Me trying to establish some credibility
I need to start this by assuring you that I care about finding creative ways to share the gospel, opening up new conversations about my faith with people, being a “grace-bearer” to others.
I’ve tried in several ways to act on that. A few years ago I started meeting weekly with a group of men––especially focused on several who referred to themselves as “church dropouts”––to talk about the Bible, theology, and the state of our souls. This year my family moved to Spain to help with the start of a new church that is trying and praying hard to share the gospel.
I share that because I think several people view what I’ll say below as a refusal to be creative or an apathy about sharing the gospel.
Me fighting for the sanctity of sacred things
How do you feel about drive-up weddings?
You have the bride, the groom, the vows about undying love, and the piece of paper that makes them official. Isn’t that ultimately what a wedding is about?
But something seems missing, doesn’t it?
Because a wedding is actually more than that. It’s not just about the bride and groom and the piece of paper. It’s also about the community of family and friends who come to witness and bless their marriage. It’s also about that larger liturgy––prayers of blessing over the couple, exhortations and encouragement from Scripture, and (at its best) receiving Holy Communion with family and friends as the first marital act.
The drive-up wedding misses all that. In the process, a sacred communal act gets watered down. It loses that corporate element and makes the wedding entirely about the couple (and the person at the drive-up window, I suppose). It loses the wedding liturgy, which frames the act of marriage within a larger context of prayer and Scripture and communion.
The utilitarian says the bride and groom are married at the end of the day, regardless of the details. And (s)he’s right. I add, though, that the wedding ceremony is a not-insignificant rite that launches the couple into marriage. And the drive-up married couple has begun their marriage with a sadly watered-down understanding of marriage.
Now marriage doesn’t belong just to the Church. You can get married dressed as Klingons and get a “live long and prosper” benediction from your officiant, Spock. So I’m not going to fight against its watering down. That’s outside my purview (except for Christian weddings, which I hope we’ll keep sacred).
But I’m alarmed at the ways I see Christian leaders watering down the rites of the Church, in the name of outreach.
A popular youth ministry speaker used to speak with great passion about sharing the gospel with teenagers. He spoke with equal disdain for people who questioned the appropriateness of some of his tactics. I could nearly imagine him saying, “We used the communion elements for a food fight in the sanctuary, then a teenager gave his life to Christ… And would you know that our church council scolded me rather than throwing a party?!?”
He never said that––but he wasn’t far from it.
I commend that speaker for his passion for youth to know Christ. But I was somewhere between frustrated and appalled by his disregard for anything sacred. Yes, he was bringing teenagers into the great Body of Christ. But he was desecrating the things of the Body in the process.
[My disclaimer: some church rules are just silly. And we can get so worked-up over our “nice things” that we find no place for certain people in our buildings because they might get the carpet dirty. We need to re-examine our priorities in these cases.]
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and I’ve seen several news articles and Facebook mentions about “ashes to go,” “drive-thru ashings,” and “ashes on the street.” I commend the people who did those things. They’re being creative, thinking about how to reach the “person on the street,” and surely starting some good conversations. Good people, good intentions, probably some good results.
But I wish they hadn’t done what they did. I commend them for a well-intended act, but I disapprove of the act itself.
When I shared that with a friend, he responded, “It would be great if uninterested people would come sit in a service for their first time but it isn’t reality. I guarantee offering ashes and prayer at a mall planted seeds in hearts that a service invite might not have and possibly opened a door to further conversation with people.”
I suspect that a growing number of church leaders are thinking like that today. I commend their desire to reach out, but I wish they didn’t use a drive-up wedding approach to do it.
The rites of the church are beautiful and sacred. I want to share them with the world. But I want to share them as the beautiful and sacred things that they are.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday aren’t just about the individual and the ashes. They’re about a community that comes together in prayer and confession. They’re given context by Scriptures that speak of our mortality and urge us to be reconciled to God. When we do drive-by ashings, we miss all of that.
I don’t doubt that practices like this can spark great new conversations, perhaps even bring new people to faith. Even yet, I wonder if we should be doing them. Can we bring people into the beauty of the Church without watering down its beautiful rites in the process?
We can plant seeds and open conversations by handing out wafers and juice at a mall, or doing baptisms in the mall fountain. Still, we might ask whether that means it’s the best thing to do. Do the ends justify any means?
Am I discouraging the Church from being “relevant”? I hope not. In their proper context, our most sacred rites are incredibly relevant. If the world won’t participate in the full, sacred rites, though, let’s not give them the drive-up wedding version. Let’s instead find other ways to be relevant to them, while inviting them into the larger life of the Church.
9 thoughts on “Reaching out without watering down”
I like your thoughts, and if I might expand: it’s not just about us and how we’ve decided to order our liturgy. And it’s not just about how many we can reach regardless of where they may be at in the dance of prevenient grace. It should be mostly about God and who God is and how God wants to reach people – IN their situation but ON His terms. If this Christian thing is all about relationship, then people don’t get to craft all the terms of how that relationship will be. We need grace and forgiveness to even get to first base, but (praise God) if we rely on the coach he’ll wave us home! (Not the best analogy but hope it makes the point)
I was one of those guys that handed out ashes on the street yesterday. A couple of thoughts…
The ashes that we distribute on Ash Wednesday are a visible action and sign of grace, but they are not a sacrament. They are a reminder of our brokenness and mortality, but (in my mind, at least) they don’t carry the same weight as baptism and communion. I wouldn’t consider having a baptism in a mall fountain or handing out communion on a street corner, but I think ashes are of a different ilk.
I did not offer ashes without context. Each person received a small card, reminding them of our brokenness, our mortality and the fact that we have been marked by Christ. There was a QR code that took people to the Gungor song “Beautiful Things.” There was a conversation that made sense.
I shared holy and beautiful moments with people. I offered grace to the guy who got so excited that he swore in front of me. I watched the reporter who showed up as a skeptic change his tune and ask that I share ashes with him as left for the first time in years. I helped people remember that something else matters in the midst of busy days and class schedules.
I was authentically Wesleyan. JW found field preaching vile, thinking that the proclamation of the Word should stand within a building. I found a field that needed a light and I did my best to become a bearer of that light. Would I prefer the comfort of the church building? Yes, but I knew that something needed to happen for folks that didn’t have time or wouldn’t show up in church.
I didn’t venture into the streets as a publicity stunt…I did so in an act of obedience. When I first had the idea I rejected it initially, but I spent time praying and listening and felt very strongly that this was what God was asking of me, so I went forward. My first call isn’t to protect the rites of the church…my first call is obedience.
We disagree on this one, Teddy, and that’s ok. I’ll keep going to my fields to be obedient to my call as an evangelist. You continue to work in the ways and places that God has called and gifted you…the body of Christ needs both of us.
A Roman Catholic friend sent me this article, written last Ash Wednesday. She was happy to note that Roman Catholics won’t be joining the “ashes to go” trend. If what I said in this post wasn’t convincing or said well, I think the author of this article and the RC Church have made the case well: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/02/are-ashes-to-go-a-protestant-no-no/
This post and the subsequent comments are convincing me that the “Ashes to Go” people are right. I’ve been trying to respectfully hear the pushback on this — but we dare not lock up Christ and his message in our churches. We dare not assume that the community of faith can be found only there — at the proper, stated hour. Ash Wednesday is the invention of the Church, to mark the beginning of Lent. It’s practice is subject to the continuing insights of the church, in light of the needs of our day. God was a work in the history of the church, but God is not locked up in the history of the church.
Well said Matt. I was the friend quoted in the article last year and my efforts as an evangelist I don’t see them as dumbing down the gospel but offering it to people in a pretty unique way.
I’ve always seen how taking things such as ashes to the streets engages people with something they had forgotten. Many times in there mind it takes them to remembrance of good times in the church which draws them closer to Christ and opens up great conversation.
I’ve never regretted reaching out in unique ways that engage people. We disagree on this Teddy and that is fine. I in no way see it as cheapening the gospel. I see it as offering in a unique way that can engage people who are not engaged.
Derek – sadly all the comment responses last year were deleted, so only the original comments remain. I won’t try to re-create those. But for now, here’s why UMC Worship and the GBOD have said that “Ashes2Go” is a really bad idea: http://umcworship.blogspot.com/2015/02/top-5-reasons-ashes2go-is-really-bad.html
Thanks Matt! Totally agree.
I was the friend quoted in the article last year on a conversation. In doing things such as these the door is opened to oeople in a real way. Many people it draws them to remember the church and remember the good days opening for further dialogue and conversation. It pulls them one step closer which as an evangelist tgat is our job. In no way does this cheapen it dumb down the gospel…in my opinion.
Those are good ideas too but I see very little difference in anointing for healing outside of community and ashes. I see it as a call to remember and pentance. It should require conversation which is the joy of being out amongst people. That article has great points and I’ll probably be seen as a theological illiterate and that’s ok. I’d rather talk to people about the basics anyway and then we will get deeper later…or I’ll just refer them to your blog bc I agree with 95% of it 🙂