05 August 2009
Dear Pastor X,
We have to talk.
On Monday night a group of our campus ministry students gathered at a local restaurant for what we like to call "Theology on Tap." Usually our conversation centers on a news item or something happening in our community, but this week it was all about you. Well, your church members, actually, but you're their pastor and so, unfortunately, you get the burden of responsibility for what's been going on.
It seems that one of my students works on campus with some of your students. That in itself is not the problem. Your students like to talk about their faith and the Bible study they have most days over the lunch hour. That is also not the problem. The problem, my brother, is this: your students are tactless, disrespectful, and afraid, and we need to talk about it.
Contrary to what you might have heard me say, tact is not only for those who aren't witty enough to be sarcastic. You and I are both Christians, right? We both believe in Jesus' command to "make disciples of all nations," right? (Matthew 28, but then you probably knew that already). So, with a whole world of folks out there who could use the good news about Jesus Christ, why do your students insist on preaching to the converted? Those who claim no faith do so partially because they don't trust us - and when they see your church members beating down one of my students because she doesn't belong to your flock, that mistrust worms its way deeper and deeper. Don't get me wrong: we should all aspire to do ministry in such a way that our students want to invite others to join us. But how about teaching your folks the good ways to invite people, with kindness, gentleness and love? Teaching your folks that their best evangelism tools are guilt, shame and fear doesn't accomplish much for the unchurched, our ministry or even your own. You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, brother.
So much for tact. Now, here's my next problem. Once your students have gotten the "kind invitation" down pat, how shall they handle it when my student replies, "I already belong to a church, thanks very much?" Here's a hint: saying you belong to another church is not an opening for discussion as to the theological worthiness of said church. When my student says to your student, "I'm baptized," the correct answer is NOT "oh, but have you been baptized as an adult?" I know we're going to disagree on this issue, and believe me, I'm not asking you to change your mind. What I am insisting on is respect for a fellow follower of Jesus Christ. Yes, you can make jokes about our infant baptism when we're not around: trust me, we make jokes about your believer's baptism when you're not around. But we aren't asking you to change what you believe or how you do it - stop asking us to change what we believe and baptize the way you do it.
Finally, let's talk about fear. I've got a pastoral concern for your students here, because if what my student reports is true, you are really missing the boat on fear and faith. Somehow you've convinced them that there's a certain point where they've done "enough" to earn their way into heaven. Brother, I can understand a little misplaced enthusiasm from your students, but you have GOT to get your theology straight. Spend some time in Galatians: Paul had a lot to say about faith, fear and freedom. Or check out Romans, especially that part in chapters five and six: Paul does a good job putting justification and sin in their proper place there. Maybe you should check out Matthew 19: Jesus pretty much lays it on the line and says it's up to GOD, not us.
Here's the thing: you might get some folks into your church using these kind of aggressive scare tactics, but all you're doing is shrinking the world by making them more and more afraid of everything around them. When are they safe "enough" to know, based on what they do and who they are, that they're heaven-bound? Even worse: what will they do while they're alive, assuming the Last Day doesn't come in their lifetime? Jesus said he came to give life, abundant life: when are you going to give your people that part of the promise?
There is sin in this world, far too much of it: on that we agree completely. And we also agree that part of our responsibility as pastors is to caution our people against the consequences of sin. But let's not forget that we serve a Lord who forgave the death of his own Son out of love for the world that Son came to save. How about you ask your people to focus more on living in love rather than fear, and we'll do the same from our end, and maybe, just maybe, we could make the church look like it's got something worth offering to the world.
Your brother in Christ,