Gimmicks and God
By Timothy George
I have a confession to make. In my former life as a Baptist youth evangelist, I did some things of which I am not now particularly proud. For example, on one occasion I dressed up like the devil and went to the local high school, where I told the students just arriving for class that day not to attend the youth revival at our local church. The gimmick worked, and the place was packed. Another time, I partnered with a “karate for Christ” champion and permitted him to slice a potato off my neck blindfolded. By the mercy of God, I survived to tell about it. Had anyone dared to question our hotgospel antics, we would have replied, quoting St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that we were simply becoming “all things to all people that [we] might by all means save some.”
A similar motive seems to lie behind Pastor Lawrence Bishop II’s sensational stunt of riding a live bull inside his Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, last month. For those tempted to imitate the good pastor, it should be noted that he is a former professional bull rider as well as a gospel bluegrass artist. His bullriding exploits drew thousands to his church and led to the conversions and baptisms of some three hundred new members. When questioned on ABC’s Nightline about bullriding as an evangelistic tactic, Pastor Bishop responded by quoting the words of Jesus: “Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23). The pastor then explained, “But Jesus said to go out and compel them to come in. He didn’t say how they were to be compelled!”
Although Pastor Bishop seems to have taken the concept of “cowboy church” to a new level, the phenomenon has been around since at least the 1970s. There are upwards of one thousand cowboy churches in the United States, stretching from Oregon to Maryland, though Texas seems to be the epicenter of the movement. In 2007, the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches was formed as a network of support for this kind of unique outreach. Some seminaries in the Southwest offer courses and workshops on how to organize and do ministry rodeo-style. The aim is to attract many who would never go to a traditional church, and this effort has met with some notable success. There is even a distinctively marked rawhide Bible designed just for cowboy Christians. A few years ago, someone came up with “The Ten Commandments—Cowboy Style.”
(1) Just one God.
(2) Put nothin’ before God.
(3) Watch yer mouth.
(4) Git yourself to Sunday meeting.
(5) Honor yer Ma & Pa.
(6) No killin’.
(7) No foolin’ around with another feller’s gal.
(8) Don’t take what ain’t yers.
(9) No telling tales or gossipin’.
(10) Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.
Regrettably, Commandment Seven misses the gender equality of the original text, perhaps reflecting the masculinist bent of the cowboy culture.
Now, given what I have already confessed, who am I to criticize Pastor Bishop or the Solid Rock Church? In fact, there is much to admire about this growing megachurch. By all accounts, here is an ethnically diverse and theologically orthodox (judging by their statement of faith) evangelical congregation. The fact that certain Pentecostal distinctives, such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, are present in this church simply places it in sync with the most dynamic sector of global Christianity.
In the greater Cincinnati area, Solid Rock Church is well known for its commitment to the sanctity of life and its outreach to the poor and neglected on the margins of society. For some years the church was also known for its landmark six-storey statue of Jesus with arms upraised like a referee announcing a touchdown. This statue was destroyed by lightning in 2010 and has since been replaced by another giant statue of the Savior. This one faces Interstate seventy-five with arms outstretched in a gesture of embrace and welcome. The new Jesus invites the wayward and the lost—indeed, everybody—to a fellowship of committed believers. If passersby stop and go inside they will discover there a congregation which, for all its extreme seeker-sensitivity, still resists the moral relativism and lifestyle liberalism of the environing culture. Frankly, I much prefer this kind of Christianity to that of a self-satisfied sect of self-selected saints huddled together with little or no concern for those outside their own group. Roland Bainton once summarized the attitude of such purist Christians in this little ditty: “We are the choice elected few/let all the rest be damned/there is room enough in hell for you/we won’t have heaven crammed!”
But perhaps there is a more excellent way between the do-nothing and the do-anything approach to evangelization. The Christian church has always existed in tension between the poles of identity and adaptability. It can go to seed by swinging too far in one direction or the other. When the church becomes so self-referential, it loses any sense of mission. But when it becomes so assimilated to the culture, it loses the Gospel. In speaking of the fading fortunes of the mainline, historian George Marsden has said, “Liberals have learned that it is difficult for the church to survive, if there is nothing that makes the church distinct from culture.”
But this principle is not limited to one religious tradition. The recent Pew Research Center’s report on the surprising decline among Catholics in America indicates that this is not solely a Protestant problem. And, while evangelical and Pentecostal churches faired better in the Pew study, the danger signs are there for them as well. Accommodation is a two-way street. The Gospel can be lost whenever Christianity becomes too casual and worship is reduced to entertainment, no less than when it follows the siren lure of secularism. Many megachurches have a mini-Gospel where the emphasis is more on attracting people than retaining them for discipleship and service. Mark Noll was once asked whether he thought a campus revival he had witnessed was genuine. He said: “Come back and ask me that question in ten years.”
Two recent books shed light on this theme. In Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, Mack Stiles defines evangelism simply as “teaching the Gospel with the aim to persuade.” The focus should not be on programs or events. Biblical evangelism happens, Stiles argues, not when crowds are attracted to a church for some spectacular experience but rather when the members of the church are sent out into the world to bear witness to Christ.
Brian H. Cosby is a bright young Presbyterian pastor who has thought deeply about these matters, especially about how the church should reach out to the rising generation. In his book Giving Us Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Church, Cosby offers some counter-cultural advice for everyone called to the ministry of the church:
I maintain that the ‘How to’ of being faithful to God in worship and ministry is demonstrated through the ordinary, historic, and apostolic means of grace, particularly, ministry of the Word, prayer, and sacraments.
If God has already provided the ordinary means of growing in grace as we find in His Word, why do we think that we have the right or the greater wisdom to invent new ways through entertainment-driven, success-oriented worship and ministry?
I plead with you not to be tempted with success, professionalism, or the fading fads of our entertainment-driven culture. Rather, pursue Jesus as the all-satisfying treasure that He is and strive to faithfully feed His sheep through the means of grace that God has already provided His Church.
A church based on gimmicks is not likely to develop deep-soil disciples who demonstrate “a long obedience in the same direction.” The question for every evangelist and every church ought to be: “Is the method we are using worthy of the Gospel we are proclaiming?”
Published at First Things, 6.15.15
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.