I got back home and saw he had messaged me about getting together and meeting his wife for a couple’s date. It was cool to not only have the possibility of God providing, but to also make friendships with new people in the area. Yesterday, we met in town and had a great conversation! We really clicked with them. It was especially encouraging to talk evangelism with fellow missionaries.
So it just goes to show you that sometimes our perception of people and situations can’t account for those random, unique coincidences.
I hope this story encouraged you.
Because it ends darkly.
When I perform and speak, I tell people constantly that we are targets. Deception is the pillar by which empires are built upon. Deception is the instrument of sin.
As I was sitting at the table with these two new friends, I began to notice some things. And personally, I believe it was God pointing them out to me because I definitely didn’t pick up on them at any point, and yet they all came at once, like a checklist. When they spoke about evangelism, there was a strange vagueness. When they spoke about God, there was ambiguity—they could have replaced God with Karma and what they were saying would have been congruent. From a psychological angle, everything about their attitude and demeanor suggested an agenda, like there was something they were more interested in talking about but had to wait and get through the soft talk first so as to build rapport.
At the opportune time in the conversation, he began his script.
“So, I know we had talked about my friend in Virginia and how he supported us. Sean, I noticed you perked up when I mentioned financial support. That’s why I think this is something that will totally change your life.”
He launched into a script, complete with well-timed, too-witty-to-actually-be-that-witty jokes with his wife, and lots of psychological cues and techniques such as anchoring, agreement, and appeal. And it was masterful. This couple was incredible. Andrea and I felt like we were at a show, watching one of the greatest performances of psychological persuasion ever. It was art.
We were being conned, and they saw us as “marks.”
Fortunately for us, Andrea and I are the worst choice of victims they could make. I know every nook and crevice of the cave. Heck, I’m basically the boogeyman if I wanted to be. I already found out the names of everyone in his immediate and extended family. If I was the villain in this story, he’d be moving back in with his parents.
They were trying to con us into fraud and racketeering that due to subtlety, is just barely legal in this country based solely on a single legal loophole that has yet to be amended. Nonetheless, the con victimizes people and can result in theft and criminal prosecution for the “mark.”
However, the most disturbing part of this story is that it all started with a guy witnessing to me at Academy Sports. This whole plan started with an attempt at evangelism. We are now convinced they intentionally prey on strangers and look to build rapport via mentioning a list of topics in their small-talk that people can relate to: sports, church, family, music, etc.
Now the point of me writing all of this is two-fold. First, I thought it could serve as an eye-opener into just how saturated our culture is with predators masquerading as friendly neighbors. I’m not advocating paranoia and distrust, but I am advocating awareness. Andrea and I personally know many, many people who have fallen prey into milder versions of this trap, as well as pyramid scams and Ponzi schemes. It happens more than we think. Deception is THE instrument of sin. It’s the scalpel of lust, the axe of greed, the sword of pride. Deceit is the papercut that begins the bleeding. You barely notice it’s there until it gets infected.
The second reason I wrote this is to encourage you towards the truth. As followers of Jesus, our two jobs are aligning ourselves with the truth, and ensuring the truth is made known. We cannot convince everyone, but we absolutely must make the truth available to them.
As Andrea and I continue to fundraise for our mission, we are so thankful that we have people praying for us in public and in secret. We are thankful that God provides through love, and not through greed. And lastly, I’m thankful that God didn’t let me become the villain.
|| sean ||