Thursday, April 10, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: When?

When I was a kid I fell for one of those “make money in your spare time” schemes. An entire page of one of my comic books told me how easy it was to make money selling greetings cards. So I sent for my boxes of cards to sell. The deal was you had to send so much money back to the company before you got to keep any for yourself, which meant you had to sell an awful lot of boxes of cards. I dutifully went door to door but really couldn't sell many boxes. People may be charmed by a child but that's not always enough to make a sale. Truth be told, most of the cards were bought by my parents and relatives. Even then I sold just enough to pay off the company. I did not reorder.

Salesmen are supposed to close the deal. They are hired not only to persuade people that what they are selling is good and that it is what the consumer needs and desires but they should also get them to place an order, sign on the dotted line and hand over a check or their credit card. It is a talent that not everybody has. It requires the ability to push people to do things even when they are reluctant. So closers can be insensitive to the feelings which make others hesitant to commit themselves. I worked with one salesperson who was very successful at selling radio ads. Then I would write them and call the client to read the copy to them and get their approval. In doing so I found that a lot of clients signed her contracts not because they wanted the ads but just to get her to leave their stores!

Some closers might really be convinced that what they are doing is for the client's good. There were times when, as a nurse, I could get a patient to agree that following the doctor's orders were a good thing in theory but was unable to get them to actually comply with treatment. That was frustrating because no one can cure you if you don't work with them. I wished I could have closed them.

But most of the time closing is done for the profit of the seller, and for the survival of the salesman's job, and not necessarily for the benefit of the buyer. One of things I liked about being a copywriter for radio was that you don't have to close the sale. You present what the sponsor has to offer, show its benefits, and give an address or phone number. We just made the audience aware of the product or service and tried to fan their desire for it. The rest was up to the listener.

There are methods of evangelism that emphasize closing. Usually they try to get the person to say the so-called Sinner's Prayer, in which one acknowledges one's sin, asks for God's forgiveness on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and asks Jesus to come into one's heart. At the Billy Graham Crusades, they would have an altar call, asking those who wish to commit their lives to Christ to come forward.

Sometimes it works. Barbara Brown Taylor became a Christian in college through a girl in her dorm who knocked on her door and used Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws tract. The girl got Taylor to say the Sinner's Prayer and then left. Fortunately, Taylor did the follow up herself, wanting to learn more about this faith she had just adopted. She went on to became one of the best preachers of the second half of the 20th century. I would encourage anyone to get her books. So, yeah, sometimes closing works.

But often it leads to a superficial and possibly spurious “conversion” where the person thinks they are a Christian simply because they said a magic prayer. But did they truly repent, that is, turn their lives around, change their way of thinking and behaving? And by inviting Jesus into their heart did they understand that to mean he is in charge of their lives from then on and they are to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus? I do like the fact that, at the Billy Graham crusades at least, people from local churches were recruited to meet with and disciple the new converts. Because Jesus said we were not merely to tell people the good news and baptize them but also to make disciples. And the best way to do that is by joining a group of others who are learning about and following Jesus.

To that end, I do think that telling people the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ should be followed up by an invitation to come to church. And you can invite them even if no closing or conversion was involved. Most people in fact need to know a lot more than the 4 Spiritual Laws or any other summary of the gospel before they become followers of Jesus. And one of the advantages of a liturgical church is that one will hear the basics of the gospel in the course of the worship service. Every service we read the Bible, often 4 selections from it; someone who has made a long and deep study of the scriptures then explains them and applies them to our lives; we recite a creed; we confess our sins and receive assurance of God's forgiveness; we recall the events of the first Lord's Supper and share Christ's Body and Blood as members of Christ's body on earth; and we commit ourselves to go out into the world proclaiming the gospel not only with our lips but with our lives. If one simply pays attention, it is all there. It may need further exploration and explanation but the essentials are all there.

So when is the best time to tell people the good news and/or invite them to church?

Any time can be good but certain times might get a better response. Special occasions are times when people might be open to discussing God's place in our lives and/or coming to church. Holidays, for instance. Christmas is when God makes the surprising move into our neighborhood, so to speak. He visits us; why not visit his church? Passion or Palm Sunday is God's more shocking move in letting evil do its worst to him in the person his Son Jesus. Maundy Thursday with its display of Jesus' humility and his offering of his Body and Blood is a moving service. Easter celebrates God's startling triumph over evil and death and the foundation our hope in the risen Christ.

Any time you or someone in the church celebrates one of the rites of passage in life is a good time to talk about the place of God in our lives and to invite people to come to church. People rarely refuse invitations to baptisms, and the explanation of the Sacrament and implications of entering God's kingdom are spelled out beautifully in the liturgy and, one hopes, the sermon. Along that line, confirmations are all about a person publicly declaring themselves a disciple or follower of Jesus. People will usually come to weddings and if they pay attention much is said about the parallel between the love of God for us and the love of husband and wife.

Funerals are another time when people are open to talk of God, life and death and coming to church. I just want to offer a few caveats, though. When talking with the bereaved, it is best to let them lead and direct the discussion. The person is vulnerable and emotionally raw. They may not want to talk about God. Or they may be confused about why God let this happen to their loved one. They may even be angry with God. DO NOT TRY TO DEFEND GOD! Do not say the person's death was God's will! Do not say God needed that person to be with him! Do not tell children that the angels came and took their daddy or mama or grandpa or grandma! It's not comforting. I know of a guy who developed a real hatred for angels because he was told that.

This is one of those times when the best way to proclaim God's love is to shut up and simply be there for the person. Let them vent. Be a sympathetic ear. Be a shoulder to cry on. Be a practical help to them, by cooking for them, babysitting for them, driving them, helping them with all those terribly important tasks that they must do at a time when they are barely capable of thinking or getting through the ordinary activities of the day.

But do not try to give the death of their loved one a meaning. That is one of the tasks of grieving they must accomplish. If and only if they say something about the person being in a better place or being free of their pain or the like, should you express similar sentiments. And then you may be able to sensitively share how God/prayer/the church helped you through some equally dire situation.

It's the same with any painful time in life or any loss, such as divorce, or unemployment or serious illness of the person or a close relative of theirs. Don't justify God to them. Be the embodiment of God's love for them. If they broach the subject of God, then you can sensitively share your experience.

While times of crisis are times when people might be more open to God, it is also a time when they are quite vulnerable. It is not a time for us to fall upon them like predators. Emotionally coercing someone or taking advantage of a person at a moment of fragility is not a loving action. What we can do is offer help. We can offer them hope. They are free to accept or reject it. We do not need to close the deal.

Jesus and Paul speak of spreading the gospel as sowing or planting seeds. Someone else may water them and another someone may reap the harvest. We needn't do it all. And that includes our family members and closest friends. In fact while we do influence those closest to us, often in ways we'd never imagine, they are the hardest people to bring all the way to Christ. We must pray that others will be used by God to bring them home.

We must never get discouraged or worry about the progress we are making in spreading the word. God doesn't depend on anyone accepting the gospel. He will not cease to exist like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan if we cease to believe in him. He is a fact, like the universe. He existed before we did and will after our mortal bodies are dust. It's our existence that depends on him.

And to return to the central metaphor of this series, he is the host of the banquet, the wedding supper of the Lamb. That will take place no matter how many accept the invitation. And it will be a joyful event. And that's what we have to remember when we are inviting people to Jesus. It is ultimately a good and joyful experience. It is good news. We have a loving God who is inviting everyone to come to a party that will never end. No one who really wants to come will be refused. The only way to miss out is to decline or to get so involved in other stuff that you let them divert you. So you have to prioritize it above everything else.

What exactly is the nature of the feast? That is what we will explore in our last installment of this series next week on Maundy Thursday. 

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