Ben Patterson, a Presbyterian Pastor who is now the Campus Minister of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, remembers a Sunday morning when he made a dramatic sweeping gesture with his arm during a sermon and he says that he watched as the head of every person in church that morning turned to follow it. That was the Sunday morning when Ben says that he “discovered” his power. If he had the power to turn heads with a simple gesture like that, Ben wondered, then what could he get people to do if he really put his mind to it! For the first time in his ministry Ben understood that he had the power of persuasion, and that it could easily become pure manipulation. Ben came to the realization that he could use his power for good or for ill, in the service of his own petty interests or for the sake of God’s eternal purposes revealed in Jesus Christ, and so he had better be careful… very careful.
I thought about this story recently while reading Timothy George’s intriguing essay on “Gimmicks and God” in First Things (6/15/15). After “confessing” some of his own “hot gospel antics” from a much earlier day in his life – dressing up like the devil to publicize a youth revival at his church and allowing a blindfolded “karate for Christ” champion to slice a raw potato off his head – Dr. George, now the highly regarded President of a highly respected Seminary, wonders where the line is? Does anything go in our desire to gather a crowd? Are there any limits at all on our drive for numerical success – to be the biggest and the best? When do the gimmicks that we use to draw a crowd “for Christ” become ends in themselves, stunts that feed our own egos? And what’s the tipping point when persuasion tumbles off into manipulation?
In I Corinthians Paul explained that he was prepared to become all things to all people so that by all means he might save some (9:22). These verses could and often have been used to justify an “anything goes” approach to the church’s ministry. And so I have known ministers who have been dunked in big vats of soupy jello as a stunt in church on a Sunday morning, who have had their heads shaved in worship, who have preached in their underwear, who have been dressed up in every and any silly costume that you can possibly imagine, and who have led worship from a bed drug into the sanctuary for a morning, or while suspended from the ceiling by wires, or from the roof of a church tethered by ropes to the steeple. It’s all good fun they say. They’re just being “fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10) they argue. And who am I – a preacher in a plateaued church in a dying denomination – to say anything. And so I won’t.
But I will let Paul speak. You see, for all his talk in I Corinthians about being willing to become all things to all people in order to reach some of them, Paul still had his limits.
…Having this ministry by the mercy of God… We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)
Paul criticized those he described as being “peddlers of God’s word.” He renounced their “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” and he refused “to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” like them. It wasn’t “anything goes” for him in his ministry. Paul imposed some limits, and I think he hinted at the parameters of those limits that he set for himself at the very beginning of I Corinthians when he wrote –
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (2:1-5)
I think another New Testament conversation about where the “limits” can be found is in the story of Jesus with the woman at the Samaritan well (John 4). The conversation that Jesus had with her worked its way around to a specific question about worship (John 4). Jews and Samaritans had different sanctuaries, different scared mountains, and different worship traditions, and the woman, having perceived that Jesus was a “prophet,” decided that while she was with someone who could speak for God that it would be the perfect opportunity to settle a nagging religious question. “Who’s right?” she wanted to know. “Which mountain does God prefer?” And Jesus told her that the externals of religious observance were less important to God than the inward dispositions of the worshippers.
The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father
in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him. (4:23)
Here are the “limits” according to Jesus in this text – “spirit and truth.” In my mind’s eye I can see “spirit” and “truth” as the banks of a river through which the life and ministry of a church flow. They set its direction and channel its flow. A popular Bible Study site explains the meaning of “spirit and truth” this way –
True worship must be “in spirit,” that is, engaging the whole heart. Unless there’s a real passion for God, there is no worship in spirit. At the same time, worship must be “in truth,” that is, properly informed. Unless we have knowledge of the God we worship, there is no worship in truth. Both are necessary for satisfying and God-honoring worship. Spirit without truth leads to a shallow, overly emotional experience that could be compared to a high. As soon as the emotion is over, when the fervor cools, so does the worship. Truth without spirit can result in a dry, passionless encounter that can easily lead to a form of joyless legalism. The best combination of both aspects of worship results in a joyous appreciation of God informed by Scripture. The more we know about God, the more we appreciate Him. The more we appreciate, the deeper our worship. The deeper our worship, the more God is glorified. (http://www.gotquestions.org)
Truth is objective. Spirit is subjective.
Truth is about the facts. Spirit is about the feelings.
Truth engages the mind. Spirit engages the heart.
Truth is about what God in Jesus Christ has done for us in human history – His Incarnation (Christmas), the Atonement (Good Friday), His Resurrection (Easter), and the pouring out of His empowering and indwelling presence (Pentecost). Spirit is the personal application of what Jesus Christ has done for us to our hearts individually so that we can become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), and lean into the coming of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1).
Recently, after keynoting a church retreat, one of the participants approached to thank me for what I had just shared in my message. He told me that the content was good and helpful (“truth”) and that I had delivered it with passion and commitment (“spirit”), and that’s the standard that I aim for every time I stand to preach or teach. Those are the banks between which my ministry flows. I want to be faithful with the treasure of the Gospel that has been entrusted to me (2 Timothy 1:13-14), and I want to share it “in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5). This, it turns out, was also the standard of one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition. Barton W. Stone wrote –
I not only advise you to preach the Word, but also preach it in the Spirit. In vain we attempt to preach in the Spirit, unless we have the Spirit, and experience the force of that truth we deliver to others. A man may preach the truth in the letter without the Spirit. Such preaching is vain-useless to saint and sinner. Apathetic and moral lectures on religion have almost ruined the world, and swelled the number of skeptics. For they thus argue: Did these people believe what they preach or read, would they be so cold and unfeeling in their addresses? Would they not cry aloud and spare not? Did you ever know one such preacher convert a sinner from the error of his ways? A person may also preach with a great vociferous zeal and manner. This may be and often is nothing more than mere animal nature, without the spirit. Live and walk in the spirit, and preach in the Spirit; then will the attention of your hearers be arrested, and good effects will follow. (The Christian Messenger 5 – July 1831 – 164-7)
And Leonard Hodgson agreed –
As I listen to sermons I am impressed by the fact that over and over again preaching fails in effectiveness not because of defects in the preparation of the subject matter, but because the preacher is not putting his/her whole self into the delivery of the message. One recognizes that the material is good, well and carefully thought out and put together. But it fails to catch fire and kindle answering sparks in the congregation because its utterance gives the impression of being the performance of a routine duty. (David Larsen – The Evangelism Mandate – Kregel – 1992 – p. 111)
And so it’s both spirit and truth I seek to serve in my preaching and teaching. Those are my standards, the masters I serve. I want what I say to be settled as truth in my mind and to be fired with spirit in my heart. Not stunts and gimmicks but substance and passion. Not style and flash but Spirit and truth. DBS+