Missional or Misguided?

A good portion of my ministry is conducted in non-traditional venues.  Jails, bars, recovery homes for men and women struggling to overcome addictions.  Many of these people have left the Church (if not the faith).  They have wandered far afield.  Some are returning cautiously to their beliefs in God, others have yet to see that as a goal.  Some have no faith to return to.

Men and women that I don’t – on the surface – have much in common with.  Different backgrounds, many of theirs rough and unpleasant and sad.  I was raised in such comfort, such love, such stability in comparison!  Yet I go and we spend time together and God is at work in the midst of it, perhaps to our mutual surprise.

I liken it to missionary work, going into another culture and trying to learn about that culture in order to be able to speak Jesus to that culture in a way that they can hear him.  The fact that I don’t have to leave the country to do this doesn’t mean that the cultures in these places aren’t as radically different from my Sunday morning pulpit and congregation than the missionaries we know and pray for in far-flung corners of the globe.

My assumption then is that I am not there to convince these men and women of norms of behavior.  My goal is not to have them value higher education or sobriety or fidelity or honesty or whatever other worthy aspiration we might hope for them.  My goal is simply to communicate Christ to them.  I don’t have to like the way they live their lives.  I don’t have to agree with it.  But I assume that passing judgment on those things is not my first and primary goal.  My first and primary goal is to speak Christ.  To convey the ministry of reconciliation, to utilize Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5.  That’s what matters most.  To share that there is a man who promised to forgive them their sins and create new people out of them.  That in meeting this man and trusting what He said – based on his resurrection from the dead – they are in fact made into new creations.

Immediately.  Not once they clean up their act.  Not once they’re paroled or off of probation.  Not once they’ve sobered up or quit sleeping around or become better parents.  Right now.  Immediately.  Only through faith in Jesus Christ.  That’s what I want to communicate.  Because in communicating that message, and in their receiving of it and placing their faith and trust in it, all those other things in their lives that I may very much dislike and very much know to be contrary to God’s Law will get taken care of.  In His time, not mine.

Towards that end, my preaching style, my teaching style differ markedly from my Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon preaching and teaching.  Speaking to these people I believe I need to communicate in a way that they can hear me.  I need to catch their attention.  I may do this on Sunday morning with an interesting anecdote or with a new way of hearing a Scripture passage.  But for these other groups, I believe that in order to hear what I’m saying, they have to first of all realize what I’m not saying.

Because I assume they get a lot of men and women – Christians – who come to them and judge their lifestyles and their choices, who exhort them to higher standards of morality, who seek to model better decision-making and holier living.  It isn’t that the moral standards these other Christians want to convey are wrong.  I just think they’re putting the cart before the horse.  I think that when you go in preaching primarily that you have to clean up your life and Jesus will help you do this, what gets lost or ignored is what Jesus has already done for you.  He’s already died for you.  He’s already won forgiveness for you.  And that gift has no strings attached.  It’s free and completely grace and faith.

So my language is more colorful in the jail or in the Rescue Mission or in the bar.  I talk the way these people talk, to a certain extent.  I do it intentionally.  I do it specifically to get their attention so that they hear what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying look at me as a moral model.  I’m not saying look at how I live and pattern your own lives after it.  I’m not saying you make the baby Jesus cry when you talk like that.  What I want them to realize is that I’m simply saying that Jesus loves them.  Right here and now.  While you swear or drink or struggle to stay off drugs.  In the midst of your messy life with multiple boyfriends and multiple children with multiple partners.  In the midst of shattered childhoods and lives spent in ways that would make many of my Sunday morning congregants pale in their boots.

That’s my approach.  Some will say that it’s effective.  I see the eyebrows go up when I let fly with a swear word in the middle of preaching or teaching on a Bible passage.  I see people loosen up a little bit, not worried quite so much whether they’re using proper ‘church language’ when they ask a question or relate something from their lives.  I think my approach has merit, at least for me and my situation.

But it’s certainly also open to critique.

This past Thursday I was called to task by a male client at the Rescue Mission.  I appreciated his firm but respectful objections.  I was setting a poor example for some of the newer Christians in the group.  I was giving them the wrong idea – that they didn’t have to watch their language or avoid talking about certain subjects because, after all, Pastor Paul does it.  I listened respectfully and thanked him for his concerns.

I’d like to say that he’s wrong, but I don’t know that he is.  I’d like to defend my approach as one carefully calibrated to elicit a particular response, but that would be giving me far more credit than I deserve.  I would like to say that he’s just immature or unbalanced, or dismiss him as a recovering addict or a Bible-thumper.  But I can’t do any of those things.  I have to wrestle with the reality that he isn’t wrong, but that I may not be either.  That short of heaven and perfection in Christ, there is no perfect model, no sinless way to do much of anything, even preaching and teaching.   That in protecting some we may lose others, and in gaining others we may offend or confuse some.  That’s not something I like to think about, but it’s something I suspect (or hope) that many pastors wrestle with.

Christ crucified is offensive enough without causing further scandal (as though that were possible, frankly).  And certainly anything that distracts from Christ crucified should be avoided at all costs.  But when preaching and teaching to a group of people from different backgrounds and situations, it is likely impossible to avoid such scandal or distraction completely.  So I am forced to turn to that same scandalous, crucified and resurrected man to plead for forgiveness, to ask for wisdom by the Holy Spirit, and to trust in the very same grace that I preach to others.

In the end, this is what we are all to do in all situations.  Certainly for many situations our path of repentance is clear – go and sin no more.  But perhaps there are times and situations where the path of repentance is not so clear, where we have to trust that much more in the forgiveness offered to us in Christ.  I trust that grace and forgiveness, I just wish that it simplified the decision-making process.  Perhaps that just isn’t possible when preaching across cultures, but I’m grateful for brothers and sisters who cause me to pause and wonder and worry and pray and confess.  That can’t ever be a bad thing, and I trust that if there’s a good, solid, consistent answer, in time I’ll be made aware of it.

Whether I like it or not.

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