Here Come the Clowns

By Monte E. Wilson, III
July 01, 2000

In trying to explain how the world viewed the church, Soren Kierkegaard told the following story. A travelling circus had set up just outside a village in Denmark. Somehow a fire was started that was spreading so fast that the circus people needed help in putting out the blaze. The manager sent a man to the nearby village to summon the people for help. When the man arrived, he pleaded with the people to come and help control the fire or it would burn down both the village and the circus. The problem was that the man was dressed as a clown: make-up, big nose, long shoes, the works. The villagers thought that he was part of an act to arouse attention and attract customers. Being amused, they clapped for his stellar performance. The clown wept and tried even harder to explain the precariousness of their condition. Again, the villagers thought the clown's performance was even better the second time around and gave him a standing ovation. The fire destroyed both the village and the circus.

In considering the subject of evangelism, the church must face the fact that all too often its face is not a reflection of the Triune God, but of a clown. Worse, we are seen as one of those clowns that perform so horridly that we do not elicit laughter and applause but a painful grimace and a quick grab for the TV remote. When the average unbelieving American thinks of evangelical Christianity, I wonder how many of them think of fat hicks, purpled-hair chicks and that guy with the funny hair knocking people down at the altar Not exactly images that elicit serious reflection, are they?

Other people see religion as merely customs and traditions. The church is a harmless club that “probably helps people”... somewhat like a placebo. Is this a case of unbelievers seeing only what they wish to see, or is it a form of Christianity that traded in its stumbling blocks for pomp and circumstance?

How many are reticent even to admit that they are Christians, not because they are ashamed of the gospel, but because they fear being lumped in with the passing parade of weirdoes and whackos? My hand is raised. When I do share the gospel, I have found that quite often my initial apologetic does not involve concepts of Truth, God, Sin and the like, but a litany of explanations: This, That, and The Other is NOT Christianity.

The troubling fact is that we have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to share His good news with the world around us. Evangelism is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: it is a mandate, a command. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we are to be ready to take advantage of appropriate opportunities to speak of the Truth of Jesus Christ. Think about it: even if the unbeliever refuses Christ's offer of salvation, you will at the very least have an opportunity to disabuse him of his T V induced illusions of what Christianity is and does!

As I travel around the U. S., I find that serious believers are struggling with the act of evangelism. They will argue against abortion, explain why their presidential candidate is the best choice, present their case for the superiority of home schooling children, but they cannot seem to tell others of Jesus Christ and His salvation. Why? Because they do not wish to be identified with modern evangelical weirdness. But as much as I empathize with this sentiment, isn't it the truth that their being “pro-life” is seen as a Neanderthal-like denial of a woman's rights? That their candidate has some strange ideas? That home schooling parents are often some of the weirdest people in society today? Yet, we still take our stand on these ideas.

We cannot sit around and wait for history to present us with an opportune time for the gospel. There has never been such a time. Go back and read what happened to the people who first received the gospel. In spite of the persecution, in spite of heretics, they insisted upon sharing the Faith. And God blessed their obedience.

So as to provoke our thinking regarding evangelism, I offer the following ideas. I suggest we reflect on these points and pray about what we should do to become a more effective witness for Jesus Christ in the coming millennium.

1. Your first responsibility is to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33).

Who is Christ? What is Christianity? What exactly is the gospel of the kingdom? Furthermore, who is Christ to you? What is Christianity to you? How does the kingdom work in your life? Having the correct message is critical. However, the messenger is also critical. A Christian “testimony” is an assertion of having experienced the Truth and Love of Christ. We are not merely passing out truth-claims. We are saying, “This is the Biblical gospel and this is how it has seized my life, my family, my vocation, etc.”

Furthermore, it is not simply propositions about Jesus Christ that are to be presented, but the God-man Jesus Christ Himself Who is to be presented. This is not simply a matter of semantics. All too often we sound as if we are asking an individual to accept certain facts rather than to yield to this Person who is (partially, yet salvifically) understood via these Biblical assertions concerning who He is. When our witness gravitates to doctrine in such a way as to overshadow the Person, Jesus Christ, I believe our witness loses much of its spiritual dynamic. I think it was Peter Kreeft who said that Jesus Christ came to His people with a marriage proposal, not a syllogism. Let us not forget this.

2. We are not witnessing to “humanity” or to a “public.” There are no such things. There are only individual persons.

The person with whom you share the gospel is a unique, never-to-be-repeated creation of God. This is especially pertinent for ministers. When we speak to a public or to humanity or to a congregation we are, in people's minds, speaking to an “it,” or to “them,” but not to “me.” The only way to reach into people's hearts is to engage them as individuals, with their individual fears, concerns, and needs — all of which Jesus Christ speaks to in the Scriptures.

This individual to whom we speak has given us an opportunity to share our faith and its relevance to both their present and their future (eternity). Maybe it is a marital difficulty or a moral dilemma that has motivated them to speak with us. If we speak to them with the mindset of all-people-are-this-way (a dehumanizing generalization) then we will fail to speak to them as the unique creation of God that they actually are. The result of such an approach is that the gospel is not heard as something for them as an individual but for people in general. Since they do not see themselves as people-in-general, this message is not for them.

When we treat individuals and their needs as generalizations, then we come across as insensitive and even arrogant. Humanity does not repent and give its life to Jesus Christ — individuals do. Who is this person to whom I am speaking? What are their specific questions, fears, concerns, sins, hopes, and dreams? How does the message of the gospel apply to this individual's life?

3. Purely rational arguments for the Faith are not always successful, largely because most people have not rejected the gospel because of rational reasons.

In Pascal's Pensees, he writes:

Order. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first [1] to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect.
Next [2.] make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then [3] show that it is true.
Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature.
Attractive because it promises true good.

People do not reject Christianity because they do not believe it is true, writes Pascal. No, people reject Christianity because they fear it is true and hate it. The problem is not intellectual but attitudinal and volitional. Consequently, Pascal writes that, while we should utilize reasoning, we must also reveal the gospel's attractiveness by showing how it alone understands human nature and promises the true good. To fear and hate the gospel is to fear and hate what is best for every human.

Most people I know who do witness spend all their time and effort focusing on the intellectual (rational reasons for yielding to the Truth of the Bible) and ignoring the psychological (only Christianity truly understands human nature and promises true good). We will far more effective if we take Pascal's advice.

4. It is not enough for the church — for individual believers — to take off the clown's mask. We must be authentic humans who are followers of Christ.

Seeker-sensitive churches changed clothes long ago. They now dress like stockbrokers and talk like Garrison Keillor of NPR's Prairie Home Companion. While this can be far more effective in the arena of evangelism than what we see and hear on TBN, it still may fail to present the truth of Christianity and Christians. For in the process of changing clothes, we often change the gospel so as to rid it of its stumbling blocks. Furthermore — and more importantly — what people need to hear and see in us is our humanity. It is not enough to merely look like humans who live in the twenty-first century; we must actually reveal our humanity. We are not clowns, angels, or Stoics: we are humans who are working out our salvation.

Paul said that Christ was glorified in our weakness. Contrarily, how often do we think and act as if He will only be glorified in our strength and perfection? The unbeliever needs to know of our struggles, our questions, our doubts, and our failures (when appropriate). Christians get the flu. Christians have business failures. Christians have marital difficulties and their children do not always grow up to be valiant men and women of God. Christians say dumb things. Christians struggle with their faith in God and in His ways. Let's stop acting and start being honest about who-what-and-where we are.

Christianity is not magic. Christianity waves no wand over a person's life exempting him of all difficulties. Christians experience self-doubt, temptations, and wrestle with how to live their faith on a consistent basis. While we certainly should not boast of sin or make light of it, unbelievers need to know that we experience difficulties. Why? Because unbelievers know better! To act as if we were angels rather than humans tells other people that we are either delusional or hypocritical: neither of which is all that great of an advertisement for the Faith. Sharing our humanness with others creates a bridge across which we can maintain honest dialogue: a prerequisite for serving those who are pursuing the truth. Furthermore, by our honesty, we prepare them for the real battles that all Christians will wage until they go to heaven.

Topics: Dominion, Church, The, Culture

Monte E. Wilson, III

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