January 28, 2021

How much is too much?

How far is too far in using creative methods to “reach” people?

clownyguy.jpgTom Ascol has been posting some good posts about some of the more extreme forms of sincere, but outlandish pragmatism to be found in the cause of church growth and evangelism. In the comments, the inevitable question appears: OK- how do we know when the line has been crossed? How much is too much in the cause of church growth and evangelism?

In the years that I have critiqued evangelicals, I’ve written a lot about the “wretched urgency” that drives much of evangelical methodology and practice. At the foundation of much of that wretched urgency is a set of justifications that we’ve all heard many times before. Any of these sound familiar?

“If it reaches even one person, it was worth it.”
“I like my way of doing something better than your way of doing nothing.”
“The Bible says you should become all things to all people, and that’s what we’re doing.”
“If the world is going to entertain them into hell, we can entertain them into heaven.”
“I believe that God can and will use anything we do with evangelism as our goal.”
“The Bible gives us the message. It’s up to us to find and use the most creative methods.”
“There’s a lot we can learn from successful businesses in the secular world. Just do it for Jesus.”

I usually get a number of letters each year castigating me for raising any question at all about anything done in the cause of evangelism. They will remind me that it’s war, and in war the point is to win the battle. Armchair generals- that’s me- are worthless, whereas people fighting the good fight- that’s the guy with Frosty the clown doing the Lord’s Supper- are what we really need.

So how far is too far? I don’t think that’s a question beyond the powers of the average blogger. Consider these few offerings as a start for someone else’s longer and more serious post.

1. If you can’t picture Jesus doing it, you probably shouldn’t do it.

I can picture Jesus having a party, praying, teaching, telling jokes, healing, crying, turning over tables and many other things. I can’t picture Jesus driving a tank into a room to make a point or wearing one of Ed Young’s shirts.

My BHT buddies are tired of hearing me ask “If I spent three years with Jesus, would I do this?” but that’s the clarifying question. Log some serious time in the Gospels. Jesus is a creative teacher. He reaches people and he takes risks. But when the Pharisees said “Do a miracle and we will endorse you,” he said “No.” When the crowds were ready to follow him for a free meal, he taught his most difficult lesson. He taught the narrow way, and he invited you to walk it as well. Yes, Jesus was out of the box, but that was because he was on his way to the cross, and you will recall what he said: If you aren’t willing to come the way of the cross, you have no part in him.

The creative things that Jesus did do are very instructive. Washed any feet lately? Touched lepers? Conversed with trashy low-lifes?

Get a Jesus-vision in control of your creativity.

2. If it obscures the centrality of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, don’t do it.

Newsflash to Bob Ross: Joel Osteen talking about about positive thinking for 30 minutes and then mentioning the Gospel (kinda) for 30 seconds isn’t a Christ-centered ministry. Duh.

If your children’s ministry tacks on the Gospel like a commercial or announcement of the sponsor of today’s picnic, you’re in left field. Wave at me. I’m in the bleachers in the Reds cap.

We don’t just mention Jesus and the Gospel; what we do is all about Jesus and the Gospel. Be honest. If you are saying “Today’s three ring circus is brought to you by people who think Jesus is cool, and there’s a brochure at the table on the way out,” what are you doing?

This isn’t to say that everything you do is just about Jesus. My home group is going to watch “Walk The Line,” and talk about how the story is a window to Jesus and the Gospel. You can do a lot with a determination to put Jesus and the Gospel as the focus. You aren’t just left with three hymns and an offering. Put it all together around Christ.

3. If you aren’t producing followers of Jesus Christ, what are you doing?

If you are producing consumers or fans or people who think you are really cool, you may be successful and popular, but I’m wondering if you are doing what matters. Our command is clear: make disciples, teaching them everything Jesus commanded. We can’t change the definition of disciple into “guy who really likes the body surfing at the 9 p.m. youth service” and have any integrity.

The Jesus-movement produces Jesus-followers. Wow. What a concept. If you spent $70,000 to entertain people, did you produce Jesus followers, or fans of your show? Answer the question. It’s important.

Some things we do just move people along toward a place where Christ and the Gospel are communicated more directly. That’s great. But we need to know the difference a word game and a genuine missional effort to bring people closer in.

Meet people where they are. Then where to?

4. If you brought idolatry into the picture, you did a bad thing.

I am all about being missional, but one reason I study the culture is to know what’s the culture and what are the idolatries of the culture. One is the language I’ll speak. The other is what I’ll avoid.

Example: I will use media, but I won’t build a youth ministry around video games. I won’t say, “we’ll just put all the Bible passages on the screen. Don’t bring a Bible.” I won’t say, “My next sermon series is on how to have a bigger house and another SUV next year.”

Our church had a Dave Ramsey seminar with a couple trained to teach debt reduction and sound financial principles. In the process, they talked a lot about Jesus and the Gospel. That was a good thing to do. If we had a seminar on “How to Get Rich Selling Short In The Stock Market” we’d probably draw a crowd, but there would be this idolatry problem there. “How to meet Chicks” could be a good one as well.

Just a note: According to the Bible, this is a constant problem. If you pragmatists think you’ve avoided it because you hand out a card with the Four Spiritual Laws on it at the end of the Wrestling Match, you’re wrong. Our tendency to justify cultural idolatries is something we have to face. That’s why Paul asked the Corinthians if he needed to come visit them with a stick.

Listen to Mark Driscoll speaking on “Good Sex” to understand how we do cultural communication and confront culture at the same time. (And remember, you’re not Mark Driscoll and don’t try to be, but learn the lesson.)

5. The Glory of God means God is seen clearly, truthfully and Biblically. Keep that in mind when you say you’re doing whatever “for the glory of God.”

God isn’t glorified by everything we do. What we do is commanded to glorify him. Intentionally. That means God gets the big parts, most of the lines and nothing makes sense without him.

If God becomes a clown, a disembodied voice, a divine comedian, good feelings or a large stuffed animal, He’s not being glorified. God isn’t’ glorified just because I say that’s what I want to do. God isn’t glorified by what I think is cool. God is glorified when the cross and the mediator are seen clearly, exalted and magnified. That’s what he thinks is cool. (See the Gospel of John for details.)

Doing all kinds of nonsense “for the glory of God” is as big a cop-out as I know of. It’s juvenile. If the New Testament is about any one subject, it’s about how God is glorified in his Son and the Gospel of our salvation. Can we get that point, and can we understand that the Glory of God as our central theme is going to make a big difference. The reason some churches look and act like a cross between a pep rally and the opening of a new Wal-Mart is because what’s being glorified is US, our agendas and our desires. God is the one who “blesses” the whole mess and makes it all a “good witness.” Or so we say.

Listen, I’m not trying to stifle your creativity. I think we need to use the creative opportunities in our culture to communicate the Gospel, reach people, serve real needs, and bring a witness that is relevant and bold. But there are questions that have to be asked. There are pieces that have to be in place if it’s about Jesus and his Kingdom and not just about us. The Jesus-focused, God-glorifying, Gospel-communicating center and substance are not automatically just THERE just because we are sincere, creative, enthusiastic or spent a lot of money.

I’m not trying to lay some “only what Dr. Macarthur approves” trip on you. I’m not about a regulative principle that comes with a dress code, an approved book list, a Steve Green children’s CD and “Do It Like The Puritans!” bumper stickers. I don’t want to tell your drama team they can’t recreate the prodigal son or your youth group that they shouldn’t act like real teenagers.

I’m simply suggesting that there are questions to ask to determine if we are where we ought to be, doing what we ought to do in the way we ought to do it. It’s not complicated. It’s basic, and it takes the courage to go against the flow, staying in the mainstream of loyalty to Christ above all.

And before I sign off, BY ALL MEANS be just as questioning of what the “traditional” church is up to! We do all kinds of things in the “traditional” church that ought to be discarded for all the reasons listed above. The truth cuts both ways. But the Gospel at the center, and let the chips fall where they may. Are ALL of us willing to let Christ be glorified in his people?

The Gospel is relevant. Our methods can’t be irrelevant, but they have to allow the relevance of Christ to come to the forefront. Look for that balance in what we do. It’s doable, and we don’t need to fight about it. We simply need to be humble enough to understand how a creative, cross-cultural, missional church planter who used all kinds of methods and approaches could say, “I knew nothing among you but Christ, and him crucified.” That’s what we want.


  1. Not that you need my approval or encouragement necessarily, but this is an excellent post. Thanks for referencing Tom’s stuff too …

  2. Thank you for this post. It was excellent. Especially the comment about Joel Osteen…

  3. Great post. Very, very good stuff here.

    steve 🙂

  4. “Orthodox! Orthodox!”

    Your first point reminds me I need to read the gospels more often, too.

  5. ed lebert says

    Excellent! Thanks Michael. Once again, I have a lot to think about for the rest of the day.

  6. learningasIgo says

    This post is dead on. This is a subject that I have always pondered myself, and now you have given me some different aspects to ponder from. I especially like your point #1: If you can’t picture Jesus doing it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. This is a point of view many churches fail to consider.

  7. Gordon Cloud says

    This is a really good post. I believe that flawed methods will always produce flawed results.

  8. I don’t think this is about methods and results. Its about being faithful to the gospel and the glory of God.

    Great post Michael.

  9. Brian Pendell says

    “1. If you can’t picture Jesus doing it, you probably shouldn’t do it.

    I can picture Jesus having a party, praying, teaching, telling jokes, healing, crying, turning over tables and many other things. I can’t picture Jesus bringing driving a tank into a room to make a point or wearing one of Ed Young’s shirts.”

    Well, I have a problem with this, because there’s precious little I can’t picture Jesus doing.

    After all, Jesus came to Earth not just to die, but to be humiliated. The entire journey of his time on earth, from the birth in a stable to the wrapping in swaddling clothes to the washing his disciple’s feet like a menial to the crucifixion itself was one long exercise in humiliation. He “made himself nothing” in the most literal sense … all to save the ones he loved.

    Therefore I can conceive of nothing humiliating, shameful, or indignified short of actual sin Jesus would do to reach and save the lost. If he did those things on our behalf, how can we do less?


    Brian P.

  10. Is there a problem with the sentence starting “Therefore…?”

  11. Brian Pendell says

    I’m sorry, Michael, but I don’t understand your question.

    Your comment response was :

    “Is there a problem with the sentence starting “Therefore…?” ”

    Well, aside from the obvious punctuation and grammatical errors, I don’t think so.

    The only thing I can get from your question is that “humiliating, shameful, and undignified” = “sin”.

    Clearly, Jesus did not think so. Remember that he would allow children to approach him — something no “dignified” teacher would do. He would also touch Lepers and speak to prostitutes — in a culture where some people went to the extreme of closing their eyes when a normal woman would step into view, much less a prostitute!

    So scratch “undignified” from the “list of stuff Jesus wouldn’t do”.

    Clearly, Jesus does not believe undignified behavior is sinful behavior in all circumstances.

    “Shameful” behavior? While what he did was not shameful by our culture’s standards, many of these things would be shameful in his. Eating with tax collectors and prostitutes was considered quite shameful by any “respectable” person in Jesus’ day. Yet he ate with them and drank with them.

    So scratch “shameful” — culturally shameful, that is, not shameful in God’s eyes — from the list of stuff Jesus wouldn’t do.

    “Humiliating”? What could be more humiliating than stepping down from a throne of eternal glory to be a carpenter’s son? Oh, right … being nailed up to a stick like a criminal, having first been flogged and mocked by the grown-up version of schoolyard bullies.

    So scratch “humiliating” from the “list of stuff Jesus wouldn’t do”.

    So going back to the original point — you give the example that you couldn’t imagine Jesus driving a tank to make a point. I disagree — I can’t imagine that the Jesus who allowed himself to be incarnated as a Jewish carpenter, and allowed himself to be crucified, despite having legions of angels at his call — I can’t see such a person, who has already given everything, stopping at a tank. After the crucifixion, it’s not like he’s got any dignity left anyway.

    So if a tank is what it takes, a tank is what he’ll use.

    So: Humiliating, shameful, and undignified behavior is not necessarily sinful behavior.

    So, unless you’re pointing out some butchery of the English language on my part, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Please have pity on dense ol’ me :).


    Brian P.

  12. >Therefore I can conceive of nothing humiliating, shameful, or indignified short of actual sin Jesus would do to reach and save the lost.

    Is that sentence correct?

    I assume you meant to say “wouldn’t,” but i don’t want to put words in your mouth.

    You know, the difference between the humiliation of chosen suffering and the humiliation of being a clown are fairly different, don’t you think? Assigning to Jesus the motive of “anything to save one” assumes that God is glorified by anything that saves one, and that’s not true. Jesus constantly says that he is doing exactly what the Father has told him to do that both he and the Father might be glorified.

    If Jesus would choose humiliation via entertainment to save one, why did he refuse to do miracles in Mark 8?

  13. Brian Pendell says

    “I assume you meant to say “wouldn’t,” but i don’t want to put words in your mouth.”

    You are correct. “Would NOT” is what I meant to say.

    Permit me a momentary grovel — you teach English, don’t you? Aggghhh…

    “You know, the difference between the humiliation of chosen suffering and the humiliation of being a clown are fairly different, don’t you think?”

    I don’t see how.

    When you think about it … if you’re an immortal, eternal being who was “with Him in the beginning” … becoming a human is a far bigger step down than wearing a clown suit. A human suit IS a clown suit to God, I suspect.

    “Assigning to Jesus the motive of “anything to save one” assumes that God is glorified by anything that saves one, and that’s not true. ”

    On the contrary, I would say that God is glorified whenever a human puts his faith — saving faith — in Jesus Christ. And I think that, the more contortions God has to go through to see a person saved — or realize their calling, or whatever it is when a person decides to prove out their calling and election — the more it glorifies him. Why? Because it shows that, as much as he values his dignity (and dignity IS a virtue), that his royal dignity bears a distinct second place to his fierce love.

    The harder the fish struggles, the better the fish story.

    The more contortions, tricks, and games the fisherman has to play, the more glory to the fisherman.

    So yes … if dressing up as a clown functions in some way to assist the elect in the — consummation? — of their destiny … then it reflects to God’s glory, because it shows his love for his people and the guile of the fisherman.

    “If Jesus would choose humiliation via entertainment to save one, why did he refuse to do miracles in Mark 8? ”

    First of all, if you change “humiliation via entertainment” to “humiliation via public spectacle” … then that is EXACTLY what Jesus chose for his ministry.

    He did not choose humiliation by public spectacle to save one .. he chose humiliation by public spectacle to save ALL. To be forced to march through the streets of Jerusalem, to the mocking and jeers of soldiers, pharisees, guards … then to be lifted up as a public example to all the world.

    As towards why he didn’t perform a miracle in Mark 8 … That is an EXTREMELY good question.

    My first off-the-cuff answer is: I don’t believe Jesus refused miracles because they were “entertainment” or incompatible with his dignity. When you think about it, the spectacle of a miracle-worker — of the dead being raised, the blind seeing, people coming out of wheelchairs — would be “entertainment” in it’s own right. Why should Jesus do these things publicly at all? Why not simply do them privately and secretly, as he did the wine in Cana? No, these things were done publicly to draw a crowd and authenticate his ministry, which they did.

    My GUESS is that his reaction was prompted by the attitude of the Pharisees in some way. Recall that in Mark 8 the request for a miracle occurred immediately after his feeding of the four thousand, one of his most public miracles.

    My GUESS is that these hard-hearted men — having observed his healings et al — were asking for no good reason. Further, I suspect they were men of the sort he spoke of in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus — the brothers of the rich man who, being deaf to Moses and the Prophets, would also be dead to the voice of one raised from the dead (Luke 16:31).

    If these men were indeed blind, deaf, and hard that way, a miracle would be a waste of energy on his part. It would accomplish nothing. There was no advantage to him in granting their request. So he didn’t.

    In OTHER places, he did indeed provide signs from heaven (John 12:28-29), but note that even when a very Voice from Heaven spoke, many of the crowd couldn’t comprehend what it was. The sign was wasted on them.

    It could be that the people demanding a sign from him was entirely from that latter category — hard-hearted men who wouldn’t see it for what it was. Therefore he denounced them as a “wicked and adulterous generation” and refused to perform a sign which would do neither them nor him any good. If anything, it would make things worse for them, for they would be responsible for not heeding the signs they had seen. Witness his comments that Capernaum would have a worse lot than Sodom (Matthew 11:21-24).

    Other times, when he was dealing with tender hearted audiences, he said “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, “you will never believe.” (John 4:48).

    For the pliable and the tenderhearted, Jesus would grant miracles to aid in their belief. Like Thomas.

    To the hardhearted, such as those pharisees, he refused. As a mercy to them.

    That is my *best guess*. I make no claims it is the right answer.

    Many thanks for making me think, sir.


    Brian P.

  14. There was a church leadersip conference in Seattle recently called the Resurgence sponsored by Mars Hill Church. They blogged about everything discussed there pretty extensively including about this topic.

    Go to this web page to read some good commentary about this topic of truth vs. technique:

  15. Since you brought up Macarthur, Michael, I’ll use the opportunity to gripe.

    It is Dr. Macarthur’s fan club on the web who are the most dedicated, sarcastic, merciless opponents of anyone who isn’t doing things exactly like Dr. Macarthur. Read Fide-o sometime. How do we get from Driscoll to Macarthur? Both value the Gospel, but Driscoll’s book Confessions of a Reformation Rev would horrify all of these guys: the methods, the humor, the sexual innuendo, the smoking, the attitude toward worship, etc. Yes, Driscoll comes out strong on the big points, but the entire missional/emerging church is the target of post after bloody post from the “John Macarthur/Charles Spurgeon and Us” club.

    I appreciate the link, but after Dr. Macarthur himself, his internet fan base is not a friend to this discussion.

  16. “There you go again, Michael”

    If you’d abandon your MacArthur dislike for a few seconds for onece and think about it, I think you’d find that MacArthur would probably agree with about 99% of what you said in your writeup. I am a charter member of the MacArthur,Spurgeon and Us club, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote.

  17. I dislike Dr. Macarthur? Huh? What are you talking about? Oh…yeah…I’ve disagreed with a few of Dr. Macarthur’s fan club, and we all know what that means in the reformed blogosphere: “We who are orthodox are now watching you.” (Quote)

    I’ve read dozens of Dr. Macs books. I’ve shaken his hand and told him what his ministry means to me. If I have written an essay denouncing Macarthur, where is it? I may not be a fan, but I am grateful and respectful of him and all he’s done.

    I have pointed out two issues with Macarthur over the years- both theological and I am far from alone. His critique of evangelicals in Ashamed of the Gospel and many other books is dead on target.

    If the Macarthur fan club would stop dividing the world into people who are part of their team and those who are against them they might sound like adults for a change. EVERYONE can be criticized…..it’s not a sin or a crime to do so. But this has never been an anti Macarthur blog. As for those who are his fans…it’s a different story.

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