Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Conned In The Name Of Jesus

Dear Friends,

I was about twenty-one years old and it was Spring Break. And in Southern California, Spring Break meant Palm Springs. It was about nine or ten at night and I’m walking down the main street with a couple of friends. I’m not really a party kind of guy but I may have had an adult beverage. I don't remember. I do remember the blonde girl though.  In fact, I've never been able to forget the blonde girl. She was also with friends and she walked right up to me, gave me a big smile and said, “Hi.”
Now if this were a movie and you saw this totally hot, super-gorgeous blonde approach the nerd on the street, you know that she's not really picking him up. And what makes the scene in the movie funny and sad at the same time is that the nerd doesn't know he's a nerd so he actually thinks this hot, super-model girl really is coming onto him! 

But this is not a movie. This is my life. She asked if she could walk with me and I stuttered out a yes. She took my hand and melted my heart. We talked about stuff and I couldn’t believe how interested she was in me. She told me she was there with her church group and we started talking about church and God and Jesus. I told her I was an Episcopalian and she asked if I'd ever prayed the prayer of faith. I wasn’t really sure what she meant by that, but I told her that I was already a Christian. She was so flirtatious I couldn't think straight. She held on to my arm and rubbed her body against me as we walked and she told me that she wanted to pray with me to receive Jesus. She kissed me on the neck and nibbled on my ear. I said yes. My brain had turned into Jell-O and I would have recited the Gettysburg Address if she’d asked me. We were facing each other now and she took both my hands in hers and begin to pray. We were so close that her upper body was  touching and rubbing up against mine. My thoughts were racing but I wasn't thinking about Jesus.

After I repeated the words she asked me to repeat, she told me she needed to go and rejoin her church group. I told her I wanted to see her again and she told me she’d like that too, but first I had to come to her church and talk to her pastor. 

For days I was on cloud nine. I couldn't believe how much this girl had liked me! She had told me her church was the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys and I immediately made an appointment to see her pastor. I told him I’d met Carly in Palm Springs, that we really clicked together and I was really looking forward to seeing her again. He chuckled and said that she was engaged to the worship leader and she was their best evangelist. He told me how many guys she'd “saved” in Palm Springs.
I sat there stunned. I'd been played in Carly’s Christian con game. I felt shame and anger for allowing myself to be manipulated. The pastor tried to put a positive spin on it by telling me that the good news was that I'd accepted Jesus and I told him the only reason I prayed that prayer is because she was rubbing her breasts on me as she was praying it. He was speechless when I left his office. This was at a time in my life when I was thinking that I needed to go back to church but this Baptist bait and switch left behind so many strong, negative feelings and thoughts it would be over twenty years before I finally did return to church.

We should all be cringing when we hear evangelists using manipulative techniques to win people to Jesus. Just as the Palm Springs girl was implicitly promising something that wasn't available, we need to be careful that we don't do the same thing. Listen to the promises on TBN and you'll hear that if you want to get out of debt and find a job you need to accept Jesus. And the secret to having a financially abundant life is saying "yes" to Christ. You'll hear that if you want to be physically healed, all you need to do is to accept Jesus and instantly your diabetes will be gone and your hearing will be restored. And, praying the prayer of salvation, will bring restoration to broken families. Hallelujah!  Our Prayer Partners are waiting to take your call! But a manipulative invitation with trumped-up promises given in order to rack up salvations is a false Gospel preached without integrity.

When we’re telling others about Jesus, we don’t need to sweeten the deal. Just tell the Gospel truth. Because Jesus is more than enough. Amen?
To Be Continued Next Week...

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Historical Note on the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys: I found out later through a friend who attended this church that “soul winning” was their number one priority with prizes awarded to those who “saved” the most souls during evangelistic events. Members of the evangelistic teams even had cash betting pools that were won by the team member who could get the most people to pray and accept Jesus. These outreach campaigns paid off and in the sixties and early seventies, the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys, with a "reported" congregation of over 14,000, was the largest church in the United States that was west of the Mississippi River. But it was to be later revealed that membership rolls had been greatly inflated and in fact over 3,000 of their “active” members were actually deceased. In the late seventies and eighties, many thousands would leave over doctrinal and theological differences and in 1988 the church filed for bankruptcy and sold their property.
This story does have a happy ending though. After worshiping in a temporary facility for three years, First Baptist Church of Van Nuys built a new church campus in Porter Ranch and changed its name to Shepherd of the Hills. After merging with another church, appointing a new pastor and dropping all ties to the Baptists, Shepherd of the Hills became a non-denominational megachurch that is being mightily used by God to impact this northern area of the San Fernando Valley.
God turned the circumstances of that church around and He turned my life around as well. Romans 8:28 tells us that we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. God can take the worst of life’s messes and turn them around for His glory. And I believe that sometimes the manner in which God creates those new circumstances is so that we can clearly see His providence working in our lives. Let me show you what I mean by that. The First Baptist Church of Van Nuys property was sold to the Church on the Way and today is their “west campus” which includes the original sanctuary and a building remodeled to accommodate the King’s College and Seminary. Two decades after I walked out of that Baptist pastor’s office hurt and angry and vowing to never step foot in a church again, God created the circumstances that would return me to that same building to attend the Foursquare Bible College for two years. Our God is the God who redeems and restores! 
Nothing in the above Historical Note or in the narrative of my experience with this church should be construed as a negative toward our Baptist brothers and sisters in the Lord! I’ve now seen multiple Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Foursquare and non-denominational churches skew attendance and membership numbers to appear larger than they actually are. It’s deceitful and grieves God. Pastors should be ashamed for doing it. But I tell you my embarrassing Palm Springs story not to point accusing fingers at any church or person. I tell it only to show the damaging effects that can happen when we have an unrighteous focus on generating ego-pleasing church-growth statistics. True evangelism always starts with hearts broken for lost and hurting people who need Jesus and focuses on lovingly sharing the gift of His Christ-centered Gospel message.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Are You Bold Enough To Pray?

Dear Friends,

A few years ago I was having lunch with a co-worker at a family restaurant. He's a Fire Captain and at that time was in charge of his department's Chaplaincy Program. The food arrived and we both just automatically bowed our heads while one of us said grace to bless the meal and our conversation.

But before we could dig into our lunch, a thirty-something woman sitting alone across the room, bounded over to us and enthusiastically gushed about how wonderful it was to see two men praying together in public. I'm normally receptive to women telling me how awesome I am, but she was going on and on and my fries were getting cold and I wished she would just get going. 

She paused and I saw the big smile on her face begin to falter as her eyes glanced quickly away from us and back again. In that instant, I saw pain flicker across her face and knew that she had not come over just to compliment us on our public piety. She was trying to say something and wrestling with how to get it out. I slid over on the bench seat and said, “Why don't you sit down and tell us why God sent you over to us. Tell us how we can pray for you.” Her demeanor instantly changed and the giggling was gone. She sat and begin to weep as she told us a horrific story. 

Our burgers and fries were getting cold as we ministered to her and prayed for her. But we didn't mind a bit. God had providentially brought us into this particular restaurant at this particular time so that we would intersect this woman's life just as she was running out of hope. At a time when she didn't know if she should still hang on to life or just let go.. At a time when she had just lost both her parents to a violent death and had no one to turn to.. At a time when she was desperately searching for the God she vaguely remembered from Sunday School... And now at the time when she knew that she needed to reconnect with her Heavenly Father and she was unsure how to do that, God brought her into a restaurant and sat her down between a Fire Department Chaplain and a Pastor.

We both thought that our conversation with the woman would have gone unnoticed by anyone else in the restaurant. But as soon as she left our booth, the waitress appeared at our table with her own eyes moistened by what had just taken place and she silently took our untouched food back to the kitchen to warm everything up for us.

It was not until much later as I thought about that day that I realized it was not the prayer that had earmarked us both as Christians to the young woman. It was the posture of prayer. Heads bowed in reverence before God. Eyes closed to momentarily shut out the world and come into His presence. An unhurried moment of giving thanks to God for His provision and asking for His blessing. But had we not been willing to assume the risk of disapproval of others by praying in public view, God's plan for that woman would have been thwarted that day.

Of the 83% of Americans who identify as Christians, only 44% pray before a meal and less than 20% would say grace in a restaurant. Christians have told me that they would be mortified to pray in public and said that they wouldn’t want to offend those who were not religious.

But a former atheist writes: “Even when I was an atheist, I recall being quite moved on the rare occasions that I saw people pray before meals in public. I thought it was interesting that God was real enough to these people that they were willing to stand out and look weird to acknowledge him. In general, I had a low opinion of anyone who believed in God - Christians especially - but it was touching to see people pray before meals, and I respected the gesture in spite of my cynicism. In fact, those were some of the few occasions that I thought about God with an open mind.”  

I love the way she put that because it becomes a thought-provoking challenge for us. The next time we’re eating in a restaurant, we have to ask ourselves: Is God real enough to me that I would be willing to stand out and look weird in order to acknowledge Him and thank Him for all that He’s given me?