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What it means to be lost, Pt. 1

What follows is something I’ve been working on and thought I’d share as I continue with it. I wouldn’t make too much of the self-disclosure, which is true enough, but it’s not beyond intellectual distance. Right now it’s little more than bourgeois anomie. It may never rise beyond that, I know; but for now, it’s only one initial stab at an incomplete draft of something to write. Thoughts are of course welcome.

During last year’s Christmas season, my church debated the adoption of a mission statement, but it wasn’t much of a debate. What happened instead was a few people followed up on an old idea and for five weeks presented that idea to the congregation at large. It was a good exercise at the time. We were unpastored and ministerless, filling the pulpit from the pews; to have a set of themes on which to speak gave the pulpit continuity.

One of those sermons I volunteered to give. I was to summarize the series and supply a justification for having a mission at all. But mid-series, the person who had volunteered to speak about evangelism had forgotten he would be out of town that Sunday. It fell to me to fill in for him.

To speak about evangelism and, specifically, the phrase “Evangelize the Lost,” was the last thing I wanted to do. Evangelism has too often been explained to me as if it were a recruitment task for me to believe that any attempt on my part to define it as something else would be just short of pointless. Once, in high school, while attending a large youth rally in Russellville, Arkansas, a friend and missionary’s daughter tapped me on the shoulder in Wendy’s. “See that guy over there,” she said, pointing out some nondescript but well-dressed man eating a Big Bacon Classic, “He was asking about us. He said he’d seen all these kids in town and was wondering what was going on. Why don’t you go over and talk to him? Invite him to the gospel meeting this afternoon?” Everything about that moment was uncomfortable. To interrupt a stranger’s meal, for opportunity’s sake, in order to talk about something someone else overheard, all in the interest of bringing a possibly—but not necessarily—lost man to Jesus seemed silly. Celebrities are justified to gripe about autograph seekers who come to their tables at restaurants. It is righteous to complain when a solicitor calls in the middle of dinner. In no way does proselytizing, simply because it’s proselytizing, make a similar interruption of dinner less rude. Perhaps a case may perhaps be made to claim that proselytizing overrides rudeness, but it doesn’t not make it rude. What I was asked to do in that Wendy’s so many years ago was instigate an encounter for encounter’s sake.

Yet all my life I’ve listened to Christians hold up such encounters as the height of Christian action. To invite to church the woman stuffing $54.60 in her gas tank is boastful action. To remind the Baptists at work that God won’t save until after baptism is exemplary righteousness. This, I’ve been told, is evangelism, and it is what all Christians are called to do by the Great Commission. To claim otherwise is tantamount to saying that you don’t want the church to grow and worse, that you do not wish to save the lost for Christ. Thus saith the Lord: Ye Who Refuse to Invite the Lost Are No Better Than Untended Seeds.

But I don’t buy it. Philip, before he was Philip the Evangelist, was Philip the Deacon, and there is no evidence that the two roles overlapped in his life. So it is that I believe, if women and men are wineskins, the wine they contain varies as widely as the skins themselves. In some it ripens quickly for a wedding feast. In others it ages to complexity to be savored by connoisseurs. In others it turns to vinegar to dress a salad well. In still others it is there to turn, miraculously, to water, to quench a man’s thirst. For this I cannot believe that evangelism represents the single most important act of post-Resurrection belief.

So it was that the last theme I wanted to speak on was “Evangelize the Lost.” One man in my church beats himself up because he doesn’t talk about Jesus to his co-workers nearly enough; another man loves to tell a story of a preacher who gave a waitress a $5.00 tip and baptized her the next day: let either, or both of them speak their minds. I would listen, take notes, and redeliver their words to the church in a few weeks. It was on Friday night I learned that no one who I thought was scheduled to speak would be speaking; it was Saturday when my name was filled in the blank.

It was not in anyone’s best interest, so far as I saw it, to shake up how people understood God-in-praxis. We were a church in flux, and besides, I didn’t have any time to prepare. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to deliver the traditional homily about the Great Commission or about Acts 8. Those texts are so well used in respect to evangelism as to be cliché. Instead, taking my cue from Luke 15, borrowing from Hansel and Gretel, and interpreting a Jeep commercial, I worked out an argument that focused not on evangelism, but on what it means to be lost. Here is part of what I said:

To be lost means to be separated from those we are like—from our family—and it means that we are separated from those who love us. To be lost is to be alienated. To be lost is to be exposed. To be lost is to be at the mercy of those who would harm us. To be lost is to be helpless.

Looking back over the year since I spoke those words, part of me wants to agree completely. But then, this year I dropped out of my fifth year of advanced graduate education. This year I’ve worked shit jobs that are in some ways the underbelly of industrial education. This year I’ve been unemployed for long enough stretches that all my future prospects seem either like no prospect at all or like the cliffs in Didion’s Salvador, where the only reason people go there is to dump their dead. This year I’ve sat in church and for whole services resented how I can’t seem to wrench myself away long enough to visit the Episcopalian, Lutheran, and UCC churches downtown. After this year, in other words, another part wants to say about being lost, “No. That is not it. That is not it at all.”

 

Comments

I’m curious how you [supplied a justification for having a mission], if you still think that was a good idea, and if the mission statement was ever completed, and if so, if it is still followed or referenced in any way. I also wonder if your own mission statement, or lack thereof, has something to do with your feelings of lost-ness, and what you think might be the solution. In other words, I can’t wait for part II.

Mick said: “I’m curious how you [supplied a justification for having a mission], if you still think that was a good idea, and if the mission statement was ever completed, and if so, if it is still followed or referenced in any way.”

The answer to all that is “yes.”

The rest, well, I dunno where I’m going in writing, so I won’t venture much of a guess, but if I can say anything this early, I can say this: I will not write for solutions. That doesn’t mean that I won’t write solutions, etc., but it means that I won’t accept solutions as definitive. I have my own reasons, which I think are very good reasons, for that.

Oh, and how the whole mission thing went down was like this: when it was my turn to do so, I summarized what had been said and advocated for its adoption.

as someone who reads more psychology than theology, i am ignorant of what all is officially included in “evangelism.” however, it strikes me that the evangelism you describe is one of confrontation and exhortation. this must surely be appropriate for some people (e.g., my late preacher grandfather) some of the time. i wonder, though, if evangelism can also comprise listening and being present for someone who needs this? if not, i will never be an evangelist. if so, in my better moments i am trying.

with respect to the lost-ness…
of all the people I know, you best manage to personify simultaneously the various crises described by marx (anomie), sartre (authenticity), freud (oedipus), and derrida. :) and you do this in an earnest and mostly lovable way.

non sequiturs

tonight pbs showed “the misfits”...both clark gables and marilyn monroe’s last flick.
though it is the first time i’ve seen it; it is, i think, one of my favorite cowboy movies of all times.

they all are misfits and lost…they all spend most of the flick saying really profound things at inappropriate moments (not that your post falls into this category…the inappropriate part, that is); they also spend most of the flick talking past eachother; led by desires they themselves do not understand.

words mean nothing to these people…however, they do understand something about loyalty, something about compassion, something about being with and being there…

anyway, you’re in our thoughts…and if you ever wanna visit a great confederate mountain, there’s a bed

Chris, what you hope about evangelism, I hope too. Your grandfather and mine and especially Jeremy’s were of a generation that prized such confrontation. Someone might come along and say they were closer to being Wild at Heart than we are, but I don’t believe that any of them believed to confront others was in their natures. Rather, they believed it their duties.

I have never seen “The Misfits.” Now I think I ought.

Oh, and next time we’re in the land of confederate mountains, let’s do something else!

it’s supposed to be excellent…we still haven’t gone…but i am sure that we will soon go

the interesting thing about my grandfather was that he stayed on the mission field long enough to see the confrontationalist and heirarchical methods fail (methods his two brothers took and propagated somewhere out west…though they’ve changed in recent years)

his evangelism…since before i can remember was relational. he loved people and people loved him in a way i’ve seen in precious few. whether the washed up druggie that few in church would pay attention to or the big time preachers that would come through, they both would seek him out and talk to him.

oh, he could preach the gospel…but his effectiveness was not because he “confronted” people but because they trusted him and confided in him

When my grandfather was working on his PhD at Berkeley, he would stand outside the meetings of other groups (7th-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, et al.) and pamphlet them as they filed from worship. And of course when he was Benson’s firebrand at the alma mater, he was for many years the jewel of debates. Rumor had it that the Mormons refused to let their elders knock on his door. If anyone was about confrontation, it was he. My grandfather was a man of reason, and he believed that when he could argue away others’ heretical fallacies, they would come to the Lord he knew.

Yet I hear stories, sometimes, that he was an understanding man to talk to, and that, especially if you were churched in the right way, his words could comfort the hurting. So far as I can tell, though, that part of him stayed within the church.