July 12, 2020

iMonk 101: The Original…The One…The Only….Wretched Urgency

Back by popular demand, the iMonk essay that should have sold a thousand t-shirts by now: Wretched Urgency.

When I think of people beating themselves up with guilt and beating other people up with a guilt-inducing God, I always think of this essay and the stupefying discovery that the New Testament isn’t trying to turn us into hamsters on an evangelistic, church growth wheel. If you are one of those people who find me shocking, go get a coke and be shocked. I wrote this in 2001.

Read: The Original “Wretched Urgency.”

And smile while you do it.


  1. Around here we call it “Christian Service Workers Anonymous” and have started our own support group!

    “Hi—my name is Al and I’m a Christian Service Worker addict.”

  2. I think that Piper was attacking the prevalent view in American society towards comfort and self-indulgence. It is affecting the church greatly.

    I don’t believe that Piper was saying that someone who is doing what God wants them to do can’t take a rest at all.

    You are absolutely right, your times of relaxation make you a better minister and teacher. We all must get away. However, I don’t believe that a believer’s overall goal in life ought to be to “get away from it all and live for himself in comfort, unbothered by the outside world” which is many a person’s goal in life.

    The activities that you describe (watching CSI and baseball) actually engage the culture and give you a better understanding of it.

    If we did not engage the culture we would be using examples from the Andy Griffith Show and totally missing today’s young people.

    The American dream today (at least as it is portrayed in many media outlets) is to build a climate-controlled utopia that the individual can control, wherein all of one’s desires are only a mouse-click or a phone call away.

    It is more about one’s perspective on the calling.
    Every believer needs to earnestly and truthfully seek God’s will for their life in prayer and supplication. If, after that God sends you to Florida to collect shells, then go and do so for God’s glory.

  3. One more thing,

    I totally agree with you that God is not stuffy. He has given my wife and I so many wonderful, fun experiences, like hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains every fall and camping in the fall foliage.

    University of Delaware football (Susan and I went up to watch the Blue Hens play the Naval Academy last October. It rained all day before and in the morning of the game the sky was dark and forbidding. I prayed about it and asked the Lord to give us good weather for the game, and then I went ahead and asked him for a really good game also.

    The Sun came out about an hour before the game, and it became a beautiful fall day. All the Midshipmen marched in in formation, what a great site. And to top it off, Delaware won something like 58-54. It truly was a white-knuckle game.

    It was such a blessing to be there and to enjoy the whole experience with my best friend. It was totally a gift from God, and it was a football game.

  4. You tell the truth.

    The main problem with the evangelical church (Baptist and otherwise) is that it has taken believers out of real life where they might follow Christ in truly renewed human lives and relationships. Instead, it has substituted its own manufactured programs and methods, covering them with a pseudo-Biblical veneer to justify them. And we’ve been doing it for so long, that most of us actually think it’s the real thing.

    I’m with you. It’s not.

  5. kia ora from New Zealand..
    I’ve been reading your epistles for a while now, but that’s a classic that I haven’t seen before! Also loved your series on Fear in the evangelical subculture. Cheers mate.

  6. Thanks for this article Michael. Living in an ultra-evangelical Anglican diocese I have often felt like either the church or myself has lost the plot, since I realised years ago that there was no command in the NT that said I had to be an in-your-face evangelist, yet the church is constantly defining the Christian life in those terms. There seems to be this idea that if the church isn’t doing it’s quota of bringing them in, then congregations need to be flogged harder with guilt trips. But no one ever examines the basic premises.

    Ironically, I have actually been used in the conversions of several people, but never by following the evangelistic “rules”. In fact, one particular occasion, where people had been trying to “convert” this guy for years, the turning point was actually a “word of knowledge” (or whatever label you like to call it, I’m not fussed) that revealed the emotional block that had made him blind and deaf to the gospel for years.

    So, I refuse to wear the guilt (I have enough real sins to deal with) and i refuse to put it on anyone else. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only person who believes this.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. This one was such a life-changer for me. To be freed up to actually LIVE the life of the Kingdom and trust that in doing so, people might actually be interested in the hope that is in me (a la 1 Peter 3), rather than viewing myself as a salesman tracking down prospects who might sit through my pitch… life is so much more beautiful this way.

  9. Thank you so much for bringing this one back. I have been following your blogs for a year now. I encountered the affliction from the Evangelism Explosion training in my own denomination. Thankfully reading JI Packers Knowing God was a higher priority for me and kept me from falling so completely under the influences you seek to correct.

  10. AMEN!!!!!!

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    If we did not engage the culture we would be using examples from the Andy Griffith Show and totally missing today’s young people. — Cyoder

    Uh, Cyoder, a lot of Christians ARE. There’s this mythology going around that the 1950s (not the real 1950s, but as fictionalized thru Ozzie, Harriet, and Donna Reed) were some sort of Godly Golden Age and we have to get back into the Garden.

    My writing partner (a burned-out country preacher) has to deal with this; a lot of his congregation are in their sixties and seventies — grew up during the Fifties — and like to stay time-stopped. Last time I visited him, a lot of the decor in his church included 1950s-style pastel-toned Christ-with-a-Crewcut pictures. (The Protestant version of Victorian-sentimental Holy Card art.)

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    And to get back to the original subject:

    I got mixed up in the Wretched Urgency thing back in the Seventies. From an insider POV, I can tell you some of the motivators:

    * First, the idea that “It’s All Gonna Burn”, that only “What’s Done for Christ Will Last”, with a very narrow definition of the latter. (Everything except Scripture (TM) and Witnessing (TM) was forbidden, and what was not forbidden was compulsory.)

    * The idea that at the Last Judgment/Bema, the only thing God will judge you on after being Saved is “How many Souls did you Save?” And that your entire standing before God depended on how many notches you had on your Bible.

    * Motivational quotes from the Bible about how if you DON’T “witness” and the mark dies Unsaved, “God Will Hold You Accountable”. (I don’t know about you, but God “Holding You Accountable” was local Christianese for the threat of Hellfire and Damnation. If you didn’t make the attempt to Save His Soul when the opportunity arose, God Would Punish You.)

    * Put the above two together and you get Wretched Urgency crazy desperation, with some pretty crazy desperation moves to “Witness”/stay on God’s good side/rack up as many notches on your Bible as possible. Whoever Saved the most Souls Wins Bragging Rights on Earth and in Heaven.

    * Add the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay and its constant end-of-the-world scare to supercharge the Wretched Urgency. Remember the hymn “Work! For the Night is Coming!”? (“CHRIST IS COMING SOON!!! WE MIGHT NOT HAVE A 1978!!! OR EVEN A 1977!!!” — direct quote from one evangelist of the time. It is now 2008.)

    * Result: Wretched Urgency, supercharged into crazy desperation and “Can You Top This?”

    It almost killed me. If I hadn’t discovered Dungeons & Dragons, it probably would have.

    I am currently fulfilling a 40-year dream of mine, writing an SF novella that uses Wretched Urgency (a clueless missionary on an alien world becoming so driven and desperate) as a major plot point and motivator for the main event.

  13. This was interesting, thanks.

  14. Let me share one of my favorite (now) responses to the Wretched Urgency mindset. (And I do remember living through it on a Baptist college campus)

    It’s the Mass for the End of Time, written year 1000.

    Anonymous 4 has a nice CD of it.

  15. Michael, may I say you might be more Orthodox than you know? 🙂

    I think I read this a long time ago and agree with it even more now than I did then. Thanks.

  16. Michael…

    I remember reading this for the first time when you first wrote.

    It touched me then. I needed it then.

    It touched me again, today. I needed it again, today.



  17. It strikes me that this part of Evangelical culture has ignored Jesus’ instructions on what to do when faced with a lack of workers. When the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Math 9:37,38), Jesus’ logical answer was: Pray. Beg the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers into His harvest. Note the double emphasis on who’s in charge (“Lord of the Harvest” and “His harvest”). The harvest is His, the responsibility is His, and the authority for recruiting new workers is His. Instead, we’ve tried to take new worker recruitment into our own hands and manipulate and guilt every Christian into working in what we now regard as our harvest. It amounts to not trusting that God is capable of recruiting enough workers Himself.

    Don’t get me wrong. There will be people “called into harvest HR”, so to speak, who are supposed to be used to recruit new workers. But we’ve made that a universal calling for all pastor/preachers, and made all Christians their targets. The urgency that has been poured into manipulating ordinary Christians should have been poured into prayer for more workers that are God-sent, and we should have trusted God to answer those prayers instead of descending into fleshly manipulation.

  18. imonk,
    I consider you a brother not just in Christ, but in the struggle. Brilliant writing. Keep working it out, it helps.

  19. thanks for the reminder Michael. After reading that I think I will take a walk out in woods or do some fishing with Luther and leave the governing of the world to the Governor himself.

  20. I was at a church that got me to do the door-to-door thing back in high-school –

    “No, we aren’t Mormons.”

    “No, we aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

    “We’re just, uh, Christians. And the question that we knocked on your door and interrupted your day in order to ask you is … well … if you died right now, what do you think would happen to you?”

    “Well, besides rotting in your grave?”

    “What we mean to say is, do you know if you’d go to heaven or to hell? … Yeah … if you just keeled over and died of a heart attack right now?”

    The most awkward presentations of the gospel I’ve ever seen or participated in. Pretty darn awkward at the time. Absolutely hilarious to remember thinking back on it now.

  21. Wow, Michael, those mentions of not being out from under these beliefs are where I’m at. My life is at least half over, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever reach that peaceful place. Everything you said is exactly the way my early years were. I have 4 siblings and every one of us fell away. My dad was a preacher until I was in sixth grade.

    I frequently wonder, why did I absorb all the misery and guilt-inducing stuff, as opposed to the “joy” of the Christian? I’m a believer through and through, and I’m not a walking copy of the grim reaper, but it would be nice to feel ok about my life.

    These days any American old enough to have heard the word “christian” knows the whole spiel about “accepting Christ as your Savior” and so on. They’ve either accepted it as truth or rejected it as an unnecessary man-made joy-kill that makes no sense.

    How does one go about “witnessing” to such people that are in our lives? Are you going to get into confrontations about Jesus? Many unbelievers are very arrogant toward Christians, which, frankly, just makes me want to blow them off. They know that we’re mentally insufficient, and have written us off. It seems like there’s nothing else to do but try to live the life, and be a friend to an unbeliever. And, I guess, strengthen oneself against that anger.

  22. PS…”are you sure you’re certain?” Hilarious. Thank goodness for a laugh in there.

  23. Wow, that describes my Baptist Church upbringing in a county seat in central Kentucky. No kidding, here’s what came to mind as I read this. My parents and I were going to an ice cream social on Wednesday night (and you know what that meant in the 50s and 60s) at the Methodist parsonage which was just up the block from the SBC. Walking down on the other side of the street, we saw the SBC pastor and two of his sons heading to the SBC for Prayer Meeting. With a scowl on his face, he said something like, “Don’t eat too much ice cream,” to my father, who happened to be DOC not SBC as my mother and I were. He didn’t even speak to my mother, a member of the church he served. I felt very guilty and embarrassed, as no doubt he intended. In fact, I even started talking to the people in the yard next to the parsonage as if we were really going there rather than to the ice cream social–they were the parents of one of our neighbors. (Such guilt works wonders.)

    The next week the SBC pastor wrote in the church newsleter that he and “the faithful” attended prayer meeting (where, of course, God really was in that town that night) rather than doing some so worldly as eating ice cream. By the way, the prayer meeting that usually lasted 45 minutes went on for 90 or more that night. But, hey, when you’re being faithful, that just happens–right? And any guilt reveals God’s judgment on sinners such as us. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

  24. My absolute favorite iMonk writing. I even have a copy saved on my Treo to read and remind myself occasionally. It has prompted many musing and thoughts of my own (some of which I’ve written on my own site). If blogging has a hall of fame, this one someday deserves nomination.

  25. I have been lurking on imonk for a month and have found it a source of renewal and a spiritual oasis. Thank you, Michael, and may God bless you and keep you and continue to grant you wisdom. You have expressed in clearly what I have felt for a long time but had trouble articulating. Just this evening we went to a service where the main theme seemed to be “the chief end of man is to evangelize” — a little different from what the Westminster catechism says, but that was the thrust. And the passage was from Ezekiel — the valley of dry bones. Not sure how he got from that passage to evangelism, but it seemed a pretty big leap. But then there are church programs that need people to serve, etc. Sigh..