By Duffy Robbins
“Let him (or her) who has a mouth to speak listen to what the audience says…”
One of those youth ministry proverbs that we hear over and over again is this: “You’ve got to earn the right to be heard.” Kids will not donate their attention.
Wise youth workers will always shape their programming and their messages with the notion that the first task is not to speak to the kids; the first task is to get the kids to listen. And getting a teenage audience to pay attention to a speaker usually begins with a speaker who pays attention to the audience.
Let’s say it’s February, and you’ve decided for your mid-week Bible study to do a four-week series on sexuality and issues of sexual purity. Typically, there will be a range of responses, from “Great!” on one end of the spectrum (meaning genuine openness: “Oh, man, I’ve got a lot of questions about that stuff”) to “Great” on the other end of the spectrum (meaning complete rejection: “Oh, brother, not that topic again!”).
For the most part, the students in your youth group know you. From that standpoint, they might be a little more receptive to what you have to say about sexuality and sexual purity (or, depending on what they know about you, maybe not). And, it seems fair to say, there will be some curiosity about this topic. That also helps you gain their attention. It beats the heck out of your six week series on supralapsarianism. On the other hand, sexual purity is a topic that will probably make a lot of your students uncomfortable. After all, some of the biblical notions about chastity and modesty are fairly counter-cultural. So, we might expect the audience response to be mixed, and skewed to an unwillingness to hear.
The key here is: we want to think in advance about the range of responses so we can know best how to pitch our message. Obviously, we’d use one type of talk if the continuum was heavily weighted to the hostile end, and we’d use a totally different type of message if we were speaking to an audience sympathetic and eager to learn. Let’s flesh this out a bit more.
Speaking to a hostile audience. As a result of your February series on sexuality, one of your students persuaded her high school health teacher to invite you to speak in her sex education class. It’s a pretty cool opportunity, but it’s also a pretty different venue. The kids don’t know you, and a biblical view of sexuality is quite different from the one they’ve been hearing about in class from a teacher they do know. This is apt to be a fairly hostile audience, and they may make that clear from their comments, their questions, their disinterest, perhaps even their desire to disrupt your presentation.
For the most part, your best approach is to merely entertain. Now, don’t assume that means stand-up comedy, because it doesn’t. For one thing, there’s nothing less entertaining than someone who is not funny trying really hard to be funny. If you read this column very often, you probably already know how true that is. Entertain, in the sense we mean it here, is what happens when someone is invited over to your house for the first time. You entertain them. You’re trying to make them feel comfortable. You’re trying to build a bridge so that, later on, maybe the bridge can provide a connection.
Think, for example, of the decision to confront your neighbor about his pit bull because that cute little guy (the dog, not the neighbor) keeps chewing the bumper off your Hummer. You and the neighbor both know what this conversation is about, and that it could be uncomfortable. You’re concerned that he could just storm out of the house and never listen to you again. It makes little sense to come out with guns blazing, complaints spewing, and threats flying. Your neighbor simply isn’t going to hear it.
As we all often need to be reminded, the goal here is not winning an argument; it’s winning a person. What is the point of providing really great content to your students if they aren’t even going to hear it? From research on persuasion, we know that the harder an audience feels pushed, the more likely they are to push back. So, you entertain. It doesn’t mean that you say nothing; it means that you realize that you don’t need to say everything on the first visit.
Surely, this is why we read so many accounts of Jesus entertaining drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners (Matthew 9:11, 11:19; Luke 5:30, 15:2, 19:1-10). It wasn’t that he had nothing to say to them; he just knew it was useless to say much until they were willing to listen.
Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a long-time columnist for Good News.
By Frank Decker
A defining moment in a Japanese restaurant near my office took place when a number of us from various ministries around the world were chatting about missions over lunch. The conversation was candid and stimulating. After one African leader had shared about ambitious plans to reach Muslims in the northern half of his continent, his rather traditional strategy of extracting Muslims from their cultural context was challenged by a man who had over three decades of experience ministering among Muslims in Asia. “That method hasn’t worked in 1,400 years, what makes you think it will work now?” Our conversation eventually shifted from discussing tactics to identifying the reasons for those strategies as the leader of the Asian ministry looked his African brother in the eye and asked this simple question: “What is the gospel?”
The question, albeit basic, is essential. If a missionary is not cognizant of the distinction between the transcendent gospel of Jesus and the post-biblical traditions familiar to the missionary, then both the biblical message and the cultural traditions will likely be presented indistinguishably together in a package that is presented as if it is the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. This is one reason why I often ask prospective missionary candidates, “What, exactly, is your message?”
The altar call, the sinner’s prayer, church buildings, the distinction between clergy and laity, and the current role of the professional pastor are five of over sixty post-biblical traditions cited in Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. These things are not necessarily bad; they simply are not the gospel. They have helped people live out the gospel in certain cultural contexts, which may or may not be helpful in other contexts. Even the assumption that all believers in Jesus should be referred to as “Christians” is not an inherent part of the gospel message, and is a conjecture that foments the fallacious and even obstructive assumption that Jesus came to start a religion rather than usher in the kingdom of God.
One could argue that even the creeds were hammered out in a particular cultural context; and so they might have legitimately been quite different if they had been initially written, say, in China. And, as E. Stanley Jones has reminded us, our historic creeds are sadly lacking in an important emphasis (or even mention, in the case of the Apostle’s Creed) of the kingdom of God, a crucial element of Jesus’ teaching.
Ever since I entered full-time ministry almost 30 years ago I’ve been revisiting that crucial question, “What is the gospel?” In the process, I began to notice passages of Scripture that give a summary of the gospel message, and began making a list of these “nutshell gospels.” I Corinthians 15:1-8 and I Peter 2:21-24 are two examples from different New Testament authors.
Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd’s research of the content of scriptural apostolic preaching has helped me conclude that a solid, biblical summary of the gospel is this:
• In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus Messiah as the scriptures foretold.
• He died in shame on a cross, bearing our sins.
• He rose again from the dead.
• He is now Lord, which he proves by his Spirit today.
• God’s kingdom will be consummated when Jesus returns.
• Therefore repent, believe, and live as a member of God’s kingdom.
I normally don’t recite these points when witnessing to someone, but I find this to be a helpful outline to keep in mind. It is a message that finds its way into other cultures without necessarily being wrapped in western Christianity. It enables the non-believer to see Jesus rather than a religion. And, while the end result may not look like First United Methodist Church down the street, the point is that people meet Jesus.
Even if the gospel we share is biblical, it is not attractive to others unless the work of Jesus is evident in our lives. Otherwise, the message becomes merely theoretical; a danger in our age of information. In fact, I am convinced that the less we actually experience the living Jesus, the more apt we are to depend on intricate theologies in order to explain his apparent absence as a reality in our lives.
People from all cultures and religious traditions are hungering for Jesus—not necessarily our brand of religion. Whether or not they see him could depend on how we answer the question, “What is the gospel?”
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.
By Steve Beard
“I’m never sure of what I’m looking for,” John Coltrane once told noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, “except that it’ll be something that hasn’t ever been played before; I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.”
Within jazz, Coltrane was Ponce de Leon with a saxophone tirelessly searching for a mystical fountain of rhythms and harmonies. He practiced relentlessly, stretching every conceivable note to conform to his will.
Throughout his illustrative life (1926-1967), Coltrane shared the stage with jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Theolonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1997, Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship, and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”
Those packed into the gritty jazz clubs such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, or the Half Note would all testify that Coltrane could light the joint ablaze—sometimes logging 45 minute solos. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described one scene: “En masse, cats started to put their hands up to the ceiling and the whole place stood up. It was like those holy-roller meetings. It was unbelievable.”
Liebman’s comparison is fascinating. Of course, a notable difference between a church service and a Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is solely expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails. For him, to play was to pray.
The potency of his musical genius was not always so easy to recognize. Miles Davis had to kick Coltrane out of his band in 1957—for the second time—because of intense addiction to alcohol and heroin. Coltrane was nodding off on the bandstand, appearing disheveled, always running late or never showing up at all.
Coltrane retreated for a two-week stay at his mother’s house in Philadelphia where he locked himself in a room to kick the addiction. Trane is said to have heard the voice of heaven during his withdrawls.
“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” Coltrane wrote many years later in the liner note of his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” His recovery was jaw-dropping.
Even those around him who were uncertain about the existence of God knew Coltrane had met Him. He began playing in Thelonious Monk’s band and recorded Blue Train. Shortly thereafter, Miles Davis asked him to rejoin his group.
Seven years after his battle with heroin, Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme. He had been sequestered to a section of his Long Island home for four or five days. “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful,” Alice Coltrane recalls. “He walked down and there was the joy, that peace in his face, tranquility.” She asked him to tell her what he was experiencing. “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite,” he told her. “This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”
A Love Supreme is introduced with a Chinese gong and then the listener is ushered into a mosaic of sound and energy. This is not elevator jazz; this is jazz as an exclamation point—tortured souls finding liberation, exorcism, and deliverance. Within the confines and liberties of jazz, it is Jacob wrestling with an angel, the parting of the Red Sea, the kiss of betrayal from Judas, and the empty tomb.
In the liner notes, Coltrane writes: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you God. Elation—Elegance—Exaltation—All from God.”
A few years ago, Rolling Stone ranked A Love Supreme #47 of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “For all its thunder you can hear yourself think when you listen to it,” commented The Village Voice, “primarily because Trane achieved the unthinkable: creating a secular form of God-loving music for the godless universe of Western modernity.”
You often hear about the blind having a stronger awareness of their other senses, particularly hearing and smell. Coltrane had the accentuated senses of a blind man who had been healed—eyes wide open and soaking up a dazzling vision from a heavenly realm.
“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music,” said Coltrane. “If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
A love supreme, indeed.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
By Terry Mattingly
In the beginning there was “Big Tony” Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education.
But there was one big complication. Steven didn’t want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced “Oar”), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. “Big Mike” was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe, and her 13 children.
So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother’s dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven’s grades.
Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball, and looked like God’s gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their “blind side.”
The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money, and education. But a key player in the real-life version of The Blind Side stressed that this is also a story about faith.
“We’re convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing,” said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter, and clothing. “We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke.…This was God-driven from the start.”
Author Michael Lewis didn’t hide that faith element while writing The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, a bestseller that mixed Oher’s story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in football.
Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. The Blind Side recently grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.
On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. The movie, however, does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.
Leigh Anne Tuohy said that “from day one,” Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons, and trips to sports events and practices.
The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.
“This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return,” she told reporters, after a press screening of The Blind Side.
Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little “faith in those who say they represent a faith.…I’ve finally met people that walk the walk.”
While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God’s work in the events that changed Oher’s life, and their family, that doesn’t mean the details were clear at the time.
The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it’s impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America’s cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens?
After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it’s hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.
“A miracle is what this is,” she said. “Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center in Washington D.C.
Our unique heritage
I am writing in regard to Frank Decker’s column, “Examining Our Glasses” (November/December 2009). I suspect it is of little consequence to some, but we are not Protestant in the common use of the term. Our heritage is through John Wesley to the Anglican tradition, not to Martin Luther, Zwingli, et al. Too bad so many Methodists do not know our heritage which includes the rich Arminian response to Calvinism, our approach to infant baptism, and our emphasis on grace in all its forms. If the United Methodist Church wants to blossom, it will best be done by emphasizing our unique heritage rather than some ill-conceived and unconscious adoption of the Protestant approach.
Fair View UM Church
Mooresville, North Carolina
Appreciate your article
Just want to say that I really appreciate Rob Renfroe’s article “Speaking the Truth in Love” (September/October 2009). I have said this myself for a few years now…grace and truth, we have to have both!
The article is refreshing, and frankly offers me some hope that “someone” in a leadership role sees the big picture for what it is.
Keep reflecting the light!
Binghamton, New York
Truth in love
Thank you for Rob Renfroe’s article “Speaking the Truth in Love” (September/October 2009). It brought to mind a wonderful study called The Truth Project—a 12-week course that my wife and I took at a sister United Methodist church, and we are now planning to offer it at our own church. The Truth Project explores the very theme you expressed, truth, and the Christian worldview that seeks it.
As you point out, United Methodist membership rolls in the United States have been shrinking for some time. Yet, the denominational hierarchy’s proposed remedies are often tried with little positive results to show for the large expenditure of time and resources. We are confronted daily with lies coming at us from all sectors of society, but people are hungry for the truth.
The Truth Project examines society from the Christian perspective. When someone finishes the series, they will have been challenged to examine how real their faith actually is to them. Then, when it comes time to put themselves totally into their ministries, they are more willing to endure the scars on their backs that you wrote about. Isn’t it time for the United Methodist Church to look outside of itself to the reality that advances the cause of Christ and in the process rebuilds its membership?
Conference Lay Delegate
First UM Church
Port St. John, Florida