Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoe-leather evangelism

Recently I've been listening to some Francis Chan clips on YouTube. I should preface my comments by saying my knowledge of Francis is quite cursory, so it's entirely possible that what I've seen and read doesn't reflect a representative sample, in which case my observations may be off-the-mark. Those who are more conversant with his ministry than me can correct or supplement my observations:

i) He strikes me as one of those communicators, like Jeremiah, St. Paul, and some of the Psalmists, who wears his heart on his sleeve. That makes him very engaging.

ii) Apropos (i), some preachers have a textual or doctrinal emphasis, whereas he seems to have an existential emphasis. Up to a point that's good. We're supposed to internalize the Gospel. Become what we believe. There's a danger, in theology and apologetics, where orthodoxy can be a substitute for application. 

The church needs different kinds of preachers. Preachers like Francis fill a necessary niche.  

iii) Apropos (i-ii), from what I've seen, he likes to use personal anecdotes as sermon illustrations. That's very engaging. Everyone likes to hear a good story. It can be edifying and inspirational. 

That said, over-reliance on personal anecdotes can be hazardous. That might contribute to pastoral burnout. 

If you keep dipping into the well of your personal experience for sermon illustrations, it won't be long before the dipper scrapes bottom. Each individual only has so many fresh, exciting anecdotes to share. In general, life is fairly mundane.

To vary the metaphor, over-reliance on personal anecdotes is like self-cannibalism. If you over-use your own experience, it's like feeding off of yourself, because you only have so much to spare. 

Imagine being stranded on a desert island. There's nothing to eat. To forestall starvation, you begin consuming "expendable" parts of your own body. You have ten fingers. Ten toes. Two arms. Two legs. How much of yourself can you consume and still survive?

I'm not saying for a fact that he has that problem. Perhaps his experience is sufficiently varied that he doesn't run dry. But there is a risk, if a preacher feels the need to spice up his sermons with new, thrilling personal anecdotes, that he will eat himself alive (as it were).

iv) Apropos (iii), Francis has a particular skill set. It would be a mistake for a greenhorn preacher to imitate Francis. As a natural public speaker, he can pull things off that somebody without his talent can't get away with.  

v) Apropos (iv), because the church has many members, the strengths and weakness of one member ought to be balanced out by the strengths and weaknesses of other members. Everyone has limitations. Don't try to be more than you are. Rather, make the most of whatever you are. 

vi) Apropos (v), Francis can reach many people in some demographic groups that old square white guys like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Charles Stanley can't. We need the variety.

vii) From what I've seen, Francis seems to have an appetite for modern miracles. And he has some striking anecdotes of special providence. For instance:

That's encouraging. There is, though, the danger of becoming deflated if you feel that you need to witness a new miracle every so often. Like, "Okay, God, that was sensational! But that's so last week. What have you done lately?" 

viii) Apropos (vii), the church needs people like Francis to shake things up. Keep devotional life from becoming too mechanical, perfunctory, complacent, set in our ways.

On the other hand, a large part of perseverance, of spiritual maturity, is coping with the hum drum of so much we have to do. Life can be grueling enough without having Olympic expectations. It's an achievement just to get across the finish line. 

ix) Francis has been criticized for quitting a megachurch that he started. I think one reason he quit is that he has a heart for personal evangelism. He feels a duty to connect with people face-to-face and one-on-one. That's not something the senior pastor of a megachurch has time for. The pastor to parishioner ratio prohibits much individualized ministry. That's delegated to associate pastors who do visitation and small-group ministry.

I can understand if Francis felt his church outgrew his sense of vocation. He wanted to get back to shoe-leather evangelism. And he has a knack for that. Can you imagine John MacArthur or Charles Stanley doing street evangelism in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco? Likewise, Francis recently addressed a high school audience. Even though he's already 50, he's naturally in his element with that demographic. 

And it seems to recharge his batteries. Gives him a chance to see God at work, transforming individuals. 

x) Francis became uneasy with his celebrity. In part, I think he felt unworthy. People were coming just to hear him.

And it's true that, ideally, people should come for the message, not the messenger. If, however, the messenger is what draws them to the messenger, then I don't think a preacher should feel guilty about their motivations. 

There a paradox about great actors and speakers: they have a natural talent, but once they get a reputation, it's hard for them not to become self-conscious of their talent. Instead of just doing what made them famous before they became famous, there's a temptation to live up to their reputation. They may lose some of the focus and spontaneity  that made the popular in the first place. 

For instance, Laurence Olivier was widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation. Yet he got to a point in his career when he suffered from crippling stage fright. How can the world's greatest actor suffer from stage right, you ask? By having that hanging over your head every time you walk out on stage.   
It's a greater challenge for conscientious preachers, since their aim is not to impress an audience. They don't want to be the center of attention. They don't want to be the object of adulation. It's a dilemma for great preachers. They should just accept the fact that God is using them as instruments. God usually works through creaturely media. And he created the medium. 

1 comment:

  1. Off topic, but this might be worthy of a post: