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Grace or gimmick?

As I’ve written before, I rarely get snide remarks in this ministry. One of these rare moments occurred a few months ago when a very perturbed man walked by me. He slowed his pace just long enough to scoff, “So this is what the church has come to?” Apparently, the site of me in my vestments offering blessings outside the church struck him as a pathetic marketing ploy. I’m sure others have jumped to the same conclusion. It’s no secret that the church across all denominations is declining in membership. Yet even when the numbers were more robust, there were ministers who engaged in gimmicks for growth. I remember a youth minister saying he would shave his head if the youth group brought enough visitors. Even better than that is this pastor literally flying over his congregation in worship. Such acts point to themselves while true innovation in ministry points to Jesus. That's what I'm trying to do out there on the street as a public witness to the healing, saving grace of God. Maybe if that guy had stopped to talk to me, he would have understood the difference. Or maybe he would have put me in the camp with the flying pastor. Who knows? Nevertheless, perhaps I could've convinced him that not every evangelistic move a minister makes is to get people to join their church. Here's an example. I recently performed at an open mic night on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Those of us who showed up were a motley crew, which is part of the beauty and surprise of living in NYC. Gifted musicians, vulgar comedians, haunting poets (one of whom was completely naked - a gimmick?), and me. I shared a story about one of my more interesting life experiences, wove in some theological reflections, and ended by thanking Jesus for laying down his life. Fortunately, it was well received. One person even asked me about my faith and started to tell me why she had left the church. Then our conversation was cut short by a comedian who took the stage and began cracking jokes about one-night stands. While I'm not a fan of that sort of humor, I'll be seeking out more open mic nights. The whole experience felt like a community building exercise, while also giving me the sense that I was shining God's much needed light in a mission field.

God calls us to minister in the marketplace, to preach in the public square, to witness in ways that feel a little uncomfortable or even a little crazy. So is this what the church has come to? Frankly, it's what the church has already been up to. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. Here's to keeping the tradition alive, and always being ready to give an account of the hope that is within us. (1 Peter 3:15)