Believers had a double duty: to be evangelical (believe the right stuff) and to evangelize (tell everybody about it – also known as “witnessing”). The first part came naturally — I was a good student,. The second part, not so much. Of all the things I ever did as a Christian, witnessing was hands-down the most awkward and humiliating. I was a total witnessing failure from the get-go. That was a problem because if you were in love with Jesus you’d want to tell everybody, wouldn’t you? (Well, um, no, not really. I mean, my wife and I, we just sort of… dated. Which means I spent a lot of years wondering if I really loved Jesus after all.)
Early on, I met some Baptists for whom witnessing was their highest and best good. That’s how they fulfilled the “Great Commission” — where it says in the Bible we’re supposed to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I was still wondering if it was okay to smoke marijuana now that I was born again when they pushed a stack of “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts into my hand and said, “There’s a Billy Graham movie in town next week. You can be a counselor.” (Apparently if you’re a newbie it strengthens your faith if you start witnessing right away.)
My job as a counselor was to execute the basic Billy Graham evangelistic closing strategy. The movie would end with an “altar call” – an invitation to “go forward” and “give your life to Christ.” A few of the counselors would go forward right away (one at a time, so it didn’t look preplanned), so it looked like they were answering the call, and then crowd psychology would kick in and make it easier for other people to join them. Then the counselors would work the crowd and share the Four Spiritual Laws with the sinners so they would “come to Jesus.”
One night the only person who went forward was one of the counselors. He stood there alone for a long, awkward time before the lights finally went up. I thought about joining him like I was supposed to, but I went with some of my “unbeliever” friends and… well, I just didn’t feel like it. I have a vague memory of going forward and “sharing the gospel” only once, talking to a guy while his girlfriend looked on, and never closing the deal. Like I said — a total witnessing failure.
The Surprise Exit Strategy
As it turned out, being a witnessing failure turned out to be my exit strategy.
Evangelizing wasn’t optional — everybody needed to pitch in to help save the lost because for one thing the Second Coming wouldn’t happen until we finished the job, and besides you were a total loser if you didn’t. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but a lot of us were witnessing failures, so we looked for approaches that didn’t involve cold calling or the Four Spiritual Laws.
The last nondenominational denomination I belonged to was founded by a former L.A. music producer named John Wimber who looked just like Jerry Garcia. He got “saved hard” and figured out how to start a church for ex-Jesus Freaks who’d tried to grow up and get real jobs but missed that 1960’s vibe. He called it Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which became “the Vineyard” (which was confusing, because there was a wine shop by that name) and it went viral (before “viral” existed) in the 80’s. It started as a “church renewal,” but that didn’t last long – people got tired of trying to renew a church that already had to live through the 70’s and really wasn’t in the mood for more of that, so Wimber and the Vineyard settled on“church planting” as its Great Commission fulfillment strategy.
Church planting meant putting together a good soft-rock band, funny sermons, recovery groups, food banks, “newly single” Bible studies, and generally being hip and young and trendy and cool enough to draw a crowd to your converted freshly painted former warehouse with an awesome sound system. Plus, we weren’t trying to save the lost, we were trying to make it cool for the “unchurched” – a more clinical, managerial term – to come to church. Same dif but hey, words matter.
“Church planter” was the highest level of cred in the Vineyard, so of course I had to be one. I bailed on my career, sold our house, loaded the family into the minivan, and followed the moving van 1500 miles to plant a new church for the unchurched. My wife starting crying before we left the Denver city limits, and kept it up all across Kansas. If ever there was a sign from God for how my church planting mission was going to go, that was it.
Turned out I was a victim of my own success: I was good enough at drawing an unchurched crowd that I got blacklisted for “sheep stealing.” The problem was that they weren’t all unchurched — some of them came over from the sponsoring church, and the pastor was pissed that I was “sheep stealing.” Never mind that Wimber’s official church planting policy was don’t worry about that, they don’t belong to anybody, they’re all God’s sheep. (Christians like to talk about how people are like sheep. It’s a Bible thing – the book was written when counting sheep was like counting money.) Official church planting policy or not, sheep stealing still got me kicked out, and that’s what got things rolling on eventually getting me all the way out.
Once I was out, the good news was, I didn’t need to evangelize anymore. The bad news was, my life was ruined. But the truth was, I was the one who had ruined it by believing what I believed. I’d been playing by the believer rules, but they’re set up so the house always wins — you’ll never get it right and when you don’t it’s always all your fault. (Duh – that’s what “sin” is all about, right? Note to self: maybe you’re free to believe what you like, but there are consequences if you act on what you believe – as some of the mob that stormed the Capitol found out when they went home and got a knock on the door and it wasn’t Jesus standing on the other side.)
Faith on the Rebound
Between life with God and life without God, I ran across lots of church substitutes: self-help, positive psychology, “New Thought” churches, intellectuals. rationalists, humanists, skeptics, and materialists; and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative” healers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies, and they all evangelized like crazy – plus there was more God-talk than in my Christian days. (We were always careful about too much God-talk, lest it scare the lost and unchurched away.)
The most obnoxious evangelists were the “four horsemen” of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. I thought this will be great, they’ll help me with my new atheism,, but I only made it partway through a couple of their books. (One exception: Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, which I read all the way through twice. We’ll talk more about its theme later on in this series.) The same was true of the other atheist offerings I came across –associations, conventions, websites, books, webinars, video series, TV specials, interviews. It was always the same menu: arguments for and against God and why life without God was better. Like you could argue God and a better life in or out of existence.
From what I could tell, the whole mixed up crowd of Christianity substitutes was a lot of people on the rebound — rushing from one broken faith relationship to another. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they had a different vocabulary – like one atheist group I came across that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, fellowship…. Seriously.
The issue wasn’t God, it was the believing part.
In time, it became clear that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, it was believing in the first place. Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed. Years of wandering through the land of religion substitutes and studying how they worked revealed they all shared the same dynamics, which I’ve come to call beliefism.
Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.
More next time.