Beliefism [Part 2]: Evangelicals and Evangelizing

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.)

Witnessing

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.

Repent, For the Paradigm Shift is at Hand

Vineyard

We talked last time about the need for radical shifts in outlook — paradigm shifts — if we want to overcome neuro-cultural resistance to change, and mentioned religious conversion as an example. This week, we’ll look at how a paradigm shift gave birth to a church renewal movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s known as “the Vineyard.” I write about it because I was personally involved with it. This is NOT a critique or judgment of the Vineyard or anyone in it; I offer this only to further our examination of the neuro-cultural dynamics of religion.

Vineyard founder John Wimber taught missionary methods and church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, and often heard reports from foreign fields of conversions and membership growth propelled by “signs and wonders” — gospel-style miracles and personal encounters. Western theology and sensibilities mostly explained away supernatural phenomena, but non-Westerners weren’t scandalized by gospel-era experience.

Wimber formulated a ministry model based on the non-Westerners’ worldview. His message was that the Kingdom of God truly was at hand — in the here and now — a concept explored by theologians such as Fuller’s George Eldon Ladd. To embrace and practice that message, Westerners would need to embrace a new worldview — a new paradigm of practical spirituality — that made sense of signs and wonders.

Wimber catalogued what he called “ministry encounters.” where Jesus and the disciples knew things about people they had not revealed, and where people would fall down, cry out, weep, etc. when engaged. Wimber was a Quaker, and adapted the practice of waiting to be moved by the Spirit to watching for these “manifestations of the Spirit” to occur in gatherings. “Ministry teams” trained in the new paradigm would then advance the encounters through the laying on of hands and other gospel techniques.

Wimber’s model began to draw crowds — not unlike the gospel events that drew crowds from towns and their surrounding regions, and sometimes went on all night. Very soon, the Vineyard’s “ministry training” and “ministry conferences” were all the buzz.  Attendees came with high expectations, and the atmosphere was electric.

Vineyard events began with soft rock music with lyrics that addressed God on familiar and sometimes intimate terms, invoking and inviting God’s presence and expressing devotion. The songs flowed nonstop from one to another. By the time the half hour or so of music was over, the crowd was in a state of high inspiration — they were “in-spirited,” “filled with the spirit,” God had “breathed” on them — all phrases connoted in the word’s original meaning when it entered the English language in the 14th century.

After worship, Wimber would offer paradigm-shifting instruction such as describing what a “ministry encounter” looks like — e.g. “manifestations” such as  shaking, trembling, emotional release, etc. He was funny and entertaining, as were other Vineyard speakers, and readily kept up the inspired vibe. Each session would then close with a “clinic” of “ministry encounters.”

The model worked. Vineyard conferences became legend, and soon Vineyard renewal teams traveled the world. I took two overseas trips and several around the U.S. Hosting churches sometimes billed our events as “revival meetings” — their attempt to describe the conference in traditional terms. We were in and out, caused a stir over a weekend, and that was the end of it unless the sponsoring church’s leadership and members adopted the requisite new worldview. Before long the Vineyard began to “plant” its own churches and became its own denomination.

Back in the day, I thought the Vineyard was truly the kingdom come. 30 years later, I view it as one of the most remarkable examples of neuro-cultural conditioning I’ve ever been part of. Neuroscience was nowhere near its current stage of research and popular awareness back then, but what we know now reveals that Vineyard events were the perfect setting for paradigm shifting. As we’ve seen previously, inspiration releases the brain’s “feel good” hormones, activates the same brain areas as sex, drugs, gambling, and other addictive activities, generates sensations of peace and physical warmth, lowers the brain’s defensive allegiance to status quo, and raises risk tolerance — the perfect neurological set up for adopting a new outlook.[1]

As for what happened to Wimber and the Vineyard, that’s beyond the scope of this post, but easy to find if you’re inclined. Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Marie Luhrmann offers an academic (and sympathetic) analysis in her book When God Talks Back:  Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God and her TEDX Stanford talk.

[1] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018). See also this prior post in this series. And for a look at thee dynamics in quite another setting — finding work you love — see this post from my other blog.